Press and power

Published September 25, 2021
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

NOT one biographer of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah has cared to explore one important and very instructive facet of his public life. It was his role and conduct vis-à-vis the press; especially as the head of the ownership company.

First comes his stewardship of the Bombay Chronicle. He was president of its board of directors. This was in the second decade of the last century. In this capacity, he fought many a battle with the British rulers; especially on behalf of the editor B.G. Horniman. Bombay named a large and beautiful traffic island in the Fort area Horniman Circle.

S.A. Brelvi succeeded Horniman as editor. The wheel of fortune turned as the Quaid-i-Azam revived the dormant Muslims in the 1930s. Brelvi began attacking the Quaid, especially after the Muslim League adopted the Pakistan Resolution at Lahore on March 23, 1940. The Chronicle and Brelvi became staunch critics of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and so did Horniman, now in reduced circumstances, as editor of the eveninger Bombay Sentinel.

None used the press so brazenly as the Modi government.

There were two other journalists who came in contact with the Quaid. One was the famous first editor of Dawn when it was published from Delhi, Pothan Joseph. In his autobiography, he wrote of his meetings with the Muslim League’s president. He paid rich tributes on two counts. One was Jinnah’s business acumen and his ability to see through a balance sheet. The other was the respect he showed to the editor.

He would explain the political situation comprehensively and also the raison d’être of the Muslim League’s policy. But never did he lay down the line for the editor to follow.

The other journalist was Frank R. Moraes. He was an assistant editor of The Times of India in Bombay besides being a barrister-at-law. The paper’s editor would communicate with Jinnah through Moraes who was always welcome at Jinnah House in Bombay.

Readers will forgive a digression. I owe my entry into journalism in 1961 to Moraes. We spent good time talking about the Quaid of whom Moraes had many fine recollections. In his book, Yonder One World, Moraes wrote of the Quaid “He was solid gold. He rang true. He was the most completely honest politician I ever saw and I have seen many a politician in my time.”

Why do I write of those times? Because the subject of the equation between persons in power and those in the press, though of eternal relevance, has assumed still greater importance in recent days.

All governments, all men who run them, try to use the press. But none did so brazenly as the government of Narendra Modi. There were three journalists who wore themselves thin singing the praises of the ‘Great Leader’. All three got plum postings when he became prime minister.

Ravish Kumar, a TV anchor whose forte, apart from integrity and independence, is a genuine concern for the poor and downtrodden especially in the rural areas, calls the servile media, which has just cropped up, especially in the electronic media, godi or ‘kept’ media.

One of the ablest studies on the subject is James Margach’s The Abuse of Power. He wrote: “In this tightly balanced premier-press relationship, responsible journalists must be guided by the counsel of Thomas Barnes, famous editor of The Times (1817-41), that the ‘newspaper is not an organ through which Government influence people, but through which people can influence the Government’. In the ceaseless power battles most, if not all, prime ministers subscribe to a rather different dictum, the rule of thumb favoured by Lloyd George and Chur­chill, that ‘what you can’t square you squash, and what you can’t squash you square’. …

“Without acce­p­ting the extreme judgement of Hazlitt, who advised editors to stay in their garrets and avoid exposing themselves to the subtleties of power, Walter Lippmann, one of the most famous American newspapermen of all time, made broadly the same point to the International Press Institute some years ago. He said that the danger to the independence and integrity of journalists did not come from the pressures that might be put upon them; it was that they might be captured and captivated by the company they keep.

“In the same vein, the distinguished former doyen of Washington correspondents, Arthur Krock, said after six decades in the business: ‘It is true that in most cases the price of friendship with a politician is too great for any newspaperman to pay’.

“Nearer home, A.P. Wadsworth, the great editor of the Manchester Guardian, said that no editor should ever be on personal terms with our leaders for fear of creating a false sense of relation of confidence.” The problem of course is that neither power not the press can do without each other.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2021

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