Media

Escape from freedom

Print edition : September 01, 2017

News of Narendra Modi's swearing-in as Prime Minister in 2014 seen on television screens at a showroom in Mumbai. News media in India are at a piquant inflection point. What is happening to the news media, or what they are doing to themselves, is a throwback to the Emergency of the mid-1970s. Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

TV cameras at a press conference in Chennai. A good section of Hindi and other regional language channels vie with one another to run down and ridicule any and every voice of the opposition to the government. Photo: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

The news media in India have become, variously, town criers, cheerleaders, abettors, apologists, and an advance guard of newshounds clearing the way, preparing the ground for the totalising ideology and agenda of the current BJP regime.

THE big news story of our times is one that will not be told by our big news media. Because, it is about themselves. It is about how, on a daily basis, they are disgracing themselves and the noble idea of an independent fourth estate. It is about how they have become, variously, town criers, cheer leaders, abettors, apologists, and an advance guard of news hounds clearing the way, preparing the ground for the totalising ideology and agenda of the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule. Such lemming-like collective self-debasement is at its starkest in the English TV news channels, which vie with one another to run down and ridicule any and every voice of opposition to the government. A good section of the Hindi and other Indian regional language channels is no different and perhaps worse. BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) spokespersons on these news programmes have become redundant or decor because the eager-beaver anchors do their job for them, nipping any dissent in the bud, swatting anything in the studio or on the show that looks like it might develop into a buzz. It is a washout and an insult to journalism.

The English language print media may, by and large, be subtler and less craven in its approach, but there is no mistaking the tamping down of the critical note when it comes to anything having to do with the RSS-BJP combine or the government it runs. Far from telling truth to power, which, if they are unable to distinguish the truth, should at least be telling it like it is, they soft-pedal and circumlocute and generally beat around the bush so that what comes across is not what those in power need to be told, but what they like to hear. Where it is inconvenient to tackle something, the media can always pretend they have not noticed it, meet it with silence. But, as Yevgeny Yevtushenko reminded us all those years back, “When truth is replaced by silence, that silence is a lie”. Diplomatic silence does not sit well with the idea of the free press and, indeed, becomes a convenient form of cowardice.

The current orchestration in the media of the alarm over political killings and the bogey of utter lawlessness in Kerala is ominously reminiscent of the agitation ratcheted up against the first elected Communist government in the State of 1957 by a political-religious-media axis (helpfully nudged along by the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA) leading to the dismissal of the E.M.S. Namboodiripad government in 1959. This time around, the TV news media have, anticipating the longing of their political masters, been whipping up the alarmist atmospherics appropriate to make it appear that the State deserves another spell of President’s Rule. If the BJP government at the Centre does not follow through and actually invoke Article 356, it will be for fear of the electoral reprisal that it would eventually have to face—although another way of looking at it is that there is nothing to lose for a party which has just one seat, for the first time and after all these years, in the State legislature.

This is not to gloss over the cycle of political murders in Kerala. It is shocking, and becomes especially jarring when set against the more enlightened and mature socio-political context and the enviable top-of-the-chart human development index enjoyed by the State. But law and order in the State is nowhere near as bad as in most other States, including and particularly those ruled by the BJP, where human life has been rendered ignobly cheap, where individual and mass caste killings, vendetta and corruption-related murders, systematic elimination of rights activists, killings by the summary and arbitrary fiat of khap panchayats, and lately, periodic organised slaughter of the minorities and serial lynchings in the name of the cow, have become almost routine. There is not even a squeak from the media about bringing these rampantly lawless States under Central rule, perhaps because nothing, least of all a direct spell under the President, can make any difference to the violence that is endemic in them.

It is in the nature of a highly news media penetrated, almost saturated, State like Kerala to be subject to scrutiny more rigorous and unrelenting than in large swathes of the country still relegated to the penumbra of feudal politics. Violence in society here rarely goes unspotted or unreported; crimes do not go unrecorded, and become an obsessive media preoccupation. One could almost speak in terms of a media morbidity peculiar to Kerala. There is, too, a class parity of the media and their constituency of viewers—an incestuous middle-class clannish affair—which make it possible to keep the discourse on political murders engaging on the front burner and on the boil, and therefore TRP-fetching for the TV channels. An interesting facet of the recent arrest of the film star Dileep in the case of the abduction and molestation of a female actor was that it saw the mass shift of viewership, for a good many days, from serials to the news on TV. There is a case for something like a Kerala exceptionalism in terms of the local news media projection and consumption behaviour. But to extrapolate this media peculiarity into an argument for subverting the legitimate political process and government in the State would be like making democracy a reality television show.

There was incidentally a telling, if weird, instance of such a reality television political moment when it was reported a while back that the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s decision on the surgical strike into Pakistan was prompted by a TV discussion in which the anchor apparently tauntingly asked the Defence Ministry whether it would have the courage to act militarily against Pakistan. It is not so farfetched, then, to imagine a media inspired or engineered takeover of a State by the Centre.

The media exceptionalism in Kerala conflates with another exceptionalism, that of the RSS in the State. The organisation has had, for some time now, more shakhas in this small State than in any other State in the country. One wonders what calculations went into this concentrated ideological investment in Kerala, given that until very recently neither the RSS nor the BJP had any electoral prospect there. Now the RSS is able to feed into the winner-will-take-all power politics of the BJP central leadership in a bid to throw the State into confusion and crisis.

What is brewing in Kerala is only the latest instance of how the press is a lever in the hand of the politician in power. Seventy years after Independence, the news media in India are at a piquant inflection point. What is happening to the news media, or what they are doing to themselves, here and now, is a throwback to the Emergency of the mid-1970s. The real difference seems, to parody the current debate on external versus self-regulation in the media, that the Emergency was one big external regulator in action, and what we see now is propitiatory self-regulation by the media. It is not love for the BJP, but fear of it, that elicits such collusive media behaviour across the board. The pattern of pressure, through veiled and open threats, through raids by the income tax authorities and the Enforcement Directorate, through calumny and vilification, is now familiar.

Although conventionally the press has evolved as more in opposition to, than in agreement with, the ruling dispensation, there have been phases when it has, happily it would seem, played second fiddle to the government of the day. The earliest example of a party in power creating its own press portfolio dates back to the early 1700s in England when the most important Tory Minister of the day, Robert Harley, or the Earl of Oxford, launched a series of newspapers catering to different constituencies to take on the Whig opposition, supplemented by other forms of direct persecution. Among his trenchant lead writers was Daniel Defoe ( Robinson Crusoe), and the chief propagandist was Jonathan Swift ( Gulliver’s Travels). Some of our media worthies who have blissfully practised paid news, or gallantly figured in the Radia tapes and emerged unscathed, or the big guns on camera who now forcefully prosecute all those opposed to the BJP as enemies of the state, no less, may draw solace or inspiration, as the case may be, from those early tall examples.

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