Centuries ago, Plutarch wrote about king of Armenia who disliked messengers bearing bad news about a coming invasion. Only flatterers were welcome in his court while war raged around him; his eventual fate was predictable. The media is expected to be a messenger carrying good, bad and ugly messages. But what happens when the messenger shoots himself in the foot? During 2019, Indian media peddled views without perspective as news. TV anchors became the story instead of narrating stories. Natch, the media became a subject of public ridicule and hate like never before during the year that just passed by.
Normally, the natural enemy of the press is the politician. But in the past couple of months, it was mostly media vs. media, slinging invectives like presstitute and Godi media against each other. Mayhem ruled across over 400 news channels, 250 newspapers, millions of news digital sites, Facebook pages and Twitter. Instead of interrogating those in power, the media was an establishment slave. The TV box lived up to its idiotic name and dumbed down the audience with the white noise of craven loudness. Competitive sycophancy is de rigueur for access.
Legacy is the springboard of values laid down for the coming generations. As I write this, I cannot help thinking of Ramnath Goenka, the founder of this paper and the paterfamilias of media independence. He hated authoritarianism fervently and fought the Gandhi family’s machinations without compromise. As a result, the media emerged from the dark night of the Emergency through Ramnathji’s passion for the truth. Sadly, few issues of national importance were reported objectively and correctively. Ideology and politics stained reporting. Liberal media shouted that India’s Constitution was under threat from the Saffron establishment in spite of democratically approved procedures.
Pro-government media blamed the entire Opposition as Pakistani stooges playing into the hands of anti nationals, whose disagreement with government policies and actions were blamed on appeasement politics. The establishment’s sinister stance was that reporting both sides of a story was fraudulent journalism. The coverage of national affairs was tailored in such a way that those indulging in vindictive actions were hailed and that the victims were nailed. Incidents were reported on the basis of ideological convictions. If Hindus were target of arson in West Bengal, it wouldn’t find a place in liberal media.
And if a person from minority community was intimidated in a BJP state, it would become prime time news. Conversely, any bad news in any of the BJP-ruled states would be totally blacked out. If that was not enough, most of the TV channels would run a panel discussion to turn the tables on the Opposition. The coverage of both the pro and anti-Citizenship legislation was a classic case of destruction of media’s image. Most of the newspapers and channels refrained from discussing the fine print of the actual laws, but would indulge in foul and fierce verbal slanging matches. For almost two months, media was just involved more in serving the political interests rather than serving facts to viewers and readers.
Barring a few exceptions, almost entire mainline media hardly noticed any opposition to the government agenda. Indian journalism also betrayed its patrons by not covering the situation in J&K extensively and confined itself by reporting what was handed over to it by state agencies through sponsored trips to the Valley. For over five months, all means of communications were snapped but media didn’t collect enough courage to tell the true story to the rest of India, leaving unscrupulous elements to disseminate rumours. It was disheartening to find that media ignored the serious changes in India’s economy, entertainment, education, agrarian distress, unemployment and even diplomacy.
The media became a willing partner in devoting itself totally to the issues which divided India along communal lines. At times, one could notice that newspapers and TV channels had come to conclusion and chosen the headline before they collected the facts from the ground. Indo-Pak border was silent. But Indian news rooms were converted into a battle ground between Pakistan and India.
The abominable plight of media emanates from adverse financial environment. Both the corporate and the public sector drastically pruned their advertising and promotion budgets. As both top and bottom lines of almost all the media organisations were under stress during the past 12 months, genuine news gathering became an expensive proposition. Even those who claimed the title of most trusted and credible news vehicle gobbled the state propaganda as exclusive news features. Readymade capsules shot by the official media and press handouts became the most trusted sources of information.
According to senior editors, it was perhaps for the first time that now the leaders and not the editors decided who would interview them. They also dictate both questions and answers, and it applies to all the parties in power. There have been allegations that powerful influencers were able to reverse the possible negative media narrative by diverting attention through sensationalism. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once claimed that: “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.”
Many of Indian national TV channels proved Hillary right during 2019 and shepherded their viewers as they were just a herd of sheep. News television’s intellectual shallowness, lazy reporting, and anchors and owners with just the bottom line in mind prove that India’s print media is only hope for the future. In 2020, the Indian media’s cardinal challenge is not just to regain its mojo and might but also its credibility. Instead of acting as a “right arm of information anarchy”, it has to rediscover its soul and reincarnate once again as a strong fourth pillar to hold the balance of democracy. During the Emergency when it was asked to bend, it crawled. During 2019, it swooned and shrivelled under an angry stare. It is time now to confront authority with eye to eye. Or, else the ‘ayes’ will have it and the media would have had it.