FREE MEDIA MATTERS

Sanjay Kapoor

During the campaign for the 2014 parliamentary elections, besides the Congress and the Gandhi family, the target of a section of the BJP leadership and its front organisations was the media—both in terms of controlling it as well as viciously rubbishing it. This two-tack approach revealed itself, first, in manipulating the visual news media, which manifested itself in extensive coverage of BJP political rallies—creating an impression in the mind of the public about the inevitability of the imminent change. Social media multiplied its impact. However, it was the English media—both print and visual—that was especially targetted.

Cognisant of the infirmities of news TV and that it relies heavily on newspapers—especially English-language ones— for editorial direction as well as follow-ups on key stories, the underhand plan was to tar the image of the print media. This was aided by campaigns against ‘paid news’ and some other scandals that have rocked the media world in the past few years. 

Allegations of ‘paid news’ that were directed against some regional newspapers for palming off sponsored features as news during elections were liberally levelled at those who had been batting with a straight bat. The intent of the Press Council or Election Commission, in their probe of paid news, was to make the media more accountable and also end any malpractice affecting its credibility. These exertions were misinterpreted and misused. Worse, these reports enabled the media-hating tribe to present journalists and TV anchors as corrupt ogres. The leakage of lobbyist Niira Radia’s interaction with some columnists further affected the dodgy image of the media to such an extent that it became difficult for anyone to defend it.

As the national English-language  media—both electronic and print—was at the vanguard of reporting the post-Godhra violence and the involvement of the administration in exacerbating the communal holocaust, a narrative was built that tried to show the journalists and columnists associated with it as ‘anti-Hindu and anti-national’. All those who resisted co-option by the religious Right were routinely subjected to utterly vicious abuse. Trolls on Twitter targetted anyone who took a position remotely critical of their doings. Comments on articles by secular columnists were so vicious that many of them resorted to self-censorship.

This relentless attack against the secular and independent media by an ascendant political movement resulted in arraigning their rowdy, aggressive followers against defenceless journalists. The attack also manifested itself through spokesmen who raised issues during press briefings. Every article or comment by columnists was followed by demands that they should equally highlight past communal incidents caused by the Congress party too! Criticism of Godhra had to be balanced by similar disapproval of a communal riot against Sikhs that was engineered by Congress goons. Such aggression from the mobs that have begun to occupy cyber space smothered those who did not want to antagonise them or their own media barons (who were desperate to be on the winning side).

This assault against the media satisfied the coarse elements that animate our society and have contempt for Nehruvian liberalism that bolstered those people who were institutionally encouraged to question. So this de-legitimisation of the English-language media was brought about through a concerted campaign that cleverly, with its bias and lack of objectivity regarding the BJP coupled with the success of Right-wing politics, helped in securing a crucial victory against the Constitution-based secular and liberal order. Disturbingly, the religious Right’s campaign against the secular intelligentsia came up trumps.

After the electoral victory of May 2014, the private electronic media has become indistinguishable from the official one. After damaging its credibility during the election campaign, the government (read the Prime Minister) is loathe to talk to it. The interaction is reduced to mindless selfies on cellphones. The government now chooses to engage with the media through Twitter and Facebook. The privileged access that provided the journalist some understanding of the working of the highest office is no longer available. All these things mean troubled times for the media. The journalists’ associations must reflect on how the media has been manipulated by those with scant respect for truth. And what they need to do to reinstate their credibility and defend themselves as well as democracy.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2015