Media musings: Those who ‘fought’ against Emergency fail to uphold freedom

Government stopped advertising in several newspapers including The Hindu, TOI and the Telegraph. Ironically, while the rulers claim to have fought against the Emergency, the media continues to crawl

Representative Image (Social media)
Representative Image (Social media)

Ranjona Banerji

This has been the Emergency Remembrance Week. Many recalled LK Advani’s “bend and crawl” aphorism, many in the media discussed the importance of our democratic freedoms and a few went back and relived those years.

By the next day, however, everyone would have forgotten what happened whenever in the past that was, and also forgot what happened yesterday.

Bending, crawling, bowing, scraping, that’s how you get by and in the case of several establishment journalists, that’s how you become rich and famous.

Last week, having focused almost exclusively on everything that was wrong with Bengal under Mamata Banerjee, sections of the national media had decided to shift attention to Bihar and the over 100 infant deaths from Acute Encephalitis Syndrome. The shift from Bengal to Bihar hinged on the weakest aspect of Indian journalism after “bend, crawl, bow, scrape” and that is, forget. It’s not as if all the problems faced by junior doctors in Bengal had got fixed. It only meant that Banerjee managed to pull herself together and charm both the doctors and the media.

That’s it. Story over. Pack up the cameras and head out. To Muzaffarpur this time. Here too, the focus on the deaths of children, on AES, on litchis, on malnutrition, on inadequate infrastructure and ill-preparedness did not last long.

We’re still in the drama stage. The government at the Centre is already making rumbling noises at the possible damage to the litchi trade… When money enters the equation, that’s a good enough reason to reach for that other motto: “bend, crawl, bow scrape” and then “skedaddle”.

But perhaps we should cut some of the media some slack. After all, there are too many things happening. There’s cricket and let’s not get sanctimonious, it must get adequate coverage. And it is also a good escape route not just for the general public but also for news editors. Cut from endless doom and gloom to “What should Virat Kohli do next” or better yet, for the yelling match sweepstakes game every night: “Has Virat Kohli ever done anything right?”

In the new way in which news is aggregated and then curated and then whatevered to make sure you only get the news you might prefer as far as news via social media is concerned, you could actually bypass the whole problem. I personally have almost no interest in the film industry, so I rarely get Bollywood, Hollywood, Tollywood, Mollywood, Tellywood, Kollywood, Ollywood…whatever news teasers and prompts, which is such bliss. All the news that is not fit to print goes to someone else.

A very senior journalist announced on Twitter the other day that after 40 years in the profession, he had stopped all newspaper, magazine subscriptions and relied only on website news feeds. What a damning indictment of our profession when we ourselves can’t bear to read or watch what our colleagues put out.

Meanwhile, jobs in journalism are being lost, websites and newspapers are closing down and journalists who will not “bend, crawl, scrape, bow” find themselves sidelined, isolated and often unwanted. The suspicion that those who target the government are under especial threat continues. The recent Sebi ruling banning the Roys of NDTV from holding management positions only exacerbate such suspicions.

India’s position in various press freedom indices has been moving steadily downwards. This means that 42 years after the Emergency ended, India has become worse as far as freedom of the press is concerned. Ironically, those in power now are those who claimed to have fought the hardest against the Emergency.

What they clearly did not fight for was either freedom of the press or freedom of expression. And if some older journalists take solace from the fact that in those years, from 1975 to 1977, newspaper owners bowed and scraped even more than journalists, barring a couple of notable exceptions, a quick glance at the Twitter feeds of India’s most popular journalists will demonstrate how joyfully so many of us bend, crawl, bow and scrape.

But in all this, we might as well count our blessings. Someone is talking about India’s water crisis, someone is analysing the resignations at the Reserve Bank of India, someone is covering the recurrence of lynchings of Muslims in India.

As long as a few of us keep our eyes open and speak up, we can still shame the creepy-crawlies.

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