Ranjona Banerji: Modi mania in the media

17 Jul,2013

By Ranjona Banerji

 

The big media sensation in India these days is definitely Narendra Modi. Ever since he was made the chairman of the BJP’s election committee – seen as heir presumptive of his party – if the Gujarat chief minister so much as sneezes, it’s time for a political debate on TV and a dissection of the symbolism of a sneeze on opinion-based websites.

 

Modi himself – or his publicity machinery – adds fuel to the fire. One day, he is supposed to have almost single-handedly rescued 15,000 Gujaratis from the floods of Uttarakhand, soon after he claims to have felt as bad as a person sitting in a car which runs over the son (or daughter) of a dog – an elliptical reference to the victims of the Gujarat riots. This interview to Reuters spread like wildfire across social media and what is now called mainstream media (acronymed to MSM which does sound like some disease you don’t particularly want). The words used by Modi were translated as “puppy” and the merry-go-round started again.

 

Two things are clear from this. One, Modi’s publicity machine is trying too hard. And, two, the media’s focused attention is a double-edged sword, as Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and the organisers of the anti-corruption movement found out to their horror. Modi now cannot take a step without someone watching, someone tearing it apart and someone else explaining what he meant in excruciating detail.

 

Tied to the Modi-in-the-media story is that of the intelligence agencies, people killed in fake encounters and the Gujarat government. The death of Mumbai teenager Ishrat Jahan in 2004 has now overshadowed that of her companions and also exposed a divide in India’s various investigative and intelligence agencies. The media, rather than look at the issues involved objectively, has sided with one or the other investigative agency.

 

The problem here is a little different from the “for or against” Modi camps in the media. For years, editors have allowed reporters working on intelligence and police beats to become mouthpieces for those agencies. The logic is that you pick up on inside stories and the senior edit team works out the kinks caused by bias. But life and a newsroom never work that way and the result is that print journals and to some extent news channels just become conduits for intelligence agency politics. Print prides itself on having more filters than TV but as the various headlines, allegations, fights and quite frankly bogus information masquerading as news has shown recently, the filters have been playing hookie.

 

I must make my own bias clear here: I lived in Gujarat before and during the 2002 riots. There is little doubt in my mind about state government complicity, whether active or passive. However, that does not mean that everything that happens in Gujarat has to be vilified. It cannot be a “for us or against us” case for the media at least. Modi is a chief minister with a sordid past. But he’s just a chief minister of one state. He is not a superhuman being sent either to destroy or redeem us. Myth-making is a long organic process. It is unlikely that a media with chronic short-term memory loss can be successful at it.

 

**

 

In the rest of the world, news has had a sort of similar focus. The US has been concerned with the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin last year. Zimmerman shot the teenager assuming him to be hostile while on his rounds as part of a neighbourhood watch scheme. Martin, 17, has no weapon on him and his two biggest crimes appeared to be wearing a hoodie and being black.

 

As the US grapples with the consequences of this verdict, Britain where I am now, is waiting for the arrival of the “royal baby”. The “due date” (last Saturday) has come and gone and the breathless media has to concentrate on this event. Babies as we all know can be tremendously uncooperative in such matters. But the stories must continue. A special reclining chair for daddy in the hospital suite, also champagne and luxury toiletries, father William playing polo, mummy Kate “putting her feet up” at her parents, the sun shining, no clouds, step-mother letting slip the new due date might be this weekend and other such trivialities occupy the national press.

 

Who says the media is different anywhere else?

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator based in Mumbai. She is also Contributing Editor, MxMIndia. She can be reached via Twitter at @ranjona. The views here are her own

 

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