“Think of the Press as a great keyboard on which the Government can play”
Joseph Goebbels was arguably the finest master of propaganda the modern world has seen, and while he mesmerized a whole nation into complete and blind endorsement of the Third Reich under the NSADP, he also left us with a great exercise in retrospect with regard to the true nature of an electorate. The question we ask was the premise of his elaborate exercise to instil a sense of nationalist fervour behind the state, something he did rather efficiently. Is stupidity the primary attribute we possess as an electorate? Is our vindication in the form of manifestos and speeches our leaders deliver? How is it that a person we seem to be looking towards as a contender for the Prime Minister’s post summarises his views on defence, foreign affairs, internal security, infrastructure development, energy security and most other policy decisions into the realm of ‘pragmatism’.
The ongoing elections seem to be being fought over Gobblesian conceptions, and our Fourth Estate is visibly decided on whom they want in power. Never before have we seen countless Sundays being monopolized by a single Prime Ministerial aspirant’s rallies. Mornings start with speculation as to the number of supporters attending, the significance of the background on the stage, and the customary speculations as to apologies offered to marginalized communities. The day carries on with a live telecast of the speech over virtually all news channels, followed by an evening of in depth analysis over a period of three different ‘Prime Time’ shows on each channel. One can only be reminded of another quote by Goebbels, “Make the lie big, make it simple, and eventually they will believe it”.
As a disclaimer, this article does not aim to malign one contender or another, but is simply a commentary on the nature of discourse we are witnessing in these elections. From passing super-judicial pronouncements on cases of interest, starting from Tarun Tejpal to Aarushi Talwar, to the Jessica Lalls and Anna Hazares, the media seems to have graduated onto the next level of propaganda, already having established itself as the saviour of all that is fair and true within compromised establishment. In the absence of ownership and conflict of interest disclosure norms, media houses have set the agenda for the elections, with an eerie sense of consensus across the board. We just do not deserve any quality piece of investigative journalism, into the toxic practices in the Environment and Forests, Petroleum, Coal and Aviation Ministries which have been carried out over the past decade. When a good story does seem to be surfacing, journalists are shunted out and editors are made to resign. This state of affairs exists at a time when an unblemished RTI Act, rival business groups and an encouraging Supreme Court provide all the fodder one would otherwise have had to source through questionable methods.
The problem is not just with inflated stories, as hype and sensationalism is the bread and butter of any media organisation looking to build on a wide base, as they have to play to a gallery which looks at the political spectrum as their favourite reality show. The problem is with the death and burial of stories, or self proclaimed bans on explosive stories which could hurt one’s commercial interests. The Niira Radia tapes were shut out and deemed non-existent by an entire nations media barring two notable exceptions, because a large part of ad revenue was appropriated through those talking or being talked about in the conversations. The silence of the media in the analysis of the Snowden Affair, the absence of a stand or even the acknowledgement of basic principles involved were not highlighted, and where massive protests erupted in Germany and Brazil (the other two nations where extensive snooping was carried out), not a murmur of dissent was heard in the otherwise ‘conscientious’ media. NYT and Washington Post articles on the controversy were shamelessly republished so as to tick the Snooping affair as covered in their checklists. The same case can be made out for the Aston Martin car crash in Mumbai, or even the numerous corruption allegations against top government functionaries(The VBS Files, Ahmad Patel and ‘Family’ in the Augusta Westland Deal, non disclosure of names given by HSBC from Swiss authorities, the list is endless).
While the problem is well identified, the complete absence of any mechanism, self regulatory or external, to check upon the electoral malpractices in the media is just as disheartening, given the fact that both print and television media houses actively compete for the large number of Government Advertorials in what can safely be called a quid pro quo arrangement. The shock of the Zee News-Jindal Sting and re-sting had non died down completely that we saw the complete bowing down of one of the boldest experiments we have seen in the Media over the last decade, Tehelka. Anti-government stories on extensive subjects stopped appearing altogether, with the compliments of various Ministries and PSUs, as diverse as Mazgaon Docks Limited and Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilizers. Because, you know, product placement is a very important strategy. If such complete subjugation was not enough, an example was made out of their Editor in chief, Tarun Tejpal by the unanimous opinion of our entire television media, which ensured that he is given a very public humiliation through unsubstantiated claims and unverified reports, even before trial starts. A similar shaming of their brilliant Managing Editor, Shoma Chaudhry was carried out for defending Tejpal in public, to such an extent that she had to resign from Tehelka.
The case of editors being asked to resign for taking a stand against a particular Prime Ministerial aspirant, or being offered Rajya Sabha berths in exchange for their loyalty is only secondary to party leaders opening channels themselves to have a sound source of revenue as well as leverage, because of the large level of influence and nuisance value a TV Channel or newspaper provide. The question of a ‘Free Press’ is very complex, and even subtle influences can compromise the integrity of whole institutions, where self regulation is unheard of and government/third party regulation is a violation of their Fundamental Rights. Therefore, aside from having compulsory ownership and revenue disclosures by media houses, on the pretext of performing a public function and hence having accountability, there is very little that can be done within the contours of the existing discourse. As a citizen, one can only hope that this is just another phase in the development of a truly mature and free media, and that we can perhaps hope to see more mature journalism, on one hand, and an increased detachment from the political-corporate interests many media groups represent.
To conclude, one cannot help but quote LK Advani who lamented on the state of the media during the emergency, by saying, “When the media was asked to bend, it crawled”. The relevance and aptness of the statement cannot be discounted even today, where we are looking towards an autocrat with a history of stifling dissent with an iron hand to head our nation. If this is the influence one can have on the media before the elections have taken place, one cannot help but imagine a scenario where the media’s sprint will again be transformed into a crawl, and it is the discourse that will suffer.
(The Public Law and Policy Discussion Group has organised a talk on “Has the Media been compromised?” by Mr. Hartosh Bal, Political Editor at Caravan India on 20th March, at 6 Pm in Room 506, Academic Block.)