Nationalism cannot be a TV season

Print edition : November 25, 2016

Arnab Goswami in The Newshour, a screen grab.

ARTHUR MILLER characterised a good newspaper as a nation talking to itself. That was in the early 1960s. It was easier and less complicated then to recognise that the public interest in the press drove the public discourse. Public interest then had not yet been reduced to a populist notion of pandering to what the public wanted. Public discourse had a filtered, refined quality about it and the public sphere subscribed to the Habermasian schema of being “made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state”.

Habermas himself later revised his understanding of the public sphere as it became dominated rather than mediated by the press, as the news media became more prescriptive and authoritarian, so much so that today, instead of a nation talking to itself, what we seem to have is a community or public constituted as a nation being given a talking to by newspapers or TV channels on a regular basis. We are being re-schooled by a domineering and dumbed-down news media in patriotism and love for our army and “our” religion and values of neoliberalism, and what films with what cast and what plot is not okay, what sport with what players is okay, what not to eat and what not to wear, what not to write or say lest it be construed as rumour mongering or, worse, defamation, and how it generally behoves each one of us to be truly Indian. This version of the media is like nationalism talking to itself, almost as if it is obsessed by itself. Soon, it would seem, the media will be running our daily lives, instructing us to sit, fetch, run, jump and so on.

As I write, news breaks of Arnab Goswami resigning from Times Now; which is a zany coincidence because he, more than most, typified this peculiar strain of media bonapartism. The populist clamour he whips up with his brash brand of name-calling in the name of the nation may muster some TRPs for the channel, but it certainly does not pass muster as journalism. But what is worrying is that the other channels in the category fatuously follow this unseemly example of trying to look and sound more nationalist than the nation. It is like a daily prime time spoof of a nation talking to itself. As for Goswami, one can only hope that he is not moving on from Times Now to do more divisive and dangerous things in the name of the nation. He does not have to; he has proved in the past that he can be professionally righteous in just causes and have a chastening impact on power and authority, influence policy decisions and be unrelenting in investigating political and, at times, corporate corruption. But it has been a Jekyll and Hyde act, and one wishes he sticks to being Jekyll.

The quality of nationalism, to borrow from Shakespeare, is not forced. It is the implicit and self-assured right and duty of a people to belong to their nation and to, in turn, be belonged by the nation. It is a proud entitlement. It should not be converted into a worrisome liability. It does not have to be shouted out from rooftops or television studios on a daily basis. It is not to be waved in our faces like a demand notice. Indeed, it is an insult to the citizens of a nation to be on a daily roll call of nationalism; to have the onus of proof of nationalism bearing down on them. It should not at all mean, as the twisted and self-serving Arnab brand of journalism-as-nationalism seeks to postulate, that a citizen cannot question specific actions of the state, the army, the police without instantly being tarred anti-national. Wantonly whipping up hysteria about nationalism is as despicable, whether it is done for TRPs or, as it is now in the context of the pending elections in Uttar Pradesh, for votes.

Speculation that Goswami’s resignation was triggered by the different take on the recent atmospherics of nationalism held, and tweeted, by his boss and an owner of the Times of India group, Vineet Jain, seems to make sense because the newspaper itself, which is the flagship of the group and the largest selling by far in the English language in India, has been, admirably and consistently in these politically fraught times, secular in its editorial policy. The mismatch between the paper and the channel on this issue of secularism was already looking untenable for some time now, unless it was a commercial ploy of hedging bets to maximise reach and sale across the political divide, and the growingly stark difference had to be reconciled sooner or later. Of course, there are the sceptics who point out that Jain may also have been forcing the issue on what is widely seen as the group’s unstated editor-does-not-matter policy; and Goswami was becoming too much of an exception to that rule. There is also the uncomfortable statistic of a cumulative loss, according to reports, of Rs.553 crore over the last 11 years posted by Times Broadcasting that may have led to disillusionment with this editor.

This proximate circumstance of Goswami’s resignation again flags a fact of Indian journalism that has quietly come to be—that there is hardly any influential mainstream news publication or channel any more where the editor rules the roost. The age of the independent and autonomous editor seems to have passed and the person designated as such is now often at the receiving end of the demands made by the corporate chief executive or marketing head of the media organisation—unless, as is often the case, the editor is also the CEO, in which case too he or she is conflicted in terms of what is editorially right or desirable and what is commercially prudent. In effect, the business interests of the publisher-owner, which were always no doubt important, reign supreme in the current market paradigm of the news media. Where the politics of the owner-publisher is enlightened and progressive, the publication or channel may reflect those values; where his or her ideology is adversarial to the ruling establishment, the news property can be that much more critical in its coverage and views.

News properties under this changed internal regime of control are also that much more vulnerable to pressure from political parties in power, especially where the publisher-owners also have other business interests which depend on the goodwill or at least non-interference of the government of the day. Thus the editor of an influential periodical like Outlook can be forced out for a bold story that needed to be told, however inconvenient it may have been for the ruling party, not because the publisher-owner necessarily has a difference of opinion on the story itself but because there is a threat to his other business interests. Thus a channel like NDTV, which did not quite join the chorus on chauvinistic propaganda and sabre-rattling, found itself issuing internal circulars calling for a rededication by its team to the army and the nation, and this came, significantly, in the wake of the keen interest the Enforcement Directorate, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) and the Income Tax department were evincing in the company’s affairs.

There are, of course, those who do not need to be coaxed or intimidated, who willingly tail the line of the ruling party. For one accustomed to the propaganda role of Doordarshan News, the symptoms—of dictated, planted and insinuated news—are all too evident. Except here there is not even the fig leaf of the official media promoting official policy. Nor any sense of moderation and discretion, which characterise Doordarshan even when it is in spin mode. Whatever the reasons or compulsions, when so-called private independent channels become apologists or messianic instigators of narrow nationalism, sectarianism and divisiveness, they not only cancel out the good part of their work in exposing the evils and ills that beset contemporary society, but they also become ethically compromised in their duty of truth-telling, including to those in power. The enduring moral of Humbert Wolfe’s ditty about the British journalist of 1930 comes to mind as applicable to our tribe of TV hacks here and now:

“You cannot hope

to bribe or twist

thank God! The

British journalist.

But, seeing what

the man will do

unbribed, there’s

no occasion to.”

Nationalism cannot be a television season.

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