Vultures are becoming extinct and experts have been urging us to take urgent steps to conserve them. None in our right senses would ever dispute the necessity. Though not a pretty sight, the giant birds help the world stay clean by feasting on dead carcasses. That they play a crucial role as scavengers is text-book knowledge that we have grown up with. Yet, at no point have I empathised more with the vulture as much as I have in recent days since the bird found mention during a significant hearing in the Supreme Court, no less.
As the country’s second-most senior law officer, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, was making an argument involving the current migrant crisis when he launched a broadside against all those who have criticised the government’s handling of a crisis that many have described as an unmitigated humanitarian tragedy. In coming down heavily against "armchair intellectuals" and all those behind the uncharitable headlines the crisis has been generating, he referred to an iconic photograph of a famine-stricken child taken decades ago in Sudan during a bad bout of famine. The photograph that won the South African photographer a Pultizer had a vulture menacingly sitting some distance away from the child.
The image was powerful and what the solicitor general narrated had the court listening to him in rapt attention. According to Mehta, the photographer was later asked how many vultures were there. When he said there was one, he was corrected immediately. “There were two,” the photographer was told, implying he was the other vulture.
Fact checks revealed that the tale the solicitor general narrated was apocryphal and suffered from inaccuracies. Though focused on getting the perfect frame, the photographer did not leave the hapless child at the mercy of the waiting vulture, which he happened to shoo away.
The child also lived through the scary encounter, though he unfortunately died like many others in his continent more than a decade later because of a fever. Yet, the underlying parallel that Mehta sought to draw carried weight. Many who read what happened in the court that day would have been prompted to ponder whether journalists highlighting the ongoing migrant crisis too were as heartless as the photographer was made out to be.
For the record, Mehta did not elaborate on what he expected the photographer to do. But perhaps what he left unsaid has encouraged those not happy with the overwhelmingly negative coverage of the migrant crisis to question the role of journalists. Suddenly, the idea of journalists as no better than vultures has gained currency, at least among sections who wish to undermine the reporting on the migrant crisis. Besides being portrayed as amoral, arguments are being forwarded that helping the migrants should take precedence for humanity’s sake over reporting on their misery.
True, sensitivity and helpfulness are qualities that we should all cherish and actively practice. And it is only to be appreciated when a journalist, beyond the call of his or her duty, takes time off to help a person in misery. I can vouch for several such instances in the recent past when a reporter or a photographer, moved by the plight of the subject, has taken out money from their pocket to help a migrant in distress. It could have been to buy some packets of biscuits, or for buying a seat in a bus to ferry the migrants to their distant homes. But our individual capacity to help remains limited.
What we can instead do more effectively is to highlight their plight, speak truth to power and bring pressure on the powers-that-be to provide succour.
Making the world a better place to live in is the basic tenet of journalism and fortunately, it remains so, despite the many shortcomings that have seeped in. Like every other profession, journalism too has good professionals and the bad. There are of course some who feast on tragedies to sell their stories and advance their interests. I can recount some, if it helps, including an instance when a reporter manufactured a story about the distress sale of children by enticing their uncle to hand them over against a few thousand rupees. The uncle had some 16,000 rupees already in his bank account. It turned out that the purported sale of his two nephews was more out of greed than distress.
But nothing justifies the attempt to portray our entire tribe as self-centred. It is okay to help those in need as and when the situation permits. But our primary job remains highlighting the unfairness and injustices so that they are not allowed to linger or recur. We fail most of the time. But that only means we don’t give up but try harder. Sudan, for example, is hardly any better since the devastating famine that the photographer catalogued. But it did shake the world’s conscience and we need to be grateful to him for that.
None of the arguments made in our support will possibly make Mehta change his mind. People, after all, will subscribe to what suits them the best. It is also equally in society’s interest that journalists keep doing what they are meant to do – hold the mirror with warts and all. Being denigrated as vultures should actually be considered a badge of honour, just as a young Outlook colleague of mine did soon after Mehta made his controversial point. He tweeted out a picture of himself reporting on the migrant crisis with a caption: Vulture-ing. I remain very proud of his reporting and have no hesitation in proclaiming myself as the organisation’s Vulture-in-Chief.