By Swapan Dasgupta
Last week I attended a very convivial Literature Festival organised at the Technology City, Bangalore, by a group of young enthusiasts. Normally as happens in such gatherings, there is a very thin separating ‘literature’ from current affairs. I was therefore not very surprised to find myself—along with three other Delhi-based journalists—as a speaker on “Polls 2014 and their message.”
What, however, left me a little stunned was the direction of the conversation. Instead of dissecting the meaning of the mandate for Narendra Modi, the discussion centred on the relatively peripheral issue of the Prime Minister’s relationship with the media. In short, instead of the media addressing the larger political phenomenon, the gaze was firmly focussed on itself. The media itself became the subject.
There is no harm in the Fourth Estate occasionally undertaking a bout of navel gazing. However, in the past three months the media is increasingly becoming self-obsessed.
First there were the mutterings of outrage over the Prime Minister’s refusal to take a large media contingent on his aircraft during foreign visits. Modi, it was felt, had violated an established custom.
Secondly, there was a long resolution of the Editor’s Guild of India complaining about the government’s alleged denial of access to the media. Dripping with moral indignation, it declared:"By delaying the establishment of a media inter-face in the Prime Minister's Office, in restricting access to ministers and bureaucrats in offices and in reducing the flow of information at home and abroad, the government in its early days seems to be on a path that runs counter to the norms of democratic discourse and accountability."
Finally, there have been whispers—never substantiated—that the Modi victory has coincided with big editorial changes in a few leading media companies. The implication is that the new regime has somehow arm-twisted owners into removing journalists the government or the BJP deems hostile. This conspiracy theory has been bolstered by the lavish coverage of the Prime Minister, particularly during his visit to the United States. The sceptics have debunked the saturation coverage—that, incidentally, involved considerable expenditure—as being completely over the top.
That Modi has had a troubled relationship with the media is undeniable. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, an influential section of the Delhi media chose to impose sanctions against the Gujarat government. Important initiatives of the state government, not least the numerous Vibrant Gujarat Summits, were at best accorded perfunctory coverage. Indeed, for many English-language publications and channels, the only relevant Gujarat stories were related to the events of 2002. On TV, senior editors made a show of dubbing Modi a “mass murderer” and celebrating the US State Government’s denial of a visa to him.
There is little doubt that the media’s deep hostility to Modi was a factor in its inability to anticipate the national mood during the general election. But whether this strident opposition was, in turn, responsible for Modi choosing to keep the media at an arm’s length is a matter of conjecture.
The Prime Minister’s natural preference is for Doordarshan and All India Radio coverage to be complemented by robust interventions in the social media. This approach may well be determined by a desire to keep a firm control over the messaging and not be derailed by agendas determined by a small left-liberal cabal that exercises a disproportionate hold over the mainstream media. But this is not the complete story. Over the past 15 years or so, the power and influence of the media has grown exponentially. What the complaints of the Editor’s Guild willfully glosses over is the fact that the media has ceased to be a passive recipient and dissector of raw information; it has developed a stake in the decision-making process itself. The terms ‘news trader’, ‘paid media’ and ‘power brokers’ are unflattering descriptions of a profession whose self-image is gloriously elevated. However, recent events (and scandals) have served to establish that media doesn’t merely seek to report but to influence decisions.
To a very large extent Modi establishment’s detachment from routine media engagement stems from an awareness of this extra-constitutional pressure on the process of governance. But it is also premised on the belief that as long as he retains his popularity and the trust of the people, the media will not be able to either ignore the Prime Minister or boycott him.
The US visit was a classic case study. The reason why the Indian media descended on New York and Washington DC, even setting up temporary studios, wasn’t to fawn over Modi and flatter him. The media has always been mindful that Modi attracts eyeballs and generates huge interest. This was what forced many TV channels to disregard their earlier hostility and live telecast Modi’s speeches during the long 2014 campaign. It is the same realization that is driving the coverage of him as Prime Minister.
Modi is providing content to media but he is denying journalists unhindered access to the government’s decision-making process. The Editor’s Guild believes that the establishment of no-go zones is interrupting the flow of information. I disagree. The media is still having access to a huge mass of raw information but it is being denied the spin associated with it. Traditionally, spin has been associated with the communications departments of media-savvy governments. In India, however, bespoke messaging had become the prerogative of corporate lobbyists, arms dealers and old-fashioned fixers. In regulating that zone, the government hasn’t impeded relevant information flows; it has removed the roadblocks in the path of smooth and rapid decision-making. Whether consciously or unwittingly, the media had become instruments of pressure groups and had started affecting purposeful governance. This distortion has been partially checked.
There would have been cause for concern had the government started putting pressure on the media to tailor its reporting for political ends. This has not happened. The likes of the Editor’s Guild are, in fact, complaining about the fact that this government is not leaking in the way its predecessor was. That, to my mind, is the media’s housekeeping problem and not something that compromises India’s vibrant democracy.
Asian Age, October 3, 2014