From supari journalists to godi media, then and now
In today’s times when the media is deeply divided into the fascist and liberal camps, there should be no doubt about the Congress knowing exactly who is the godi media and who not
Sometime in the mid to late 1990s, when Sharad Pawar was leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, I had sought an interview with him to learn about his party's future political and economic agenda.
The interview appeared in The Indian Express in two parts. But the statement that stood out in the political part of the interview was very tickling pink, considering it came from Pawar and related to Bal Thackeray who had been a close friend but now a bitter rival.
Pawar had picked up a lot of army jargon from the generals during his stint as the defence minister and he packed every bit of slang into his punches.
I do not now remember the details of that particular fight between the two leaders but Pawar said of Thackeray and the BJP, which was his ally in the government then, “Who do these Johnnies think they are! Do they believe any Tom, Dick or Harry will talk any humbug about me and I will take it lying down!”
Thackeray was deeply offended and I was not surprised when he summoned me to Matoshree, his residence. But once there, I had a hard time keeping a straight face as I realised he had mistaken the words ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ for an abuse.
He thought Pawar had been calling him a dog and decided to pay back in kind. “Tell that Tommy,” he said putting all the emphasis on the name that he thought some people called their dogs by, “that I do not need his permission to say anything.”
He stressed we must carry that quote just as he had said it. We did, within the same week as the Pawar interviews and it caused a minor sensation, at least among political and media circles for the tu-tu main-main slug fest that the two top leaders of Maharashtra had got into.
Barely a month after that, Thackeray was in Jalgaon for the sensational entry of a close Pawar aide into his party. I and a couple of other journalists sought a private dialogue with him and, as we were busily taking notes, Thackeray, speaking on how unfair the Mumbai press was to him, said, “Don’t I know that there are journalists here who take supari from Sharad Pawar and then pretend to be my sympathisers!”
My head whipped up at that because I thought it was a barb at me, for I had just had two interviews of Pawar and Thackeray published close on the heels of each other in my newspaper a few weeks ago.
But when I looked up, Thackeray was smiling mischievously and pointing to a journalist sitting to my left. I couldn’t be sure, but I also thought he winked at me and straightened his face abruptly just as this other journalist looked up.
The man suspected something, for throughout that assignment he kept asking me if I knew who Thackeray had meant by that comment. “Why did he say something like that to us?”
At my later meeting with Thackeray, the Sena supremo made haste to explain. “That comment was not meant for you. I know you are not a friend of the Shiv Sena and I also know your ideological convictions, so I know whatever you write against me comes out of those convictions.
“My lawyers can’t understand why I keep giving you interviews but I do because my words in your stories appear the way I said them and do not get twisted round to suit your agenda. Which is more than I can say of people who pretend to be friends and act on supari.”
Very soon, because of Thackeray’s constant harping on the issue ‘supari journalist’ had become as common a term among media circles as ‘godi media’ is today. But coined as it was by Thackeray, it was more direct, implying that these journalists were on contract ('supari' was the Mumbai criminals’ term for contract killings) from his rivals to write nasty pieces about him or do his reputation all kinds of damage.
Thackeray privately mentioned the journalist who had been with us in Jalgaon and said, “Don’t I know when he met Pawar and what he got to write against me? He then came here pretending sympathy but I knew exactly what he was about. Nevertheless, I played him along. No one should think I do not know exactly what is happening around me. I can distinguish the journalists with an agenda from those with genuine convictions. I can make allowances for ideological differences but I will not stand for deliberate, paid-for misrepresentation.”
While I was gratified that he recognised my commitment to my job, that conversation told me that political leaders know exactly what we journalists are all about and can easily sort the grain from the chaff.
Thackeray had also mentioned the exchange of material gains in exact terms from politicians to journalists and seemed to be fully aware of just who was seeking such gratification from whom - and the list was long.
So in today’s times when the media is deeply divided into the fascist and liberal camps, there should be no doubt about the Congress knowing exactly who is the godi media and who not, who pretends to be “covering” the party and simultaneously running the BJP agenda and who is a true and committed professional.
That is why the best thing that happened at Rahul Gandhi’s press conference on Saturday was his mincing no words in calling out those journalists running an agenda while pretending to be long-time Congress beat reporters.
I can see from social media that at least one of those journalists called out is anguished that no senior journalists stood by them when they were being reprimanded by Rahul Gandhi. But I have no sympathy for I believe those seniors too would have thought, like me, that it was about time a spade was called a spade.
Arun Shourie had described these kind of journalists as worse than the North Korean media and that was deservedly so. Rahul Gandhi is merely articulating that sentiment in politer terms than Bal Thackeray or Arun Shourie.
So it is rich that some of the BJP spokespersons are shedding crocodile tears for those journalists who got called out. In the books of the Amit Malviyas and Gaurav Bhatias—the former known to be the master of fake news and the latter for his intemperate language and fisticuffs in television studios—it is okay to corrupt journalists towards their own agenda but not so when they get caught out and called out by Rahul Gandhi.
For the first time they are facing a no-holds-barred challenge and they simply do not know where to run.
Thackeray was never a polite man so he pulled no punches in calling out the journalists with hidden agendas, even from public rallies, let alone private interviews or press conferences. Even then the pretence of those kind of journalists to be sympathisers did not wash with Thackeray and I am not surprised that Rahul Gandhi has now named and shamed them. My only caveat is: what took him and the Congress so long?
As a British journalist responded to my tweet disagreeing with the Mumbai press club’s statement describing Rahul Gandhi’s action as deplorable, ‘journalists should not think they are gods’ beyond reproach. If they run agendas, they should be prepared to be exposed, as Thackeray had done so effectively all those years ago.
As it is, I think it was high time that the Congress took off its gloves– for now it is no longer just a question of professional integrity, journalistic or otherwise. India’s very democracy is imperilled and, in this context, many of these journalists are greatly responsible for the danger we face today.