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News conferences… in all their hues

Frederick Noronha

Everyone and their dog seems to be discussing news conferences these days. This is not surprising after Prime Minister Modi sat on, largely speechless, for the first press conference even in his five-year term. In the meanwhile, the BJP president went on with his long lecture, even as the Prime Minister’s body language appeared untypical.

In today’s day and age, the 24-hour wall-to-wall televised coverage changes the rules of the game. It is possible for the man on the street to get a peep into almost any important press conference, almost live. One does not need to go by just what the media reports on it the next morning. Besides, social media gives a chance to everyone to publicly debate and discuss what goes on. Some criticism has been reserved for the journalists, for instance, who went along with the tame and untypical form of a press conference last week.

It is ironic that PM Modi’s predecessor, who was ridiculed for being Maun-Mohan Singh (a play on his name suggesting his silence) himself addressed the press far more often than the present premier.

Of course, Modi had a marked preference for monologues delivered over the radio, or using Twitter as a one-sided no-questions-asked-back format. He also showed an ability to face questions from friendly journalists and news agencies. Towards the end of his current tenure, there were also allegations (with some visual proof) that he was responding to pre-decided questions. At his “press conference” last Friday too, Mr Modi did little speaking and even less responding to queries.

Goa too has its own long traditions and styles of how politicians interacted with the media. In times past, our politicians were safe in the belief that the notebook doesn’t speak, unlike the audio-visual media.

One always thought it would have been fun to then tape-record an entire press conference, just to tell the outside world about the nuances which no printed report would even reveal. But how was one to get that story out? Even assuming one actually managed to record it in the first place (hardware was scarce in those times)? The net was anyway not there or just made its appearance. Only a very few had access to it.

In those days, Luizinho Faleiro had a contentious reputation for telling reporters to “take down” what he said. Some media persons would protest, mumbling within earshot that they were not stenographers. Others made their dislike to this attitude clear, by cynically terming such press conferences as “dictation”.

The then chief minister who was in power for many (but all short) stints, Wilfred DeSouza, was known for his combative style of addressing press conferences. This provided journalists good copy during his days in the Opposition, or even as a Congress dissident. But when he was at the helm of power, his approach, together with his intellectual arrogance which perhaps stemmed from his double FRCS degree, sometimes made it tough or even unpleasant for the journalist.

There was a belief among some media persons that it was best to avoid Willy — who was not otherwise vengeful and also quick to forgive — at around lunch-time. It was rightly or otherwise believed that Willy’s diabetes and insulin timings made him particularly hard to deal with during that critical hour.

Rane, who had his rather long tenure as chief minister, had the habit of speaking rather softly at the post-Cabinet news conferences. This led journos to rush for the front rows at his briefings. Yet, even this did not help in all cases.

Regardless of who was the CM, and who did the briefing, it was always possible to slip through inconvenient facts through a number of ruses. Take, for instance, the decision to amend Goa’s public gambling act. This was a law originally meant to curb gambling (including innocent lotteries in the post-1961 era). By changing a few crucial words (it was subsequently much amended), it was converted into a law that permitted casinos to operate “offshore”.

Even though this decision was taken at the Goa Cabinet itself, nobody here noticed, or heard, about it when it was pushed through. You can imagine the surprise of journos on reading of this development via the business newspapers coming in from New Delhi!

Some chief ministers were extraordinarily humble; one even himself served cake to journalists. But humility and honesty or efficacy need not go hand in hand, of course. Manohar Parrikar, with his IIT degree, the first for a CM, also shared the bluntness — if not arrogance — of Willy. Again, that need not necessarily be a negative trait. Journalists however sometimes recall being woken up by 8 a.m. calls from the late CM, for something they reported on and he didn’t quite agree with, or saw as non-factual or incorrect.

Some politicians changed from the time they were in Opposition till when they reached the ruling side as ministers. But it’s not only politicians who can use press conferences strategically. Even journalists can do so. In more polarised times, the media itself got divided sometimes on party (or politician) lines. One trend that caught on was for a section of the media to abruptly adjourn a news conference ‘spontaneously’. They did so when they found the going too tough for the politician in question, thus giving him an easy escape.

Journalists who attended the Modi-Shah (or Shah-Modi) news conference in New Delhi have been criticised for not asking tough questions, on issues like demonetisation or job creation. Or even pointedly directing their question was for the Prime Minister. If there is a discussion, then both politicians and press would need to be more accountable.

News (or press) conferences are a 20th century invention, and are linked to some Labour campaign, if one recalls right. This story would not be complete without a story involving those on the other side of news conferences.

Four of us journos once managed to convince some local party leaders to get us a chance to speak to Rajiv Gandhi, while he was passing through Dabolim airport. It was still a small airport, with low security then. Rajiv met us at the end of the queue. We were not expecting that he would agree to meet up so informally. To our surprise, he seemed to be in no hurry. After three or four questions, we suddenly realised that we too had run out of issues! It’s hard to say whom the event was more embarrassing for, us or him.

Sometimes, it’s hard to live down the past….

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