This note emanates from an innocuous query from a friend who wanted to know in which of the two categories does journalism fall. The friend happens to be working in close collaboration with the media and wants to know the answer from those of us who are themselves a part of the fourth estate.
Any activity which requires some specific skill and is performed for remuneration can be called a profession. This leaves no doubt about journalism being a profession. It undoubtedly requires specific skills - the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff while dealing with heaps of seemingly unnecessary information and the knack of piecing together apparently unrelated bits of information and presenting these in a way that would make sense to a layman. Moreover, although it would be unfair to look down on journalists as a mercenary class, there can be no denying that few of us would like to continue with our jobs if we stop getting paid!
That leaves us with the question of the role of business in journalism. Business, a much-scorned term in societies with a feudal hangover, is an integral part of any human activity that is not aimed at charity. Journalism, as we know, can not be practised in a vacuum. Media organisations - newspapers, journals, TV channels etc.- are indispensable for any journalist who wants to practise his craft, be it as a full-time employee or a freelancer. Running these organisations require the four factors of production - land, labour, capital and enterprise. For this, business acumen becomes absolutely necessary. That is why media organisations are often owned by business houses. Where they are not, they usually have an indirect relationship with business by way of shareholding. These business houses may be profit-driven which may also get reflected in their handling of the media organisations as well. Nevertheless, this proves beyond doubt that journalism is essentially a profession which, however, needs the backing of business for its sustenance.
As a journalist, one can not help noticing the backdrop against which the query came. A lot of heat has been generated over the alleged involvement of some media big shots in a murky deal that has been hitting the headlines for quite some time. People who are unhappy over these happenings tend to say things like "journalism is no more a mission. These days it has become a business". That is a misleading explanation borne out of a sense of indignation. Journalism becomes a mission in societies facing huge crises. We saw it in India in the early 20th century when the struggle for independence was at its peak. We are again witnessing this in contemporary Pakistan, which is faced with a crisis of a different kind. Contemporary India, irrespective of what the prophets of doom may say, is not facing a crisis in the real sense of the word. There may be roadblocks that the nation, now on the rise, would definitely like to dispense with. When societies achieve a semblance of stability, the character of the press too undergoes a change. This has been witnessed world over and India is no exception.
The moral turpitude, which rightly fills us with disgust, has not arisen out of business-minded media organisations' yearning for profit. The rot has its roots in a consumerist culture makes people believe that happiness can be achieved by maximizing possessions. When one tends to seek fulfilment in luxuries and extravaganza, one is bound to make attempts for achieving these by whatever means possible. And consumerism pervades through all sections of the entire society of which journalists too are a part. To expect higher standards of probity from journalists alone may not be unfair would not be realistic either. There can be a large-scale rise or fall in the levels of morality in a society. There can also be individuals who may stand out because of their exceptionally high or low levels of morality. But there can not be a profession in which all the practitioners would have similar ethical concerns.