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A Sorry State Of The Fourth Estate

RAJDEEP SARDESAI

 

“WE don’t need to be told by media or Opposition what we need to do for farmers. We would rather listen to farmers and not to carping, negative Opposition or ‘know-all media’ that knows little of grassroots realities,” G V L Narasimha Rao, BJP spokesperson said during a television debate on July 12. When one of the more affable and accessible voices of the ruling party chooses to launch a diatribe against the media when asked a simple question on whether demonetisation has adversely affected the rural economy and is one of the causes for growing farmer unrest, you realise how easily power can accentuate hubris, how the echo of one’s own voice prevents the individual from listening to any dissenting view.

At odds with media

But why blame Rao whose nightly task is to defend the government on primetime television? The disdainful attitude towards the media begins right at the top. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen to virtually bypass the mainstream media, preferring instead the one-way communication offered by social media messages through Twitter or a feel-good monthly Mann ki Baat on radio. No open press conferences, no taking journalists with him during  his foreign visits, only the odd pre-scripted  interview: Modi, who was once an extremely popular  and  communicative BJP spokesperson himself, has now chosen to widen the distance between himself  and a large section of the media (who he has, on more than one occasion, described contemptuously as ‘news traders’).

As a result, there hasn’t been till date, any serious questioning of the Prime Minister on the single biggest move undertaken by his government. It is almost as if there is no felt need by the country’s leadership to answer any hard questions on the negative impact of demonetisation. Why, for example, do we still not know how much of the old demonetised currency is back in the system? Or what exactly happened to the government’s ‘war’ on black money or on counterfeit currency? Is it not legitimate to ask for at least a white paper on demonetisation? Unfortunately, with the narrative being spun in a manner where any questioning of authority is now seen as ‘anti-national’, the media is being pushed on the defensive, forced to oscillate between self-censorship or else get co-opted and embedded as cheerleaders of the ‘establishment’.

But why blame the Prime Minister? Congress president Sonia Gandhi has been in public life for almost two decades but has never shown a willingness to answer uncomfortable questions on contentious issues like Bofors or, indeed, many other corruption scandals dogging the Congress. Last November, I had the rare chance of interviewing Sonia Gandhi. Just ahead of the interview it was made clear that only questions related to Indira Gandhi on the occasion of her centenary celebrations could be asked. ‘No political questions!” I was told in no uncertain terms. When one of the country’s most powerful politicians won’t take ‘political’ questions, isn’t that indicative of the skewed nature of our democracy?

This unwillingness of those in public life to be held accountable has now spread like virus through the political system. In 2015, Mamata Banerjee chose to walk out of an interview I was doing with her because I raised the issue of the Saradha chit fund scam. Mamata at least agreed to an interview; Mayawati hasn’t given one in a decade so we still don’t have answers to allegations of disproportionate assets. An imperious Jayalalithaa refused to step out of  Fortress Poes Garden to meet the press, a Naveen Patnaik follows a similar ‘no questions’ policy in Odisha, while in Kerala, a Pinarayi Vijayan has never  hidden his open hostility towards the media.

Guarding gates of power

Which brings me to the central question: have we entered the age where our ‘democratic rulers’ have chosen to effectively bypass the Fourth Estate by directly dealing with their constituents?  Where does that leave the crucial role of the journalist of speaking truth to power? Realising that access is critical to the functioning of  daily journalism, there has been a systematic attempt to zealously guard the gates of  power: not just in Delhi, but across the country in several state capitals, the state secretariats have chosen to deny entry to journalists, even in some instances to accredited correspondents. Sadly, rather than defend the media’s professional rights, a large section of the reader/viewer now chooses to applaud an opaque, authoritarian leadership.

It wasn’t always like this. When Indira Gandhi muzzled the media in the Emergency in the mid-1970s, those who stood up to her were praised and celebrated. In the late 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi introduced the defamation bill to clamp down on the press, the media rose in one voice to protest. In almost every instance of arbitrary use of state power against the media, the general public has been on our side. Not any longer: now, when a politician takes on the media, there is a large audience which cheers from the sidelines.

Perhaps, we in the media need to introspect as to why we have allowed

this to happen to us. When sensation replaces sense on television, when political and ideological alignments determine the hierarchy of news, when ownership patterns are non-transparent, then we make it that much easier for the political class and their hired armies to chastise us as ‘paid media’. Actually, we aren’t a ‘know-all’ media as Rao suggests; maybe, we are just a media which has lost its moral spine.

Post-script: Earlier this month, the BBC ahead of the general elections had both the prime ministerial candidates in Britain face the general public with no choreographed questions.  How many of our political leaders are willing to subject themselves to a similar no-hold-barred interrogation?

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