“Can you help us to film a child’s leg being broken?”

“Can you help us to film a child’s leg being broken?”

This question, posed by a visiting Canadian TV crew in the 1970s, startled my good friend Darryl D’Monte, one of the most senior journalists in India and former editor of the Times of India.

Darryl was having a chat with the crew, giving them some insights on the extent of poverty in his home city of Bombay, since renamed as Mumbai. It is routine for visiting journalists to have such chats with their local counterparts to get context and advice.

It was when the conversation turned to beggars, that this western TV crew asked if they could film the intentional breaking of a poor child’s leg — a brutal practice that was believed to exist so that maimed children could be employed as beggars. A disabled child would evoke more sympathy, and consequently, more alms.

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The articulate Darryl must have expressed his exasperation in strong terms. But even he couldn’t have anticipated the response.

“It’s going to happen anyway,” was how the film crew rationalised their bizarre request.

So why not be there, capture it on film, and get a great story out of it — which can be packaged as the brutal side of India’s poverty! This must have been the crew’s line of reasoning. Maybe their editors had exerted pressure to come back with something out of the ordinary.

I quoted this incident in my essay, Ethical newsgathering challenge for Al Jazeera International, published in November 2006. It was a plea for the newest entrant to international TV newsgathering to play by a different, and more ethical, set of rules.

These and worse practices are certainly not confined to India, or to TV crews originating from any single country. And sadly, these have not been abandoned after the 1970s. In fact, the emergence of 24/7 satellite news channels since the 1980s has inspired much more competition in the TV newsgathering industry, creating an alarming race to the bottom.

Such journalists’ only operating guideline seems to be: get the story, no matter what — or who gets hurt in that process.

In filming wildlife documentaries, film-makers sometimes have to make a choice: do they interfere in the processes of Nature, such as a predator setting on a hapless prey? There is an unwritten rule that things must be allowed to happen, with humans only capturing actuality on film.

But when it comes to filming wild life of our species in our cities and villages, the ethical dilemmas are not so easily resolved. This is why all journalists and film-makers, especially those in newsgathering, need a strong ethical framework for their work.

Journalists represent the public’s right to know, which is extremely important. Media coverage and exposes can trigger much needed aid, reform or public outcry on certain issues. But that is not a justification for getting the story by any means.

Darryl D’Monte shared the above story at panel discussion on ‘Does TV do a better job on environmental reporting?’ which I chaired during the annual congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), held in New Delhi, India, in November 2005. That year it was part of the Vatavaran 2005, the national environmental film festival of India.

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I was reminded of this story because the 4th CMS Vatavaran film festival is round the corner: it will be in New Delhi from 12 to 16 September 2007. I won’t be there in person; my colleague Manori Wijesekera is representing TVEAP this time.

TVE Asia Pacific News: Environmental film-makers call for ethical framework

Read official report of IFEJ Congress in 2005

Related blog posts:

Al Jazeera: Looking hard for the promised difference

Wanted: Ethical sourcing of international TV news

Cheque-book Development: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos

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