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Column: ‘Access’ vs. ‘Independence’: A Scribe’s Perennial Dilemma

By Sandeep Sahu

Access to the ‘powers that be’ is the staple that no journalist can do without. In fact, the pecking order of a hack is often determined by the number of ‘contacts’ and ‘sources’ s/he has in high places. But ‘access’, as any journalist with reporting experience would tell you, don’t come gratis. It comes with a definite price tag and an unspoken understanding of a ‘quid pro quo’.

A top politician or an officer will share ‘privileged’ information that is not already in the public domain or not meant to be shared with anyone only with the assumption that you will do the ‘story’ as s/he wants it to be done. If you allow the independent journalist in you to take over after obtaining the ‘privileged’ information, that would be the end of your ‘access’ to the ‘source’. Far from sharing any ‘privileged’ information with you, the politician/bureaucrat would simply refuse to take your calls or respond to your texts/emails. If you have grown particularly close to the person, s/he may even call you and make his/her displeasure known to you in no uncertain terms. If you are too critical in your story, chances are you may be barred ‘access’ to all alternative ‘sources’ open to you as a journalist as well. An informal, unofficial, word of mouth instruction will go down the order not to ‘entertain’ you in future. If you keep doing it to all your ‘sources’, you would soon burn all your bridges with the establishments. You would be deprived of not just ‘exclusive’ information, but even routine info that is open to others!

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‘Access’, however, is not limited only to the sharing of privileged information. It also includes granting an interview or giving a ‘quote’ or a ‘byte’. If you do their bidding, they will grant all of this. They may even accept your invitation and turn at your family functions – your son’s or daughter’s 21st-day ceremony, birthday or marriage – to give you the bragging rights before friends and family. Why they would even invite you to similar occasions in their own families! The moment you stray out of line, you risk losing your ‘ego trips’ along with your access to information.

Let’s face it. No government, no politician and no officer wants to have anything to do with a truly ‘independent’ journalist. They would only ‘entertain’ sycophants or, at the very least, people who don’t dare spoil the ‘official’ narrative. They are all people with extremely thin skins. None of them would countenance criticism, even a mild one, or questions being asked of them. They would grant access – or give an interview – to you only if you do their bidding and do your story in the manner desired by them. Anything less and you will ‘fall from grace’ in next to no time!

This time-honoured arrangement, with its own set of ground rules, puts the fiercely independent-minded journalist in a real dilemma. It’s a real Catch-22 situation. Do their bidding to protect your ‘access’ and you can’t see yourself in the mirror the next morning without feeling ashamed about it or without your conscience pricking you. Refuse to do their bidding and risk losing your ‘access’, which is the fuel that drives every reporter. And along with it, your bragging rights!

Every conscientious journalist finds a way of dealing with this dilemma. Some of them decide to ‘compromise’ just a bit and ‘balance’ their story in a bid to keep the powers that be happy, without actually selling their soul. Others choose to ‘compromise’ fully with their journalistic conscience and independence and go the whole hog to keep their privileged access going and stay one step ahead of their peers. There are still others who can do neither and find themselves scouring the margins of the profession.

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I, for one, have always valued ‘independence’ over ‘access’ and suffered immensely for it as a reporter. Once you incur the wrath of the government – especially a government as popular and as powerful as the Naveen Patnaik government – the entire official machinery works overtime to bar all possible avenues of ‘access’ to information. It has made things extremely difficult to operate.

But then, ‘independence’, like ‘access’, comes with a price tag!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)

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