An extraordinary moment in the United States should give us in the Indian media serious envy, shame and pause. Multiple news organisations – bitter competitors in the market and of distinct and varying ideologies – have united to protest against the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw White House credentials to CNN’s Jim Acosta. A very trenchant face off between the US president and Acosta at a press conference triggered a false allegation from Trump’s team that he had crossed the line with a female staffer and the subsequent suspension of his Press pass. Now the American media is backing CNN’s decision to sue the Trump regime.
Indian journalists have all cheered on the exemplary media moment without reflecting on how embarrassingly establishmentarian, sycophantic and divided we in India appear by contrast. But even beyond the evident difference in our institutional freedoms, there is another compelling lesson from America.
At the core of the CNN battle with Trump is the belief that the denial of access to information and news is also a form of media intimidation and a contravention of the First Amendment. In India, where we have so easily capitulated to the assumption that not all governments will give all journalists access, this is critical. Acosta teaches us that access is worth fighting for. The much abused phrase, Access Journalism, needs to be re-examined. Not because journalism is ever about official handouts; but because to allow any politician to exercise the lever of control over a fundamental right to information is the first step to surrender.
Access – and not just to media conferences, but also off-record briefings, meetings with sources and the right to report your beat freely without fearful officials looking over their shoulders – is the right of every reporter. Irrespective of whether a political party likes you or not, this elementary access should be guaranteed – and not treated as favour bestowed by dispensation A or B.
The cliched and reductionist discourse about “Lutyens Media” – led ironically by some leading lights of Indian journalism – suggests that the demolition of this access for some reporters is a long-overdue cleanup of the system. This is actually nonsense. All that has happened is that one set of journalists with access has been replaced by another set of journalists with access, a new Lutyens media, as it were, banal though I find the phrase. Tomorrow if there is a new government, the same cycle will set into motion again. This is unhealthy for democracy. Who is in power should be absolutely irrelevant to the basic practice of journalism.
Take the Modi government’s decision to end the practice of journalists flying with him on board Air India One. In the narrative that was constructed by the BJP hardline base, this used to be unseemly largesse for spoilt journalists. When it was curtailed, they saw it as a sort of Swachata Abhiyan of the previous government’s patronage of media. Frankly, this is a convenient distortion. Other than the seat on the plane, reporters always paid for hotel, food and all other expenses. I am pretty sure most new organisations would have been willing to pay the airfare as well. The larger concept behind accompanying the prime minister on these trips was the opportunity for her or his office to interact freely with journalists. Ahead of sensitive meetings – like delicate encounters with Pakistan heads of State – it was also a chance for the government to explain the contours of a complex story. And then of course there was the customary on-board press conference by the PM, in which anyone on the flight could pitch a question. Romanticising the end of these press interactions – intrinsic to any thriving democracy – is bewildering.
Modi has not held a single press conference so far, while choosing to give individual interviews. Before him, Manmohan Singh held an annual conference but avoided sitdown interviews. In my view, the adhoc nature of media policy, the fact that it can change with changing governments, can only be a disadvantage for the press.
What we should be fighting for is written in stone freedoms that are assimilated into the larger political culture of the country. Otherwise, we are stuck with what is already happening: the BJP shuns some reporters; the Congress boycotts some channels; and the media gets more and more politically polarised.
The most powerful statement from America is that even the right-wing television network Fox News (many of its anchors are open supporters of Trump) stood up to be counted with its support for CNN’s legal suit for basic access to the White House. This would never happen in India where journalists are too busy weakening each other, leaving politicians to have the last laugh.