Media mumpsimus? Really, Mr Khurshid?

July 12th, 2012

Union law minister Salman Khurshid is an articulate and intelligent politician whose command over language is praiseworthy. But on Tuesday morning, he turned into an English teacher for media professionals at a press conference called by him to clarify his comments on the Congress and Rahul Gandhi. In a newspaper interview that appeared in The Indian Express the same day, Khurshid had claimed that the Congress ‘is directionless and the country has seen only cameos of Rahul Gandhi’s thoughts and ideas’.

While clarifying, he started lecturing journalists on the nuances of the English language, chided them for their linguistic recklessness, and openly stated that journalists need to change their ways and stop sticking to their mumpsimus — persistence in erroneous use of language out of habit.

Referring to his interview, Khurshid had said: “I was asked some questions and whatever I said was wrongly interpreted. If you [media] are unable to interpret statements properly, then many other issues will be discussed only within the party. Please ask the journalist what I said and what he wrote. You misinterpret and put question marks in order to run your television channels and newspapers.”

But the most interesting part was he did not deny anything that was published in the interview. And he did not do that simply because there was no misinterpretation. At the press conference, he was just trying to douse the fire caused by the his most inflammable words in the entire interview. Being a deskie for the past nine years, I know that a perspicacious and discerning news desk seldom fails to pick out the most apt quote for the headline. And that’s what happened in this case.

It is true that Indian media is often accused of being reckless in its selection of words, which, critics say, is aimed more at sensationalising news rather than disseminating information. And that may be true to an extent. For our media, which still writes headlines that read “charred to death” (death is inevitable when a body is charred), the accusations somewhat sound justified. But this is not the trend…not at least in the news report Salman Khurshid was referring to.

The problem is that Salman Khurshid does not know that the legalese and high-sounding words that the savant in him uses in his speeches and calibrated statements cannot be used by newspapers or TV channels. Media has its own ways and it sometimes goes for over-simplication of a complex term, but that does not mean that it can always be accused of frivolity, or mumpsimus. If Mr Khurshid is paying so much attention to “purity of language”, I hope he won’t mind being reminded of what George Carlin, an American satirist and author, said about language: “By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.”

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