Exclusive stories, scoops, and indepth, interpretive and investigative reporting all echo professional journalism’s desire to deliver newsworthy contents to audiences of varied tastes. Facutual content alone does not define news; it is the trade’s one of several essential qualities. In this respect easy public access to events organised especially by state agencies is expected in recognition of what is widely described as the Fourth Estate.
On a number of occasions in the recent times, the Nepali press complained loudly against its representatives being given no access to state events. In this regard, a daily newspaper not long ago editorially complained: “Private Nepali media and journalists working in them are treated with bias by our own authorities. Such behavour is insulting and unacceptable.” During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s last visit to Nepal was one such occasion when the Nepali press vehemently protested after its reporters were prevented entry in Janaki Mandir in Dhanusha and Muktinath premises while the visiting VVIP performed religious rites inside.
What galled the host country’s press was that Indian journalists were given the very access denied to their Nepalese counterparts. However, of note is that journalists accompanying a VVIP are given maximum access to events involving a visiting delegation. But giving no access to home journalists is not desirable. Reasons of security, limited space and the like can limit access to journalists. There is a way out in addressing a situation when it might genuinely be difficult to accommodate a large crowd of journalists.
No special treatment should be accorded exclusively either to official media or private sector media. In the United States, the government-funded high-sounding Voice of America is not allowed to question the president lest its reporters. So rigid are the rules that prize winning VOA documentaries, too, have been barred from being aired in the United States. Hence a transparent approach can be taken by initiating a pool system for such situations. The pool system is not the ideal answer to the quest for full access to all reporters. But the ground reality compels organisers and hosts to put a limit on the number of newspersons’ access.
Noted American TV journalist Lesley Stahl, in Reporting Live, describes the pool system applied for journalists assigned to the White House: “All the events on foreign trips [of president] were covered by assigned ‘pools’, small groups of reporters who went to events on a rotating system. Except that television was so powerful and important—we were such gorillas—that three network correspondents got into every pool. The responsibility of the magazine and newspaper reporters in the pool was to write up reports for all their colleagues who were left behind in the newsroom, usually set up in the ballroom of the press hotel. It was possible for a reporter to go on a presidential trip and never once leave the hotel.”
Under the pool system, the reporter accompanying a VVIP or attending an event is expected to give all the details when briefing other journalists. In other words, it would be a professional dishonesty if s/he were to withhold any information for own exclusive use in connection with that particular event. It all goes to underline the significance of information. In March, Trump appointed his sixth White House spokesman since he took office in January 2017. The sheer number involved in the change is itself a statement on how complex and complicated information dissemination can be for state agencies and oter institutions. Holding press briefings and responding to queries with respect and dignity is an essential quality of anyone assigned to the task.
Expansive interpretation of secrecy does not suit the functioning of a democracy. It risks spawning unaccountability, and unaccountability introduces impunity. Marlin Fitzwater, who served a six-year stint as spokesman for the Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush administrations, writes: “Spin is the weaving of basic truth into the fabric of a lie, the production of a cover garment that protects, or obscures, or deflects public examination.”
Fitzwater describes a spokesperson’s job as a daily “contest of wills, of psychology, of preparation, of debating skills”. On disseminating key information, he adds: “The age-old rule at the White House is that a staff member never usurps the prerogative of a president in announcing a major decision. If it is meant to be a trial balloon, it is always leaked without attribution so the president can later back away from the idea.”
In the cineworld like Hollywood, media advisors and “publicists” comb their brains to present their clients in the best possible way for being in the limelight or avoiding it at certain times. Little wonder, big banner cine companies in Hollywood and Hindi film world spend up to 40 per cent of the total budget on publicity activity to promote their offers. This is designed to ensure a large initial draw at the box office and, hopefully, continued strong viewsers’ response in the susequent days as well.
Search for the real
Celebrities and stars spend awful lot of time in pouting and preening on the stage and anything seen as a platform with the prospect of extracting opportunities to present themselves before a sizeable audience. Big stars and political bigwigs submit to being scripted, packaged, presented and promoted by methodical design. Image control means self or institutional orchestration, which blurs the line of difference the real and the put on. Spontaneity gets missing as conscious construction of the laboured variety takes over. Refining appearance and delivery for summoning orderly thoughts and concentrated flow of expression, however, should not kill natural response. Social media influencers are the new arrival that has overwhelmed and even threatened many a soul because of its sheer potential for reach.
Image incorporates, among other things, association, expectation, excitement, context and conditions. Pompous show of power and pretences is maintained through a variety of means and channels with an eye on marketing an intended image to a specifically intended audience. This involves strategies like principled sell, hard sell, populist sell and cavalier sell. At times more than one of these strategies might need to be pressed into service. At every step, therefore, the general public has an additionally task of sifting the real from the put-on. Media literacy and alert civil society leaders should help ease the situation and enable the larger public to be accurately and adequately informed.
(Former chief editor of The Rising Nepal, P. Kharel has been writing for this daily since 1973)