Of positive news and honey bees
The prime minister has done it again. In less than two years he has issued another advisory to the media. Last Sunday during his monthly radio talk “Maan Ki Baat” on All India Radio, he said print and television media should carry positive stories to spread an atmosphere of positivity that inspires the nation to do well. During the talk, he even “appreciated” the fact that some newspapers and channels have started carrying positive stories in certain time slots. Prime Minister also cited the example of former President A P J Abdul Kalam who used to say that newspapers should carry only positive stories in their front pages. He said focusing on the good will help erase the bad.
Now Mr. Prime Minister, in this era and time, how is it possible to cover only positive stories on the front pages? If the media industry went by the advice of the late President it would be in jeopardy. However, we’ll come to that later. First, the earlier advisory which the Prime Minister had issued 16 months back at the platinum jubilee function of a prominent publication from the North-East, ‘The Assam Tribune’. Prime Minister had then said that journalists should be like a honey bee and not a housefly. Houseflies, he had said, sit in filth and spread it around, whereas bees are productive and also capable of responding with a sting when required.
Writing in these very columns I had then mentioned that contrary to the general perception that they are carriers of disease and cause for much human misery, modern research has shown that the disease causing ability of the housefly has been neutralised over the years and its larva was being used in waste management. In times when the management of waste is becoming one of the biggest challenges before the world community, the housefly could prove to be a ‘healthy companion’.
The Prime Minister would have done better by also defining what he meant by positive news and what was negative news. Coming from a person who had ascended to the prime minister’s chair riding on a media blitzkrieg, such comments are interesting. I was wondering how the prime minister would categorise the news of him being a Rambo on a mission to rescue the disaster-hit residents of Uttarakhand. Was it positive or negative news? And how would one categorise Police horse Shaktiman being brutalised in Dehradun by protestors led by a legislator from his party?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not the first politician to have counselled the media on its functioning. There has been a trend that those leaders whose political campaigns were largely fuelled by the media, soon on occupying political office found their functioning most inconvenient. Be it the case of Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Arvind Kejriwal or even Narendra Modi, all these gentlemen enjoyed and continue to enjoy a wonderful relationship with the media. On coming to power, however, they created impediments for the fourth estate, whose duty has always been to report the news, irrespective of how it depicts the establishment.
The only time when Indian media played “messenger of good news” was in the period which immediately followed Independence. The phase between 1947 and 1964, which could also be classified as the Nehruvian period, had certain marked elements juxtaposed with one another. We had inherited the high ideals of freedom of press and independence from the British. Moreover, there was the pain of partition. But overriding them all was Nehru’s vision of governance promoting liberal and modern ideas. There was also the urge to bring together the newly independent former colonies under the umbrella of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
However, having evolved during the freedom struggle and having inherited the British legacy of freedom of the press, the Indian media did not remain an unofficial organ of the government for very long despite the recognition that the government was full of freedom fighters. In his paper titled, ‘The Changing Role of the News Media in Contemporary India, presented at the 72nd session of Indian History Congress in 2011’ veteran commentator N Ram writes, ‘Part of the historical legacy is some diversity and pluralism and a certain space for the expression of divergent opinions.”
The Indian media, despite undergoing the period of Emergency, where its freedoms were curtailed, has managed to survive and remain vibrant because of the ethos cultivated over the years. It is, however, also true that the media has become a means by which many individuals pursue their political ambitions. The scope for a journalist to play a wheeler-dealer had increased like never before, when the Bharatiya Janata Party first came to power at the Centre, followed by the UPA government. Leaders from the party showed absolute disdain for the cloak of objectivity, which the Indian journalists had worn till then and encouraged their participation in policy making.
The role of journalists did not remain limited to that of being party ideologues but their active participation was sought in matters of legislative and ministerial business. The six-year reign of Atal Bihari Vajpayee government would indeed get credited for opening floodgates for newspaper editors and reporters to join, as Amitabh Bachchan once famously said, ‘the cesspool of politics’.
This rush to be a legislator and political office bearer has come to diminish the long assigned role of a watchdog that media organisations had pursued. The patronising practice of accommodating condescending newspersons has been taken up by other political parties as well. Journalists can indeed play the honey bee provided the political establishment defines honey in greater detail.
(The author is president Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post. Views expressed are strictly personal)