The standing of journalists in public esteem has never been as dismally low as at present. Time was when journalism was accorded a place alongside the three pillars of democracy and recognized as the Fourth Estate.
This episode would arguably go down as the finest hour of the Press. Members of the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly, then in session, gave reporters a standing ovation. How did this happen and when? Read on…………..
My front-page report in The Indian Express in the last week of January 1975 had caused a flutter in the Assembly. The report mentioned how negligence by an Electricity Board official almost cost the lives of journalists on a conducted tour.
Rajaram, Minister for Power, sought to defend the Government by ruling out any negligence on the part of the public relations man accompanying the journalists.
Sitting in the press gallery, I told fellow reporters that the Minister’s statement was far from truth. As an eyewitness to the happenings on the tour, I knew the Minister was paltering with truth. If fading memory serves me right, veterans like PVR ‘Mukku’ Sarma (Andhra Patrika), R.J. Rajendra Prasad (The Hindu), Kapila Parthasarathi (UNI), P.A. Rama Rao (DC) instantly walked out, boycotting the proceedings. It was total, not a soul remained in the gallery.
Noticing the empty press box, J. Eswari Bai and others in the opposition urged the Speaker and Chief Minister Jalagam Vengal Rao to persuade the protesting journalists to return to the press box. It did not augur well for democracy if the legislature continued the proceedings without the Press.
Meanwhile, we moved to the chambers of opposition leader, Vemulapalli Srikrishna to follow the proceedings. Pidathala Ranga Reddy, Minister for Information, requested us to give up the protest. We said ‘No, not until the Minister (Rajaram) apologizes.’ The Minister for Power tried to stand his ground but relented in the face of opposition pressure and our firm stand. He said he was sorry if he caused hurt to the press. Softened by the expression of regret, we decided to return to work.
As we entered the press gallery, members from the treasury and opposition benches alike gave us a standing ovation! The cherished moment would remain enshrined in our memory forever. A clear testimony to the respect the Press enjoyed.
In the years that followed, the press did boycott the Assembly sittings and other events on occasion, but it was always mixed, seldom total.
The following day, the Minister, properly briefed, summoned the PR man to his chambers in my presence. ‘Kesava Rao, What shall we do with this man.’ The pitiable man was trembling with fear. I told him we bore no grudge against him. All we wanted was that he should not repeat the mistake. The Minister sent him away with a stern warning.
Looking back, I feel humble when I realize that seasoned journalists embarked on the boycott plan just on the strength of a junior’s version of the dreadful happenings.
What exactly happened during the tour? More about the interesting episode soon. (EoM) July 10, 2023. (To be cocluded) (The author is a senior journalist and former Resident Editor of The Hindu, Hyderabad)