Ranjona Banerji: Criticise and be damned!

21 Feb,2017

By Ranjona Banerji


Carl Bernstein, one of the world’s most admired journalists, thinks that US President Donald Trump is dangerous to democracy and needs to be taken seriously. One cannot but help continue to compare most of the American media’s response to Trump’s lies, threats and controversial actions with the Indian media’s response to our own politicians. Again and again, the essence of our democracy lies exposed. Not in its functioning but in our understanding of it.


Yes, there are toadies in the extended American media, which is not completely peopled by journalists, who feel that Trump should be respected by dint of being President but not by his words or actions. In India, that is the position of the mainstream media, especially television, when it comes to politicians in power. If you criticise a leader in India, it could be blasphemy, it could be lack of respect for the people’s wishes, it could be lack of respect for the chair or any other such absurd allegation.


We are also, as Indian journalists, supposed to ignore comments made by politicians, who are elected and hold public office, during election campaigns. Apparently, anything you say during an election campaign is fine, regardless of whether it is outright lies, socially divisive, indecent or idiotic. When a Prime Minister becomes an election campaigner he is, by this twisted logic, no longer a Prime Minister.


That some people in the media actually buy into this complete nonsense is even more shameful, especially in comparison with what is happening with the US media and Trump. Luckily in India, print and web journalists largely conform to the rules of journalism and do not consider these excuses valid. Unfortunately, comment pieces are the last read when it comes to any news outlet. And there is an additional divide in India – apart from the many we already have – between those who read “thought pieces” and those who believe the blabber they hear on television.


And again, there is the desperate search by a pro-Modi media for equivalence, on the pretext of being “objective”. So UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav’s comment to film star Amitabh Bachchan that he should not advertise for the “donkeys of Gujarat” is apparently the same as the Prime Minister of India stating that in UP, Muslims get more electricity for RamzanEid than Hindus get for Diwali.


Yadav’s remark is a dig, no question about that. You can decide on whether it is funny or in bad taste. But Modi’s statement (which is uncorroborated) is a direct divisive attack — it is the Prime Minister of India using a sectarian argument to get votes. He has done it several times as Chief Minister of Gujarat and done well by it within his constituency.


But the problem remains the attitude of the media. Bernstein’s observations on Trump could well hold true about Modi. We still have no clarity on the “benefits” of demonetisation and Modi’s rather incredible remarks that he needs “protection” from the people because of his glorious demonetisation efforts have gone largely unremarked in the media.


It remains heartening of course that our most patriotic English news channels – namely Times Now, India Today and NewsX – continue to make their quick sidestep to Pakistan when they want to pretend that Modi is perfect. Right now, they are all defending Pakistani-Canadian commentator Tarek Fatah’s right to freedom of expression.


Good on them, eh? I just wish they would display some larger understanding of their own right to freedom of expression.


Last notes:

The Hindu’s latest refurbishment looks impressive but needs further observation before comment. And with Sanjiv Goenka apparently buying the ABP Group, one hopes that its iconic publications will not lose their journalistic edge, even as they have discarded their staff.


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