Mamata Banerjee was not told about the incident until she was on the plane back to India from Scotland, where the West Bengal chief minister met industrialists to discuss investments for her state during her UK tour. When she heard that journalists who were accompanying her were caught stealing silverware from a hotel, she was livid. Sources told Outlook that she was so angry she shouted instructions “right there, right then” to her bureaucrats to ensure there is better screening next time so that “such disrespected elements” are not allowed to travel with her.
But evidently this is not the first instance of senior scribes behaving like juvenile delinquints on official tours abroad. Several editors of various news publications whom Outlook spoke to talked about “being embarrassed to the core”, as one of them put it, by the behavior of fellow journalists. “In the 1980s, I was part of a delegation of national journalists travelling to Washington DC with the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi,” said the editor-in-chief of a daily. “During an official dinner, I noticed a journalist, who was the editor-in-chief of a reputed Delhi Hindi newspaper, removing silverware from tables and placing them in his pockets. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t think it was my job to do so, but if he had been caught it would have discredited the whole lot of us.” Since then, he said, he has witnessed a host of other such petty thefts, “from a flower vase being lifted during a trip to Japan” to “the stuffing into pockets of dozens of pens and notepads kept on a table for journos when just one would have perhaps sufficed.”
Others spoke about having watched colleagues take books (including once even a copy of a Bible), ashtrays, bathrobes and towels not to mention more helpings of cakes and chocolates than they could possibly digest in one sitting. But cutlery remained the most preferred.
If it was just greed, need (“it is well known that journalists are overworked and underpaid” offered one reporter helpfully) or simply kleptomaniacal propensities, which are some of the explanations that have been swirling around to try to make sense of such brazen behavior, it still doesn’t answer why they, who as knowledge-keepers are, or perhaps should be, more aware of the implications of such actions are so convinced that they would get away with it. They clearly feel a sense of power and entitlement, which they think will protect them from punishment in case they do get caught. They forget that even if that were true in their own land, where their closeness with politicians and police may form a protective shield around them, enough for them to feel that they could break the law if they so willed, the same rules don’t apply everywhere. Or perhaps they are emboldened by the knowledge that journalists the world over have gotten away with erratic behavior, not the least of which took place in the United Kingdom itself. By the time a criminal investigation against Jimmy Savile was launched in 2012 for countless cases of sexual assault on women and children, for instance, the once-respected, larger-than-life media personality had been dead for almost a year, having lived a happy life spanning 85 years.
It has been pointed out that more often than not, scribes who accompany VVIPs as part of delegations of journalists themselves walk the corridors of power. The journalist who was found lifting silverware is said to belong to a close coterie of scribes known to the CM. Explained the editor of a publication, “Media houses, to have access to inside information, will necessarily employ ‘managers’ with skills in diplomacy. In return for ‘access’ they do reports which are, without being obvious, tilted on the side of the establishment, and the quid pro quo works this way. If you are too critical, the access stops, not to mention the government ads. Publishing houses must constantly do the balancing act.”
According senior journalists speaking to Outlook, who are willing to come on record, “Undoubtedly, over the years, ‘journalism’ has undergone vast changes, with editorial content being more and more dictated by marketing demands,” said Tarun Ganguly, who has covered Bengal politics for over four decades. “Not that there were no exceptions, but, by and large, those who entered the profession felt compelled to bring a modicum of integrity, credibility and neutrality to the table. Not that there were no temptations from marketing forces or powers that be to try and ‘influence’ them but it was expected that individuals would resist it. A well-known shoe manufacturing company had a policy of distributing footwear to journalists during the Durga Puja festivals but media houses looked down on those who accepted these gifts. Cosy politician-journalist relationships too were discouraged which made it difficult for those on the political beat to extract inside information but it was more important for journalists to retain their journalistic ethics than to land a story that would entail him or her having to compromise it. As for petty kleptomania, it was not so rampant at all. ”
Journalist Sahana Nag Chowdhury, daughter of Magsaysay winning author Gour Kishore Ghosh, who was jailed during the Emergency for his anti-establishment writings, recalls an incident in 1987, three years after she joined the profession. “An acquaintance who was having trouble getting a cooking gas connection asked me if I could request one of the politicians I had interviewed to help. I had a gut feeling I should not but I asked my father anyway. I brought up the matter during dinner. My father briefly stopped eating, looked up at me and went back to his rice and daal. Now without looking up, he said, ‘If you want to do that, go ahead but first surrender your press card to your office. This lesson that I learn when I was in my twenties has stayed with me throughout the duration of my career in journalism and I think we seniors have a responsibility to inculcate it in trainee journalists.”
In fact, Nag Chowdhury expresses surprise that the concerned journalist would resort to such lowly behavior in spite of having experienced first-hand the glory days of journalism when writers would rather court arrest for their fearless views than succumb to political pressure. Interestingly, it was her father who had first given the concerned journalist a break in the media world in the 1980s when he was a young man in his early twenties not as a journalist but as an office assistant. “His own father was a renowned writer known for his integrity. One of his novels describes a residential set up resembling a slum which is believed to be an autobiographical account of the hardships he and his family faced. But in spite of all this he never accepted any help from the government though it was often offered. It is difficult to accept that his son would not have imbibed some of that idealism or that he would let him and all of us journalists down to this extent.”
A Trinamool source speaking to Outlook said, “Didi is very proud of our past Bengali heritage when writers and journalists would rather live in penury than sell their souls and she has always admired idealistic authors of those olden days.” He claims that his background played a role in “allowing him close access.” But according to him, she is so irritated by the turn of events, he may soon find himself stripped off the privilege.