How Ravish Kumar preserved the legacy of peoples journalism

I am writing this at 2am, when most newspapers must have gone to bed (jargon for the plates being laid on the bed of the printing machine, ready to roll). I presume that like me, the newspapers also must be turning and twisting in their beds, unable to sleep, although I personally have very little stake in journalism now.

The cause for my insomnia is not grave and profound matters such as the future of the republic, democracy and secularism but a six-footer with a salt-and-pepper mop of hair. Around midnight, I was watching Ravish Kumar’s episode on Rahul Gandhi becoming the Opposition leader, “Aaa Gaya Neta Vipaksh”.

The episode is only 20 minutes long but you don’t feel it is even that long. By the time I watched the video, it was on air for almost eight hours and had drawn over 1.5 million viewers. For Ravish Kumar, who has over 11 million subscribers, none of the pieces of statistics I quoted in the previous sentence is big news.

Yet, I could not sleep and I was breaking into cold sweat. Had I been an editor tonight, what would I have done after this man had been through with his episode and the paper I produced would take at least another four hours to reach my first reader?

I realised with fear that Ravish Kumar’s journalism does not take any prisoners. He leaves almost no angle uncovered. How does a newspaper meet such a challenge?

The journalism of Ravish Kumar is not a sermon from the pulpit. His journalism is a mix of carefully chosen and lucid language, reasonable tone and a rare gift to draw blood without spilling it and making a mess. All of that is known.

What was not so readily apparent — or at least it had not struck me until now with devastating effect — was his professionalism that sticks to the very basics of bread-and-butter journalism. The episode — as most of his other reports are — is a lesson for young journalists who are no longer trained on the rigour that requires to be a journalist.

First, the context. He explains clearly why it is one of the most significant moments in parliament democracy in a decade.

Then, he wields the stiletto, striking deep and clean, hitting Modi where it hurts most. He refers to Modi’s question “Kaun Rahul?” in an interview with a channel. Ravish Kumar does not name the channel, he merely says it is a rotten (my word, Ravish Kumar used the word “kharab”) channel. Touche!

(Ravish Kumar points out later that Rahul is actually senior to Modi in Parliament. Rahul has been an MP for 20 years; Modi’s Lok Sabha tenure is half of that. Yet, Ravish Kumar points out, the anchors of the rotten channel guffaw. Clip below)

Ravish Kumar cuts in with the most relevant excerpt from Rahul’s speech. “The people of India expect the Opposition to defend the Constitution of India.”

He cites Rahul’s attire, not to tickle with mango-slurping trivia but to underscore a role change that Rahul has to reflect now. He mentions the powers of the Opposition leader, including the seating arrangement.

Ravish Kumar has left little for the legacy media to bite into the next morning. He cites the convention of shadow cabinet in the UK, shows the Labour Party web site and the shadow cabinet, explains the concept and adds that the leader of the Opposition is actually the shadow Prime Minister who has signalled his or her ability to move in should the need arise.

This is classical journalism that legacy media has chosen to forget or has been intimidated into forgetting because of fear that backgrounding makes copies long. This is where Ravish Kumar’s professional skills and craft kick in: he explains the background in pithy sentences, keeping only what is essential and all the while maintaining his reassuring tone that never talks down to you.

Then, to my utter shock, Ravish Kumar launched a full-scale invasion of the last preserve of legacy media. He starts quoting Kaul and Shakdher, the authoritative voices of parliamentary procedures.

When is the last time you have heard of Kaul and Shakdher on TV news? Or, even in print media? Once, journalists could not have survived a day in the profession without consulting Kaul and Shakdher. Then, as we installed new Gods in the newsroom pantheon, the two inseparable names faded and disappeared.

So much so that many journalists now blindly write of the “10 per-cent rule” for picking the leader of the Opposition, without mentioning that it is a disputed rule and there is no statutory law that unequivocally says an Opposition party needs to have at least 10 per cent of the total seats to meet the requirement to have the leader of the Opposition. The government has been relying on a ruling by a Speaker on the “quorum” (10 per cent) and a salary bill that also does not specify the figure. So, the lead among the Opposition parties and the Speaker’s recognition become crucial, for which the Speaker can insist on 10 per cent. The rule is a riddle.

Ravish Kumar does not go into excruciating details but shows a clip of Modi making a claim that sounds laughable in hindsight. Ravish Kumar shoots a series of questions on how and why the key post was kept vacant for the past 10 years.

Ravish Kumar also refers to a statement by Jagan Reddy in The Hindu today, pointing out that Article 208 of the Constitution does not prescribe any mandatory percentage of seats for a leader of a party to be recognised as the leader of the Opposition. (I mentioned this here specifically to highlight the hard homework Ravish Kumar is doing. He is not shirking the journalist’s primary — however torturous it may be — role of reading other media. Many journalists do not read these days. How gruelling Ravish Kumar’s preparations are is explained in his interview with Ajit Anjum. That interview should be made part of the curriculum and training schedules of all journalism courses and newsrooms.)

Ravish Kumar cites page numbers but quotes only what is absolutely essential. He actually uses cue cards to highlight the relevant quotes. Just a handful of them. He DOES NOT reproduce copious sentences and pass them off as graphics. This is the work of a whiplash editor, someone who is clear about what to keep and what to cut. If anyone feels the need to read the whole portion, he has given the page numbers.

Ravish Kumar does not shy away from reminding the leader of the Opposition should be careful about what he says when he is abroad. “Agar Modi ko badalna hoga, toh Rahul ko BHI badalna hoga.” Rahul will also be judged every step of the way.

Ravish Kumar wraps it up quoting Harold Macmillan on how demanding and thankless the role of the leader of the Opposition is.

He also mentions how Rahul had been disqualified almost overnight after the court verdict and asked to vacate the house, and how everything has changed now. The Pappu Project has collapsed.

Then comes the tour de force: For 10 years, many newspapers had stopped covering the Opposition. Godi Media used to heckle the Opposition and portray them as enemies of the nation. Now, the people have restored to the republic the Opposition. Such a verdict has rarely been witnessed in the history of the world.

It is 4.45am now. I wonder what the 10 newspapers I “see” everyday will offer me in a few hours. I hope at least one of them will surprise me by serving up something more than what Ravish Kumar had done (12 hours ago now, views: 1,836,227 and counting).

Had I been the editor of any of these newspapers last night, I would have been sweating blood. What do I do, faced with such comprehensive journalism as Ravish Kumar’s? He has not even left Macmillan for us, let alone Kaul and Shakdher.

Since October 2023, I am off the newsroom treadmill. And I cannot think without the atmosphere of a newsroom.

Still, what would I have done last night? Perhaps a full page on the 10 or 5 issues India’s first leader of the Opposition should take up in the first 10 or 5 days? Or should it be in the first 10 or 5 hours?

Or, the 10 best interventions by leaders of the Opposition from which Rahul can learn?

Or, the ways in which Modi should change to cope with the new leader of the Opposition?

Oh yes! We can always ask: Should Rahul wear jeans and tee any longer?

I don’t know. Armchair journalism is not a nice sport.

UPDATE AT 5.30AM, Thursday: The Indian Express e-paper has a single column on Page 1. It merely reproduces what I saw on social media yesterday. There is a picture of Modi and Rahul with Om Birla. I could not readily spot the picture of Modi shaking the hand of the person he did not know until a few weeks ago (“Kaun Rahul?”). An Explained segment inside has a Q and A. But the kernel I have already heard from Ravish Kumar. But EP Unny’s pocket cartoon more than makes up with its brilliance. Unny’s bespectacled Calvin tells Rahul: “A whistle never sounded more auspicious. Your new job begins at the Assange Moment.” The cartoon is not merely lovely with its beautiful message that raises the bar for Rahul but breathtaking in its scope and breadth, transcending borders. In the smallest space and with the least number of words possible, Unny has captured the enormity of the moment. Is there a lesson for the legacy media here?

UPDATE AT 6.40AM: Trivandrum print editions land (In the order the vendor has piled them up at the door.)

*The Hindu has no separate story on the leader of the Opposition on Page 1 which offers nothing special. No picture of the handshake on Page 1. But it has a very informative oped on the role of the LoP, written by the renowned PDT Achary. The Hindu has a strong editorial calling out the government’s lip service to critiquing the Emergency.

*The New Indian Express: The handshake picture is on Page 1. The story is on Page 7. Page 1 has a lovely story on the plight of a Malayali named Peter Leo D’Couth who ran into a software hurdle in renewing his driving licence because of the apostrophe in his name. It could have been written and headlined better. Perhaps, the story can be given as an exercise for all reporters and editors on writing such copies.

*The Times of India: Single column picture of the handshake on Page 1. The picture is so tiny that it does not make any visual impact.The main editorial is on Rahul’s new role. A report says anti-Emergency resolution isolates Congress in the House.

*Malayala Manorama: DC picture of the handshake. Trust Manorama not to miss Rahul’s attire switch. There’s an inside page box on the kurta. Strong editorial on why the Speaker should not become the spokesperson of the government. OOPS! THE EDITORIAL IS NOT ON THE LOK SABHA SPEAKER BUT ON THE KERALA ASSEMBLY SPEAKER. Manorama has a cartoon and lead story that say “Opposition does not bite the Emergency bait and the bid to split the Opposition flops”. Completely contradictory headlines in The Times of India and Manorama. Yawn! Let the giants fight it out.

*Mathrubhumi: Single column picture of Modi introducing Rahul to Om Birla. The paper has highlighted the contradiction of the government holding forth on the evils of the Emergency but treating Kejriwal to the same injustice. Interesting package with a great headline. But the package could have been designed better. It needed bigger point sizes and less clutter for linking the sequence atop. I will add the image below.

*Kerala Kaumudi: 3 column handshake picture. Timely editorial on Rahul.

*Madhyamam: The Telegraph said yesterday that the Opposition’s voice has got a loud Speaker in the contest. The Madhyamam headline today uses Loud Speaker in a diametrically opposite context, suggesting that his move to read the resolution on the Emergency marks a Loud Speaker in the second term. No Modi-Rahul handshake picture. Timely editorial and strong oped criticising Rahul’s silence so far on attacks on Muslims since the election results.

8.15am: The Telegraph epaper: 3-column picture of the handshake and detailed report on Opposition speeches. Amartya Sen puts matters in perspective in a single column. Editorial on the Speaker’s election.

8.20am: Anandabazar Patrika epaper. DC picture of the handshake. Hemmed in by a half-page ad. Graphic on quotes inside.

The newspapers do offer some nuggets that pique my curiosity. But none, barring Unny’s cartoon, could leave me with a comprehensive feeling that Ravish Kumar has managed with his craft. Some events have a momentous ring. I think Ravish Kumar captured that better than all the nine newspapers combined. He actually licked us clean.

I am surprised that no one caught the irony of “Kaun Rahul?” like Ravish Kumar did. If someone had, imagine the possibilities it would have thrown up on a broadsheet with that telling handshake picture!

The main problem is no single newspaper has left an imprint on me. I can still hear Ravish Kumar’s voice but I cannot recall most of the frontpages I saw. They lack the personality and clarity that Ravish Kumar’s episode radiates.

Isn’t it time to rethink how newspapers cover such days that have already been extensively covered by TV and social media almost 18 hours ago, if not more? Do people actually read all that we publish? Of course, these questions should have been asked 20 years ago. But the new threat is the manner in which Ravish Kumar and others have injected gravity and credibility to their reporting. The legacy media is still relying on reporting techniques, language and grammar that were fine-tuned in the 1960s in the West and and in the 1980s in India.

But mine is a subjective view. What matters is what you feel. If you don’t mind, kindly share your opinion with me.

 


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