Time for the media to wake up!

13 Oct,2015


By Ranjona Banerji


The media in India has been getting flak from two very different quarters, heightened in the last two and a half years. One section thinks that the media is too Congress-oriented and too secular and liberal. The other section thinks that the media is too BJP-Sangh Parivar oriented and too communal.


Am I exaggerating the case? Yes. But ever since this current BJP-led government swept into power, we have seen battle lines being more firmly drawn. Social media contributes to this division and news television “debates” are all about atmospherics and rising temperatures.
However, two recent incidents appear to have made most the media realise that its primary role is adversarial when it comes to the government and that the excuses for brutality and assault run out of steam quite fast. The murder of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in September, on the basis of a rumour (false) emanating from a temple, that he had eaten beef (cow meat) did shock most of India. Most of the inhumane responses came from the RSS’s Hindutva supporters on social media, especially those who live in nations where cows are seen as no more than breakfast, lunch and dinner. So the less said about them and their cowardly hypocrisy the better.


The media as a whole though did realise that the fear, hatred and violence instigated by a communal thought process had breached enough boundaries. The condemnation from most was swift. Commentators like Surjit Bhalla and Tavleen Singh who have been supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both in the Indian Express, wrote about their shock and horror. Even in cynical terms, incidents like this seriously affect India’s international image and the media realised it faster than the Prime Minister’s Office which is usually up and away on image-building and public relations.


The “whatabout” arguments mainly came from the two patriotic stalwarts on India Today Television which is in some ways in deep competition with CNNIBN in the popularity-with-the-government stakes. Times Now dances to its own tune. NDTV attempts to be responsible. And NewsX gets inspired by a different competitor everyday.


Journals and websites are a better indicator of media responsibility than TV and social media. They also have the chance to both report on news and editorialise and are able to maintain the distinction. This gives them the edge when we have a watershed event like the Dadri lynching and the murder of a man based on what he ate for dinner.


And yet, it has to be said, that many in the media again either wilfully or mistakenly misunderstood why so many authors and writers returned their Sahitya Akademi awards and monies. As all of them stated, it was the murder of Kannada writer and scholar MM Kalburgi, killed it seems for his stand against superstition and idol worship that made them protest. The current climate where writers are threatened and murdered for holding unpopular or dissenting views has frightened them. The Dadri lynching cemented that fear. In a deep sense, what writers feel today is no different from what journalists who do not toe the majority line are made to feel. It is only that journalists are more used to abuse and threats.


The nasty thought that occurs to one that some in the media who have themselves received government benefits and awards are the most scathing of writers who return their awards…
The attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni, former speechwriter for LK Advani and member of the PMO under AB Vajpayee, has been the second event for the media to stand together. Here though the situation is more nuanced. Kulkarni was warned by the Shiv Sena not to hold an event to launch former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri’s book Neither a Hawk Nor a Dove at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai.


The Shiv Sena has long had a tradition of objecting to and disrupting events which feature Pakistanis. There is nothing new in this. Only last week they got organisers to cancel a concert featuring Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali. Since Kulkarni and the Observer Research Foundation and Kulkarni decided to go ahead with the event, Shiv Sena activists acted in the way they know best: as hooligans.


That the Shiv Sena is part of the BJP government in Maharashtra and an ally at the Centre is one more embarrassment which the media has been quick to pick up on. Condemnation however was universal, which is welcome.


What the media may well come to realise – and I am not holding my breath here – is that its first role has to be to question the governments in power. Every time it has not done this, whether in the past or now, it has failed. The current government, it has to be understood, is no different from any other, regardless of the size of its mandate. When he became prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who got the biggest mandate ever, soon realised that admiration can become criticism very quickly when large promises about changing the system vanish when the system hits back.


Some of that is happening now and the media would be wise to wake up.


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