2018, Essay, Telegraph Calcutta

Narendra Modi and Our Derelictions as Media

The Press seems happy to be co-opted by the government

Just a thought, if only as hors d’oeuvre: Sanjaya was arguably the first television reporter known to us, relaying the great battle live from a far distance. Imagine the consequences of Sanjaya telling Dhritarashtra what would please his ears rather than what transpired as the Kauravas and Pandavas had it off. All it would have taken for an epic subversion of the truth was one obsequious reporter willing to compromise with his craft to curry favour with his master.

After a prime minister lavishly lambasted for never speaking – “Maun Mohan Singh” – we elected a prime minister who never seems to tire of speaking. Some of that, we have been told by his own, amounts to no more than jumlas. But there is a more disturbing aspect to Narendra Modi’s mode of speaking. It’s one-sided.

Modi is into the final lap of his term and he is yet to open himself to questioning in a way that has been the assumed norm for all his predecessors. Our prime minister has his say and he would have no more. On Twitter. On diverse social-media platforms and dedicated web portals. On Mann ki Baat. To commissioned cameras from government-aided or government-allied operations that can be trusted to obey command, pack off and promote the puff. He does not grant interviews, not in the way we should understand them. The complicit silence over how interviews with the prime minister are conducted must be broken. Because people need to know. Here is how it’s done – you may mail a set of questions to one of the prime minister’s aides; they, or the prime minister himself, will examine them and pick which ones are convenient. Of those that the Prime Minister’s Office rejects or refuses to answer, there shall be no mention, or even a record. Subsequently, answers will be formulated and mailed back.

Then, at a convenient time, there shall be a window of time in which interviewer and interviewee will stage a photo-session to make it seem what it never was. The farce falls a bit during television interviews, of the kind Modi has deigned to recently grant; they are so scripted to one man’s purposes, they end up being choreographies of sycophancy.

Modi is the fullness of his mentor Lal Krishna Advani’s stinging compliment – event manager. The Modi interview is an event Modi manages, often even dictating how a question may be framed or intoned. It all ends up like the title of the celebrated Norman Mailer book of essays: Advertisements for Myself.

What is beyond him to manage, he merely brazens through. During his 2014 power-push, he once found himself arrested in the aircraft seat across from a reporter pressing for a response on the 2002 horrors in Gujarat. He kept admiring the far sunset through the cabin window as if he were sitting there solitary. When, having become prime minister, he decided to bundle the media off his official aircraft, he peddled it as a cut on freebies at public expense. Deboarding the media was never so much about accounting of public money as it was about minimizing his own accountability. Truth be told, all that the media took free on the prime minister’s trips were seats on a public aircraft that goes empty anyway. All other expenses were borne by media houses that assigned journalists to cover the prime minister. But Modi doesn’t want to get into situations where he faces questions and must answer them.

The highest virtue of a King is that he should do no wrong; the highest vice is that he should assume he can do no wrong. From such vice issues the notion of not being accountable or answerable.

But where does all this leave the media? And here’s where a return to Sanjaya, that original television reporter, is instructive. Are we reporting the Mahabharat as it plays out, or are we relaying a dictated version of it? Are we doing the watchdog job, as we should, or have we turned lapdogs? The call, frequently made by Modi himself, to “constructive” and “positive” journalism is a thing to be forever wary of, because it is the surest direction into alleys where the media can get lost on its purposes. In addition to the Soviet-style inheritance of a mammoth publicity machine that our governments have possessed in the name of the Press Information Bureau, there exists today an elaborate privately hired PR enterprise at Modi’s disposal. Rs 37,54,06,23,616 is how much he spent on propaganda between 2014 and last October. In addition, there thrives a swift and supple information disorder complex on social media that flaunts a stupefying repertoire of talents – it can invent, twist, distort, distract, divert, disrupt; it is swift to receive and comply with command. It can lie a thousand Goebbelsian times to make a lie sound like the truth: “Nothing happened in India until Narendra Modi ascended to command.” The scheme is as simplistic as it is mendacious; and it is probably also popular because it makes few demands of its consumer – nuance, analysis, understanding, study, scrutiny not required. It’s how most mobs behave, on leave from sense and sensibility, sublimated to a celebration of mindlessness. Collective derangement has frightening precedents. It’s what such a mindful disorder has partially already caused; the palpable lack of disapproval of lynch mobs is proof.

The means to curtail, contain and distract the media freedom have become far more diverse and subtle in our world and it isn’t unfair to suggest that the media themselves have become a party to this insidious process. We revel in a selfie moment with the prime minister, daftly unmindful that the prime minister has revelled in it more because he hasn’t been asked a question.

The media are only too happy to collaborate in its co-option by the government, so much so that the powers almost assume journalists to be their allies, if not adjuncts. Ready access to the powers, an appointment, or a story, your peers will not get. All these on the condition that the story the government does not want told shall not be told. We are, more and more, part of such convivial clubs. We have bartered away the essence of our calling for the seductions of an exaggerated, if altogether false, sense of power. We have allowed ourselves to be sucked in by the Establishment. We might know the inside story but we have become so much the Insiders ourselves that we will not tell it. We revel in carrying secret messages from this politician to that, not in revealing them. We are no longer content being reporters reporting on games people play; we want to be players ourselves. We do not want to be in the press gallery of Parliament, we aspire to sit in the House of Parliament. There was a time a journalist’s worth was measured by how much awe he inspired in the Establishment. Today, journalistic stature is about how much part of the Establishment you are. Partisanship, in its narrowest sense, isn’t a vice that stains journalistic careers, it has become a certificate of virtue. It’s price is our vocation itself. It’s the price Sanjaya would have paid to all posterity had he told the story according to Dhritarashtra.

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