Media Varying contours
Over time, the ever formidable Press has been reduced to shambles; yet, the crisis isn't as devastating as was once approximated.
The recent release of Steven Spielberg's film, The Post, has brought to the public imagination issues relating to the power of the media and its vulnerabilities. The film potently depicts the tussle between former President Nixon and the owner-editor duo of the Washington Post newspaper, Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, played with great sensitivity by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Set as a prelude to the Watergate years, WaPo won its battle in court to publish the Pentagon Papers, and so it heralded the onset of newspapers' glory days. "The Press was to serve the governed, not the governors," said Judge Hugo Black in the film, as in the Supreme Court's majority judgment.
The table has fully turned since then, but it will be wrong to put the entire blame on a Modi here or a Trump there. Nor is the media on the retreat universally. In the US and Europe, the enemies of liberalism came armed with social media driven by technology, and they've succeeded in scoring a string of spectacular electoral victories despite opposition from most of the Press and TV. But neither are the despots firmly ensconced in their throne nor have the Western media given up.
The media narrative is different in the 'developing' world, notably in India. The BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, no doubt has many political parties opposed to it, but the least of its worries is the media. There are a few exceptions, though, like some digital publications here and there, but the mainline newspapers and TV channels have long since lost two basic qualities of journalism, namely curiosity and courage. Many people still fancy the media as the 'watchdog' of democracy; in India, however, the canine metaphor may be utterly inapposite as the Indian media has ceased to bark, not to speak of biting.
It was a different animal in the past. The 'native' Press in the 19th century was under so much pressure from the British masters that it could be expected to only bow and scrape. Yet, it did not do so. In 1891, as Lord Lansdowne, the Viceroy, had chalked out a plan to annex the Muslim-majority princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, little did he know that an intrepid reporter of the nationalist Amrita Bazar Patrika newspaper would be nosing around his office and poking about his trash can and eventually chance upon his scribblings. As the news of Kashmir's annexation plan made a banner headline in the paper, the state's Hindu king screamed perfidy, as it ran against the earlier British promise to never disturb its independence. The Kashmir monarch ran to London, where he found support; Lansdowne had egg on his face.
After Independence, the Rajasthani successors to the Scottish and English owners of the Indian jute mills and tea gardens also acquired control of the English newspapers they'd owned. On the other hand, the 'freedom fighters' who had owned the vernacular newspapers became the new Lalaji, more than willing to prostrate before the new master, clad in khadi kurta and 'Gandhi' cap. When the newly independent nation's first big-time scam broke out, involving Haridas Mundhra, a stock-market operator, using public funds of the recently created Life Insurance of India to fuel a bull run of friendly companies' shares on the stock market, the news was broken not by any newspaper but by Feroze Gandhi, Nehru's estranged son-in-law. During Indira Gandhi's rule, so worshipful of her did the large newspapers become that they overlooked, or closed their eyes, to the creeping entry of her younger son Sanjay Gandhi onto the centre-stage as the "extra-Constitutional authority". Later on, when Emergency was promulgated, the fundamental rights were suspended and lakhs were detained without trial, the top newspaper owners (and some of their journalist lackeys), instead of showing contrition for not being alert enough, were in competition with each other instead for their closeness to the 'rising son'. Even though the Press was muzzled by the authorities under Emergency powers, there was hardly any underground communication system and rarely any public-spirited journalistic enterprise to defy the fetters. The Indian Express and The Statesman, of course, set an example by refusing to lend their pages to the daily trash being issued by the government's publicity wing, but that did not mitigate the drought of information on the Emergency regime. Hard news about it became available only after it ended, and a slew of inquiry commissions shone the spotlight on the crimes committed by paralysing the legal framework. The supine disposition of the Indian Press did not escape the notice of even LK Advani, a minister in the post-Emergency Janata Party government. Even Advani, who belongs to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an authoritarian organisation that has little respect for free thinking, was aghast as he saw the media "crawl when they're asked to bend".
Till some time back, India was blessed with some good judges who contributed to make the judiciary the only respectable institution amid a venal bureaucracy and a crumbling legislature. In 1984, in a case between The Indian Express newspapers and the Union of India, a three-judge bench cautioned the Press that while they were entitled to the rights and protections that came with Freedom of Expression guaranteed in the Constitution, it must, in its turn, shun all kinds of favour and subventions that the state would be too willing to offer to journalists and their employers. The judgment put their authors' doubts rather graphically. "Secret payments of money, open monetary grants and subventions, grants of lands, postal concessions, Govt. advertisements, conferment of titles on editors and proprietors of newspapers, the inclusion of press barons in cabinet and inner political councils etc. constitute one method of influencing the press."
Much dirty and slimy water has flown down the Yamuna since then, and the 'sins' that the judges were worrying about have now become pole parking offences. 'Padma' awards have been showered on loyal journalists and huge tracts of land gifted to set-up their own media empires. That's the kind of largesse that Rupert Murdoch, the utterly amoral media Mughal, is known to have sought from Deng Xiaobing, the late president of China.
Over the years, though, the media has made itself incredibly lightweight. Who is running the Finance Ministry—the FM or some Gujarat-cadre officers? Is there a power tussle raging in the PMO? Who initiated the current 'resetting' of India's relations with China? Are there any thorny issues between Modi and RSS? Has Modi got a plan on Kashmir? If so, will it unfold before the 2019 election? The media and its owners and employees have no clear answer, nor do they have access to sources at high places.
Times have changed, so nobody expects Delhi's political journalists to have their hands in Lansdowne's trash can. But, they hardly have any voice. Perhaps, an unfettered media is not as indispensable for India as it is made out to be.
(Sumit Mitra is a senior journalist)
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