Ban on bilge can also backfire

Instead of reporting what it calls “without fear and favour, the BBC favours many and fears few.” 
ITBP personnel deployed outside the BBC office after a protest against BBC by Hindu Sena activists amid the Income Tax Department's survey operation in New Delhi, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. (PTI Photo)
ITBP personnel deployed outside the BBC office after a protest against BBC by Hindu Sena activists amid the Income Tax Department's survey operation in New Delhi, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. (PTI Photo)

What does the B in BBC and BJP have in common? It’s a Bee in the bonnet called the Gujarat riots, which followed the Godhra carnage. It didn’t matter to the broadcasting giant that the Indian Supreme Court, that too during Congress rule, cleared Prime Minister Narendra Modi of any involvement. It went ahead and aired ‘India: The Modi Question’, connecting him with the riots. Obviously, this caused a political earthquake in the powerful Indian establishment. The BJP, forever on its toes to bat away such allegations, struck back vehemently and vociferously: the medium, indeed, seems to be the message here, going by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. It was McLuhan who coined the phrase 58 years ago in ‘Understanding the Media: The Extensions of Man’. He even quoted the ancient Greeks: “Archimedes once said, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world,” he wrote. Today the Canadian philosopher would have remarked of the electronic media, “I will stand on your eyes, your ears, your nerves, and your brain, and the world will move in the manner I choose.” The “places to stand” have been leased to private corporations.

Last week, the Archimedes scenario was on a roll. The BBC, with revenues of 5 billion GBP and worldwide weekly viewership of around 364 million, came in the government’s crosshairs. Established by Royal Charter, the oldest British broadcaster has 22,000 employees across the world, including in India. A couple of weeks after the documentary was aired, over two dozen taxmen and police descended on BBC offices in Mumbai and Delhi. For three days, they combed through files, cell phones and computers, looking for tax evasion. The raid, aka survey, didn’t go down well with the Opposition. The entire non-BJP spectrum yelled government assault on freedom of expression and accused the Modi-Sarkar of intimidating a credible media organisation. Irony died: the ban on the documentary and the subsequent raids were dubbed as the return of the Emergency by the same party of Indira Gandhi who had imposed press censorship—she had banned BBC twice. While the Indian media stuck to reporting the facts on the ground and refrained from making judgments, the Western press went ballistic. It targeted Modi and his party for gagging independent voices. The BJP retaliated by saying the BBC was part of a cabal out to tarnish India’s image abroad. They claimed that this cabal is envious of India’s growing clout and Modi’s global influence. The very fact that Western leaders have been circumspect on the ban proves a point—Modi is too powerful an ally and also an influencer in trade and foreign policy to be crossed. South Block questioned the documentary’s motive by stating, “If anything, this film or documentary is a reflection on the agency and individuals that are peddling this narrative again. It makes us wonder about the purpose of this exercise and the agenda behind it.” Historically the BBC is trusted to correctly convey critical information in any part of the globe. In India, it acquired credibility during the Emergency when Indians stayed glued to BBC news to know about political developments. The BBC has the reputation of being the first to expose news suppressed by privately controlled domestic media companies bowing to authoritarian leaders. But in the age of social media and VPNs, bans have a limited impact. The film went viral, watched by an estimated 50 million plus Indians, although it showed hardly anything new. Hence was the ban counterproductive? Committed saffronites were anxious that it boosted the BBC’s viewership. Since the Indian media excessively amplifies the Modi Factor in governance, pain from BBC’s tiny pinprick would have been negligible and could have been dismissed.

However, the film’s timing and content are suspect. The BBC had been captured by libertarians right from the start. Instead of reporting what it calls “without fear and favour, the BBC favours many and fears few”. Its ideologically coloured reportage forced Churchill to declare, “I am against the monopoly enjoyed by the BBC. For eleven years, they kept me off the air. They prevented me from expressing views which have proved to be right. Their behaviour has been tyrannical. They are honeycombed with Socialists—probably with Communists”. Later, senior ministers in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet called the BBC a “Stateless Person’s Broadcasting Corporation” due to its biased coverage of the Falklands war. Its Middle East coverage has been partial: a few days ago, the British public fulminated against a sympathetic BBC documentary on Jihadi Bride Shamima Begum who joined ISIS in Syria in 2015 and now wants to return. The broadcaster’s critics call its India reportage biased since the editorial staff is chosen for their political leanings and connections. Ever since Modi became Prime Minister, the BBC’s Hindi and Urdu reporting has been negative. During Covid-19, it gave extensive coverage to the migrant tragedy and pandemic-related deaths, which the government dismissed as far from reality. The BBC, like many journalistic platforms, is often guilty of inaccurate and agenda-driven reporting. But it never got much traction because the government of the day either ignored it or just rapped its knuckles. The backlash to a ban on a poorly researched piece of cliched propaganda proves that censorship is counterproductive. It woke even neutral people up to the riots and time-worn allegations. It made them curious. Any attempt to muzzle dissent is guaranteed to backfire due to the availability of millions of alternative mediums to amplify any message the government spikes. Dissent, discussion and dialogue deliver the same message in a healthy democracy—work speaks louder than words disseminated by any medium. Maiming of the medium, even a motivated one, will sow the seeds of new malicious mediums. Contrarians always ensure the continuity of the Umpire run by truth and nothing else. They may not be adored, but they shouldn’t be abhorred or ignored.

Another Greek story springs to mind about Cadmus, the father of literacy and civilisation. After killing a sacred dragon, he throws its teeth on the ground, from which sprang a group of savage soldiers named ‘spartoi’ who want to kill him. He flings a precious jewel into their midst, and each spartoi wants it for himself. They fight each other and die while Cadmus survives. Truth is a precious jewel and has many dragons like the BBC to defend it. But facts that comprise a doubtful truth will be like the spartoi, and will eventually self-destruct. The BBC and its detractors are advised to brush up on some mythology to get both their history and politics right.

prabhu chawla
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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