Joke Journalism

Last Wednesday a leading Malayalam newspaper came out with a dramatic frontpage where all its news was voluntarily scrubbed out with black ink. It was the publication’s way of sending to the general public the powerful journalistic message: “Hey guys, listen! The full-page ad for our frontpage got cancelled at the very last minute. And it is too late for us to find any actual news now. So we will just black out the entire page”. (*Sounds of high-fiving in the Editorial room*)

Ha. Ha. Ha. No, just kidding. Last Wednesday happened to be World Press Freedom Day, and the Malayalam publication through its ‘no-news frontpage‘  sought to convey to the readers the difficulties that journalists face and the threat to freedom of expression that publications encounter. A bit heavy-handed effort, I’d think. Also, it is not my place to criticise another publication’s editorial call, but to carry a frontpage without any news would have amounted to disrespecting the reader. But luckily for us in the newspaper industry we don’t have readers any more; these days — every one prefers to get their news-fill solely through memes and WhatsApp forwards. So there!

But not just now, it has always been tough for journalists to get across their ‘stories’ to the public. I understood this harsh truth quite early, even before I formally joined the profession. I remember those days vividly (circa 1991-92), as I was then trying to enter the field of journalism without any formal qualification (Journalism in India, later I figured out, takes anyone who so much as turns up at the gates, even if to just deliver the water cans).

I wrote to a Chennai-based features magazine (now defunct) pitching for a story around the conspiracy details surrounding Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. There I was, a rank outsider with no experience in anything leave alone journalism, with just his silly enthusiasm as an ally wanting to report on stuff behind the sensational murder of the nation’s former Prime Minister. You’d think the publication would have nixed the idea. Nah, the Editor of the magazine wrote back to me approving the story proposal along with a sensible message that to this day remains extremely valid in journalism in India: “We will be unable to pay any sort of remuneration for your work as we are just a growing organisation”.

But I didn’t mind the payment part at all because I was fired by the idealism of youth, by the earnestness to be the voice of the underdog, by the idea that I can be a catalyst of change. In easy and simple words, I was plain stupid.

Anyway, armed with a vague sense of optimism, I traveled to Kodiakkarai, a smallish coastal spot near Nagapattinam, from where a local pannaiyar (Shanmugam) and a well-known conduit for the LTTE gangsters had recently been found dead under comically suspicious circumstances. Comical because it was Shanmugham’s suicide committed by some others. Still confusing? I suggest you Google the crazy details of that Shanmugam’s death while I wait here for you.

Okay, all back? Now to my story: After arriving in Nagapattinam and checking into a smallish hotel, I took a walk across the town to find out whether I can get any valuable leads that will help me over the next two days I was planning to stay there. Call it beginner’s luck, or I probably really have a nose for finding out these things, 10 minutes into my stroll I was able to find an outlet that served kickass onion rava dosai.

Food done, I set out to the local police station, where a friend’s uncle was an inspector of police. He was my biggest hope in the case. He was the reason I had made bold to take up that particular news reporting assignment. And once in the station, I got a piece of information that will have a major bearing in my investigations: The inspector had gone on a long leave.

I had come to a dead-end even before I had actually started. But not letting these turn of events dispirit me, I roamed around Nagapattinam like a crazed ant over the next two days, looking for some piece of info that would set me on the right course of action. With a notepad in hand, I earnestly talked to rickshaw pullers, teashop guys, hotel servers, random persons at bus stops, actually everything that I ran into, sometimes including lamp posts, and eventually after two days I had gathered enough material to come to the conclusion that I had nothing to report back to the news magazine.

I went back to Madurai (my home town) and wrote to the magazine Editor: “Here is the report of what I have been able to gather over the last few days”, and I left the entire space below totally blank.

I then thought it was a decent shot at self-deprecating joke of sorts.

But today, thanks to that Malayalam newspaper, I think I may actually have been making a strong protest against the evil forces out to kill the freedom of expression.