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When the media failed

By meekly capitulating to the ruling establishment, the ‘liberal‘ media looks almost as effete as to be considered dead. And the media, in general, is too polarised to be called unbiased in India. Until the country’s media reorients itself, choosing the imperative to uphold the truth over existential threats to its survival, it cannot regain its credibility.


The ‘liberal’ (read antiModi) media seemed to have failed in a big way in the context of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Indeed, the failure has been so striking that one is prompted to ask if it was ever able to mobilise a campaign against Narendra Modi. It kept on demonising Modi, who is no god, but did enjoy godly sway over the narrative. Just in case the ‘liberal’ media protests that the grand narrative spun by Modi was a web of lies, and based on propaganda and falsehood, its counter-narrative, assuming that the media has a large, important and distinctive role in affecting the political decisions of the voters, failed to cut much ice. The liberal media literally failed to substantiate any charges against Modi. It failed to challenge all the institutions that they alleged were backing Modi, including the Election Commission and the Supreme Court. It could initiate no investigative probe into his putative acts of ‘omissions’, his hijacking of the Indian Army, his extremely sharp ability to capitalise on a crisis and turn it to his advantage as in Balakot, his ability to underplay issues that should have really mattered like unemployment, farmer distress and the economic slide. The media seemed to be impervious when our judiciary, Parliament, and Reserve Bank were under a cloud.

This happened during the Gujarat riots as well. While the Gujarati press contributed to the escalation of violence both in 1969 and 2002, demonising Modi for his alleged ‘role’ in the riots in 2002, the liberal English media, in particular, mounted a robust campaign, but that did not dent Modi’s image as the chief ministerial candidate. The New York Times openly excoriated the verdict of the Lok Sabha election, saying that Modi’s victory was a blitzkrieg of ‘envy and hate’; Time magazine called Modi as the chief polariser ~ “Divider in Chief” ~ while The Guardian lampooned the “intellectually vacant” people of the country to task for having reelected Modi to power. It is beside the point to argue if the so-called liberal media was wrong in assessing Modi’s role, but it was elitist and the common people were impervious to them. Those who could call Modi’s bluff just did not matter in his scheme of things. Much of it was piffle and inconsequential, troll-worthy, and ignoble.

If the liberal media was ineffective in terms of influencing public opinion, the embedded media (read pro-Modi) was slavish to the extent of crawling when it was asked only to bend. The failings of the media in India are exemplified in the lack of serious involvement in the diagnosis of injustices and inefficiencies in the economic and social lives of the people. These sections of the media became political mouthpieces, offering selective and tendentious accounts of an event, to lend a spin hopefully to mobilise the people. By temperament, the ‘liberal’ Indian media almost always prized a glittering picture of the privileged and the successful over the deprived and constrained. But today, it cheaply caters to cosmopolitan liberals who are seen as too willing to collaborate with the advocates of parochial jingoism and majoritarian paranoia, perhaps on the assumption that ‘neoliberal consensus’ is good for business. It is beside the point that India ranks 140th out of 180 countries in the annual Reporters Without Borders analysis this year on a global press freedom index.

The traditional media is a bit overrated. Worldwide, populist actors can now circumvent the traditional media by contacting their audiences via social networks like Twitter, Facebook (or the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo); publishing blogs and websites; and uploading You Tube videos to address ‘the people’. Even if the Election Commission took a dim view of the fact that NaMo TV was launched after the model code of conduct came into force in the run-up to the elections, there are illustrious parallels of using media propaganda for political goals. As President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez was criticised for his long-running weekly television show, Aló Presidente (Hello President). Rafael Correa as President of Ecuador ran a TV show called Enlace Ciudadano (Citizen’s Connection). Thaksin Shinawatra, as Prime Minister of Thailand, had his own television special, Backstage Show: The Prime Minister, which followed him around poor rural areas of Thailand as he met ‘the people’, as well as a weekly radio show (‘Talks with the People’), much in the manner of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann Ki Baat. It was a successful model waiting only to be replicated by the more resourceful and entrepreneurial of all the political parties in India.

As the corporate media is beholden more than ever to their advertisers for revenue, another form of self-censorship comes out of fear to offend advertisers. Today, the anonymity of online formats allows ‘witch-hunting’ and online ‘flame wars’ to escalate rapidly without the compulsions of the regular media to generate revenue, seek advertisements and thus remain a slave to the patrons and advertisers. There is little room for the regular media to deprive the populists of ‘the oxygen of publicity’, as one cannot suffocate a populist in the age of blogs, YouTube and social networks. According to the study by Centre for Media Studies, a total of Rs 60,000 crore was spent by all parties put together in the Lok Sabha election and the ruling BJP alone spent Rs 27,000 crore or 45 per cent of it. Whether it was spent on influencing media narratives is anybody’s guess but the fact that the major media (print and television) houses are not known for impartial reporting but are easily identifiable by their editorial biases and political loyalty is all too evident.

In a recent interview in The Caravan magazine, Sandeep Bhushan lamented how the Rafale story which N Ram broke in The Hindu, the Jay Shah story by The Wire, all the Judge Loya stories by The Caravan were left to languish, which “at any other time in history would have been followed by the whole media”. I read Krishna Prasad, former Editor-in-Chief, Outlook, and former member, Press Council of India writing in The Hindu on how issues relating to Aadhaar to Electronic Voting Machines, and from Doklam to Pulwama with Rafale in between, the biggest scandals tend to get buried. And how from “LPG to GDP, from missing planes to missing jobs data, the grandest claims lay unexamined”. A Washington Post article stated how the Indian media has arrogated to itself the role of an “amplifier of the government propaganda that took two nuclear states to the brink of war”. “No independent investigations were conducted, and serious questions about intelligence failures were left unanswered,” the contributor wrote.

Besides hectoring honchos singing paeans on nationalism on the telly and telling us to sniff a colonial conspiracy when leading sections of the western media criticise Modi, a 200-member government team has been propped up to observe how the media covers Modi and Amit Shah. If it is the media’s job to keep a watch on the government and its acts of omissions, it would be Orwellian to see a government body training its gaze on the media, particularly to keep a hawk’s eye on those errant publications that dare to raise uncomfortable questions. By meekly capitulating to the ruling establishment, the ‘liberal’ media looks almost as effete as to be considered dead. And the media, in general, is too polarised to be called unbiased in India. Until the country’s media reorients itself, choosing the imperative to uphold the truth over existential threats to its survival, it cannot regain its credibility