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Pressing on

Officialdom may not care to give you the time of day but the power of the press is not to be sniffed at, so a journalist has to carry on, regardless

Respect is not easily garnered. But tell that to a rich man with a beer belly and he will be none the wiser.

Government officials, on the other hand get a lot of respect, not because of their riches, but because they control what happens in people’s lives. Yet they don’t treat the public with any respect. And citizens who have to ask these officials for help find that they are the most reluctant purveyors of information.

But their deadpan expressions and their standard putoff lines do not deter reporters like me, simply because the story is incomplete without their responses.

The daunting task starts right at the barricades, where the security guard waits, guarding the shrine of these authorities. Over time, I got bored telling them what I was there for, letting them know my occupation, their suspicious glances at my backpack which never carries anything remotely dangerous.

One hot and humid day, things changed. It began like any other, with the end goal of getting the occupant of a swivel chair with a white towel draped over the back to divulge the information I needed. I was going to take the bull by its horns.

And my confidence showed. The security guard smiled at me and ushered me in. No questions asked, no frown on his face. This was life — with the word Press writ large on my personality, I waltzed in.

Is that why so many journalists a few years into their profession exude the smugness of a show poodle who wins the prize every year? Except in this competition hundreds are the top dogs, every day, in a competition which is self-prescribed.

But what about offices of the most powerful in the land? Where the elevator takes you to the floors above? Where men sit holding key offices with more than power in their hands than a sense of responsibility to the nation at large?

At least their assistants clock you in immediately. You don’t have to get into long explanations. You may even be offered bottled water or a cup of tea — while you wait sometimes for hours to be seen. Perhaps they are trying to kill us with kindness.

The officials inside these rooms don’t care if you’re with the media — although one assistant did ask for my rank; a higher one would have perhaps changed how quickly his boss would see me.

Many of these men and fewer times, women, love to show you off to their other visitors, love to shout at subordinates in front of you, and love speaking against their opponents or the government they work for with a smirk on their faces.

But the fact remains that in the end, if they do see you, the frowning file-signing officers have to give a byte of their reality for us pen-wielding professionals. It may not always be the case — but it happens enough for it to count.

For now, that card strung around my neck has helped this female reporter more often than when I was not wearing it. It is a reminder of the power that media has — but also on bad days makes you realise that if a reporter can be pushed around, the predicament of the common man must be cruel.

And what about the khaki uniformed men? When they see that tag, Delhi Police personnel speak a little softer, sit with their legs closer together, and try to avoid eye contact at all times.

Some time back, I was covering a story on Nigerian and Tanzanian nationals who had been unfoundedly been accused of cannibalism, and had been attacked.

I went with the student representatives of the African Union to the police station where the case was registered. The two men I was accompanying were visibly treated differently, looked up and down and disregarded. The moment I walked into the picture, it was like they remembered what civility was.

Yes, respect is hard to come by, but when it is earned the hard way, it brings its own rewards.