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150. Lessons in Journalistic Ethics

(By R. K. Prabhu)

A combination of unforeseen circumstances had placed me, towards the close of the year 1918, in editorial charge of Young India — the weekly journal, which soon after and for years to come was destined to exercise the profoundest influence on the course of Indian history. Jamnadas Dwarkadas, who was the declared editor of the journal, then being printed at the Bombay Chronicle Press, had proposed to me that I should look after the editorial affairs of the journal and I had consented. Hardly had three months passed since I took charge of the journal when Horniman, editor of the Bombay Chronicle, was suddenly whisked away to England from his sick-bed in Bombay and the Bombay Chronicle and its Press were placed under official censorship. In consequence, the board of directors of Young India were obliged to suspend the publi­cation of the journal.

This was in February 1919. When, a couple of weeks later, the censorship was ended and the Chronicle Press began to function again in a normal manner, offers were made to Gandhiji by the directors of both the Bombay Chronicle and Young India to place the journals in his hands. Gandhiji declined the offer of the Chronicle but accepted that of Young India, provided he was free to change the venue of the publication of the journal from Bombay to Ahmedabad. When the negotiations for the transfer of the control of Young India were completed, I was asked to see Gandhiji with a view to handing over my charge and giving him whatever information he might need regarding the editorial conduct of the journal.

At this time, Gandhiji was putting up at Mani Bhavan, Gamdevi, as the guest of Revashankarbhai Jhaveri, and I proceeded there, accompanied by a journalist colleague of mine who was a regular contributor to the columns of Young India. I had always a feeling that this colleague of mine had a better command of the English vocabulary and idiom than I could claim and I had envied his gift. Arriving at Mani Bhavan, we introduced ourselves to Gandhiji. Scanning the editorial columns of the last issue of Young India, of which I handed over to him a copy, Gandhiji wanted to know who the writer of a particular article in it was. It was, I recollect, some sharp criticism of one of Lloyd George's dubious utterances about India. I told Gandhiji - that I had written the article. Pointing his finger to another article, Gandhiji asked who had written it. "I wrote it," said my colleague.

After a brief pause, Gandhiji remarked: "I like this first article, whereas I "don't at all like the second. In the first, you have said all that you wanted to say in a direct manner, while the writer of the second article indulges in all sorts of innuendos and says things which he does not really mean. "For instance, you write," said Gandhiji, looking at my colleague," 'we are afraid. . . .' and so on. I don't like the phrase at all. Here, you don't really want the reader to believe that you are afraid —you mean just the contrary, don't you? When you want to say a thing, don't beat about the bush, don't indulge in euphemisms and pin-pricks but tell it in a straightforward way."

These might not be the very words uttered by Gandhiji but they were to that effect as far as my memory goes. Of course, both my colleague and myself held our peace while this brief homily on the ethics of journalism was delivered to us. My colleague having left shortly after, Gandhiji, looking at the page of Young India which was made up of news in brief, asked me who gathered those news items. Being told that I was responsible for them, he asked me whence I culled the news. I said I made the clippings from the latest issues of the various Indian journals which were received in exchange for Young India and the Bombay Chronicle.

"How much time do you spend in gathering these items?" he asked.

I replied that it took me hardly more than half an hour to clip and paste the news items required to make up the page.

"You spend only half an hour over them," he remarked in surprise. "Do you know," he added, "when I edited Indian Opinion in South Africa, we received some 200 papers in exchange and I used to go through all of them carefully throughout the week and I culled each news item only after I was fully satisfied that it would be of real service to the readers. When one takes up the res­ponsibility of editorship, one must discharge it with a full sense of one's duty. That is the only way journalism should be practised — don't you agree with me?"

Shamefacedly I said, "I do." I went on to explain to Gandhiji that having a very busy time throughout the week as a member of the editorial staff of the Chronicle, I had to do things hurriedly for Young India. Practically the major portion of my work for the journal, including the writing of editorials, did not occupy me more than an afternoon.

"And how much are you paid for all this?" he next asked, somewhat abruptly.

I replied that I was paid at the rate of ten rupees per column — a column, by the way, which was hardly a dozen inches long and that too in fat 10-point type! - and that my earnings from Young India varied between one hundred and one hundred fifty rupees a month.

"How much are you paid as a member of the Chronicle staff?" was the question next shot at me by the inexorable inquisitor.

"Four hundred rupees per month," I answered.

After a brief pause, which appeared to me like eternity, Gandhiji remarked: "Do you think you are justified in taking from Young India the amount that is paid to you? You know the journal is not a mercenary concern. It is a patriotic undertaking and I don't think it is even self- supporting. Are you justified in adding to the burden of its conductors?"

I replied that I did not compel the proprietors of the journal to pay me what they did. Jamnadas Dwarkadas, I said, paid all contributors to Young India on a generous scale as he did to me. It was all voluntary on his part. I made no stipulation whatsoever regarding my remuneration.

"Still, if I were in your position, I would not take a pie from Young India," put in Gandhiji, and added, "You are handsomely paid at the Chronicle office for your full- time work and what you do for Young India is in your leisure hours. A person who gets paid adequately for his full-time work should not expect payment for what he does elsewhere during the same period. Don't you think so?"

Though he uttered these pointed remarks gently and half smilingly, I could see that he made them in all serious­ness. I was somewhat dazed by the new lesson in ethics which he sought to drive home to me. I could respond to his query only by a nod of humble acquiescence.

— Courtesy : Gandhiji