Media failed the Republic and the ‘Republic’ failed the media 

The media, supposedly the fourth pillar of democracy, looked both helpless and timid after 2014. Media seem to have let down the people and the Republic by not speaking Truth to power

Media failed the Republic and the ‘Republic’ failed the media 
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Mrinal Pande

The signs have been clear for a while. Despite section 19 A of our Constitution guaranteeing the media freedom of speech and expression, India’s TV news channels no longer seem capable of speaking truth to power.

In a democracy it is normal, even desirable, for the Government and the media to have a certain adversarial relationship with each other; but in as much as they also feed and sustain each other, extreme positions by both are generally avoided.

In the past six years however, the NDA government has demonised and shushed India’s mainstream professional media, whenever it tried to hold it to account. It is rare these days to see mainstream media, especially TV news channels, question government’s actions no matter how undemocratic they may seem.

The sudden proliferation of 24x7 TV news channels has concealed a fact from its viewers that our media ownership (both vertically, i.e. across various platforms such as TV, radio and digital portals and horizontally that is geographically) is in the hands of a very small group. And the promoters and controllers of this group have multiple business interests ranging from cement and retail to finance, banking and capital venture funds.

In the past six years however, the NDA government has demonised and shushed India’s mainstream professional media, whenever it tried to hold it to account. It is rare these days to see mainstream media, especially TV news channels, question government’s actions no matter how undemocratic they may seem.

The sudden proliferation of 24x7 TV news channels has concealed a fact from its viewers that our media ownership (both vertically, i.e. across various platforms such as TV, radio and digital portals and horizontally that is geographically) is in the hands of a very small group. And the promoters and controllers of this group have multiple business interests ranging from cement and retail to finance, banking and capital venture funds.

Cross media ownership that had a major question mark over it in the last century, is no longer an exception but the rule. True, controls had existed in India earlier and the state has always had a monopoly over news broadcasts on radio. But today’s powerful media cartels are also hugely dependent on the government for various kinds of permissions: licences, band widths, vital connectivity and transmission to downlink and uplink news bulletins and easy access to the Net.

This dependence has opened new opportunities for a control loving government for various kinds of manipulations and pressure tactics. Switch on your TV news channels during prime time and you find the same topic being discussed by panel after panel comprising of the usual suspects, all engaged in highly voluble verbal duals. Some senior anchors have also gone on record to say that they get briefed early in the day by senior ministers or I and B officials about the topics to be discussed at prime time by carefully vetted panels.

Actually, in the last six years, guided by the PMO, a new template has been crafted and put in place for media-government interaction. What the government wishes to communicate is mostly by way of press notes. No more informal chats with Ministry officials or lunches in the Central Hall. Only the official media is permitted to travel with the PM during his visits abroad and so most footage is available from only one trusted news agency known for its proximity to the government.

During Parliament sessions the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha provide live feeds copiously used by TV news channels.

Now there is talk of merging the two and also whispers about only vetted footage being made available to the media.

Most of the news channels, especially the ones in Hindi, given the above scenario, see an advantage in being docile and beholden to the Regime. A few try to redefine the day’s

news by restructuring real or manufactured controversies.

When on the eve of 2019 General Elections, growth had slowed down to a five year low, and a former top economic advisor to the government was publishing research to show that India’s GDP growth had been overestimated by 2.5 percentage points, many channels were heckling economists and economic journalists deemed critical of the government. The same pattern is being repeated now during discussions on controversial subjects like the students’ unrest in multiple campuses or the anti CAA protests led by women.

Ultimately this was bound to backfire. People are turning away from TV towards digitised online news streaming 24x7 onto their smart phones. This has given a major uptick to online media (IRS records over 279 million people reading news online) and holds out a warning to TV.

But this can also be an unhealthy development given the volume of sensational

fake news and morphed images being streamed ceaselessly on the social media, which digital media seem to depend upon as source of news.

It is also worrying that between the 2014 and 2019 Elections, political parties with deep pockets have employed and funded several faceless sites for planting fake

news against their adversaries or to beef up their own agendas. This is happening globally and has caused information pollution on a global scale. This may prove the old adage about bad money ultimately driving out the good.

What about laws that could prevent such practices? In India there is evidence of a rising misuse of security laws against the free media. In 2018 Freedom in The World Report (of Freedom House) gave Indian media a rating of 2.5 on a freedom scale of seven. The 2019 World Press Freedom Index prepared by the international body, Reporters Without Borders, has similarly rated India at a low 135 in a list of 180 democratic countries in the world.

The sudden eruption and fast spread of anti-CAA protests all over India at the beginning of 2020 that have taken the government by surprise, reveal that imposition of undeclared censorship and a punitive and combative attitude towards professionals in free media will tarnish a government’s own image, dent its credibility and deny it access to objective and verified information from sources outside its own.

Research so far reveals that the largest chunk (nearly 80% of our population) of news-consumers in India comprise of viewers below 40 years of age. They are tech savvy and today deeply involved in the demonstrations against issues ranging from fee hikes, unemployment to the CAA, within campuses and outside on the streets all over India.

In this scenario no media channel can expect good ratings if it blacks out or waters down their concerns. The videos about the storming of the JNU and Jamia campuses that have surfaced and gone viral are evidence that while the government was busy subjugating professional media and its ownership, the young audiences used 4G phones with cameras to ensure that as citizen journalists they steadily supply live feeds from ground zero to the TV channels .

Damage control through a rigidly bureaucratic state-run DD is an impossibility in this fast paced scenario. In wanting to create a fast paced theatre of international standards, the leadership has created a theatre of the absurd.

In 2014 ‘The Rise of A Great Hindu Nation’, was mounted with all sorts of devices, digital, mechanical and human. Props were used auditoriums abroad packed with cheering NRIs, temples and soldiers’ platoons among snow covered mountains, meditational Yogic exercises. The scenes moved, wheels turned, floral petals were strewn, Artists performed. But as TV news goes, it was a one man show.

The young TV audiences with short attention spans by 2019 were getting restive and checking their smartphone screens more and more. With Jamia and then JNU it became another ball game altogether.

Today the extras and the ones in the back rows seem to have stormed the screens and hog the spotlight. Foreign investors and even those who were not rudely ticked off like Jeff Bezos, are beginning to pack their bags, banks remain tight-fisted and the foreign media is laughing and jeering at our leaders.

Anchors with blow dried hair and smart attires appear clueless about how to report the news. A few

old TV hands with salt and pepper hairs do try to come up with a few smart oneliners now and then, but are soon heckled into silence by indignant crowds.

The most important moment, wrote Ryszard Kapucinski, Polish journalist, poet and author, that determines the fate of the country, is when one policeman walks from his post towards a man at the edge of the crowd, and orders him to go home. If the man does not run but stares back, cautiously but with insolence at uniformed authority, it is the beginning of a Change.

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Published: 24 Jan 2020, 8:00 PM