Much ado over a ‘pliable’ media & how ‘bully’ BJP stands out

‘Yeh haath-pair todne waali baat ho jayegi,’ threatened Pramod Mahajan to scribes, warning against reporting on BJP delegates’ visit to red-light district. It was duly blacked out by a pliable media

Sujata Anandan

So far as pliable goes, it is not an unparliamentary word. And so far as pliability goes, large sections of journalists in India have been pliant towards reigning governments for all times. And that pliability has much of the time been voluntary, at times embarrassing even for those they have been pliant towards.

One of my earliest chief reporters once told me about how a textile minister in Mrs Indira Gandhi's cabinet, at the height of the licence-permit-quota raj, had cut suit lengths out of the same bolt of imported cloth and gifted them to all the journalists covering the textile ministry. At his annual Diwali gathering, he and the journalists were equally embarrassed to see all uniformly dressed in identical suits - the journalists having hoped to flatter the minister, only ended up exhibiting their pliability and their willingness to accept gifts.

Some years later, the then Maharashtra chief minister Sharad Pawar had to actually plead with a couple of journalists to be less pliable towards him. "Do write a few nasty words about me sometimes," he told them. "Otherwise even my friends think I am feeding those stories to you."

Notwithstanding the embarrassment of the identical suit lengths, the earlier regimes were at least understated, subtle and a little more sophisticated about ensuring pliability of journalists. The BJP regimes which followed the Congress in many states were over the top and even crude about bribing journalists or threatening them into pliability.

In identical situations, a decade apart, when the less pliable journalists reported how Congress delegates attending the centenary celebrations in Mumbai in 1985 had chosen to while away time at Kamathipura, the city's red light district, rather than attend Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's seminal address on power brokers, then Mumbai Congress president Murli Deora who had been pulled up by Rajiv for the lapse, was woebegone but limited himself to a "Boys will be boys" response. He did not threaten journalists for front-paging that story.

Whereas in 1995, when BJP delegates similarly chose Kamathipua over party president LK Advani's address, then BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan threatened to break the legs of journalists if they tried reporting the embarrassing truth again."Yeh haath-pair todne waali baat ho jayegi," he said.

Now running that kind of fear into journalists simply doing their job has become the norm with the current dispensation in India. There are many media houses who voluntarily toe the line but at the same time there are many other individual journalists who have found themselves out of jobs for just telling their readers or viewers the truth.

Institutionally, there is the threat of withdrawing advertisements from media houses. Some media houses had commercialised their enterprises enough so as not to be dependent on governments largesse. The current regime, however, has been seen to be a step ahead of them –by pressurising the private entrepreneurs to withdraw advertisements from various channels and newspapers leaving owners with no choice but to sack their more independent or rebellious journalists who are insistent on telling it like it is and not covering up the truth.

As against these, there are many journalists voluntarily bending over backwards to accommodate the interests of the ruling party giving new meaning to Advani's statement post-Energency that when journalists were asked to bend, they crawled. The less said about them, the better.

Union minister General V K Singh popularised the word "presstitute" when he used the term to describe a TV anchor, not unfriendly to the regime - perhaps the friendliest to the regime - when he had questioned General Singh's decision to attend a Pakistan day celebration in New Delhi. Of course, the good General got the context all wrong.

Presstitute is a term coined by Gerald Celente, an American trends forecaster and publisher, to originally describe those journalists in the mainstream media who were biased towards governments and current regimes and swallowed their statements hook, line and sinker, without questioning, or those who attempted to distract people with, say, a clamour for war to divert their attention from a failing economy.

Sounds familiar? In the Indian context the term today suits the supporters of the current regime more than it does the independent journalists who dig for the truth and expose the government, though even many ministers in the government have gleefully supported the latter being described as presstitute by BJP trolls.

And while union minister Arun Jaitley egged on the Editors Guild to issue a statement against Congress president Rahul Gandhi's usage of the term 'pliable' for Smita Prakash, editor of ANI, who recently did a soft interview of Narendra Modi, obviously the Guild could surely distinguish, even if Jaitley could not, between parliamentary terms and those clearly abusive?

While disapproving of the labelling of journalists and rapping Gandhi mildly on the knuckles, the Guild nonetheless had the more severe criticism for the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party for lowering the political discourse in recent years.

"We have seen our political class use this for some time now. In the recent past, top BJP leaders as well as those of AAP have used unambiguously abusive expressions such as 'presstitute', news-traders, 'bazaaru' (saleable commodities) or 'dalals' (pimps) for journalists," the guild said in a statement.What it did not mention was that terms like ‘bazaaru’ and ‘news traders’ have been used by no less than Narendra Modi.

It said that combined with ploys such as boycotts, denial of access and lately government accreditation, the abusive expressions add up to a "reprehensible strategy to throttle media freedoms".

"This must be reversed. Journalists, we believe, will continue to deal with these with their usual thick skins and not let these tactics intimidate them," it added.

We must be thankful to Rahul Gandhi for getting the Guild to finally come out in the open against those abusing and intimidating the media. He was not abusive but his civilised discourse has set the current regime apart as uncouth and boorish.

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