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The commentariot

The following post is an orange flag – a quieter alarm raised in anticipation of something worse that hasn’t transpired yet but is likely in the offing. Earlier today, at the end of a call with a scientist for a story, the scientist implied that my job – as science journalist – required nothing of me but to be a commentator, whereas his required him to be a ‘maker’ and that that was superior. At the outset, this is offensive because if you don’t think journalism requires both creative and non-creative work to conduct ethically, you either don’t know what journalism is or you’re taking its moving parts for granted.

But the scientist’s comment merited an orange flag, I thought, because it’s the fourth time I’ve heard something like that in the last three months – and is a point of view I can’t help but think is attached in some way to our present national government and the political climate it has engendered. (All four scientists worked for government-funded institutes but I say this only because of the slant of their own views.)

The Modi government is, among many other things, a cult of personality centred on the prime minister and his fabled habit of getting things done, even if they’re undemocratic or just unconstitutional. Many of the government’s reforms today are often cast as being in stark contrast to the Congress’s rule of the country – that “Modi did what no other prime minister had dared.” The illegitimacy of these boasts aside, the government and its supporters are obviously proud of their ability to act swiftly and have rendered inaction in any form a sin (to the point where this government has also been notorious for repackaging previous governments’ schemes as its own).

They have also consigned many activities as being sinful for the same reason because their practice is much too tempered, or whose outcomes they believe “don’t go far enough”, for their taste. Journalism is one of them. A conversation a few months ago with a person who was both scientist and government official alerted me as to how real this sentiment might be in government circles when they said, “I have real work unlike you and I will get back to you with a concrete answer in two or three days.” The other scientists also said something similar. The right-wing has often cast the mainstream Indian journalism establishment as elite, classist, corrupt and apologist, and the accusation that it doesn’t do any real work – “certainly not to the nation’s benefit” – simply extends this view.

But for scientists to denigrate the work of science journalists, especially since their training should have alerted them to different ways in which science is both good and hard, is more than dispiriting. It’s a sign that “journalists don’t do good work” is more than just an ideological spearpoint used to undermine adversarial journalism, that it is something at least parts of the establishment believe to be true. And it also suggests that the stories we publish are being read as nothing more than the babble of a lazy commentariot.