The Pre-Election Year of Media Alignments & Realignments

23 Mar,2018

 

By Shailesh Kapoor

 

Unless I’m reading too much into too little, there’s definitely a subtle but significant shift developing in the news media today, across television, print and the Internet. That of a change in political stance. In summary, the shift from an unconditional, pro-BJP stance to a more balanced, issue-based stance is what I speak about here. Let’s delve deeper.

 

Media stance has always existed as an idea for ages. Media houses have been aligned to individual political parties, thus making them pro-government or anti-government at a certain point of time, depending on who’s in power. Then, some media houses were always anti-establishment in their stance, which meant that they were not affiliated to any political party, but played a role of being a harsh critic of the party in power, irrespective of the party’s hue and ideology. If a media house has to have any stance, it can be argued that an anti-establishment stance is a healthy stance to have.

 

Over the last four years, since the BJP came into power, we have seen media polarisation like never before. Channels, websites and newspapers aligned firmly as pro-BJP (70-80%) or anti-BJP (20-30%). The middle ground was vacated by virtually everyone. Some of the many who aligned to the ruling party at the Centre may have done it opportunistically. The word going around two-three years ago was that there was an atmosphere of fear being created in the media, whereby not aligning to the ruling party meant you could be given a tough time, which could mean anything from not getting the right interviews with senior leaders to being subject to regulatory hassles. This is hearsay, of course.

 

Irrespective of why it happened, the polarisation, with a predominant pro-BJP alignment, has been evident. Till a few weeks ago.

 

Since February or so, we see many unquestionably pro-BJP channels, websites and newspapers balancing their act. They have not become anti-BJP by any measure. The soft corner still exists. But it’s definitely not like earlier, when they will go out of the way to defend the indefensible. The shift may not seem evident to a casual consumer, but it’s quite apparent if you have been tracking the category over the last few years.

 

The easiest sign of the shift is that red herring debates like those on Pakistan have gone off primetime television. These debates used to be the standard distraction tool of many channels, especially English, to divert attention from governance issues, such as the farmers crisis, which has been on for a while now, but getting some attention from the media only this year. The Pakistan debates also whipped up a false sense of nationalism, which is again an agenda that suits BJP.

 

We see a lot more headlines and debates now on topics that the government is not necessarily at home with. Nirav Modi has been discussed in some detail, as has been the farmers crisis, and of late, the by-poll losses faced by BJP.

 

There could only be two reasons for this shift. One, it could be that the issues coming up are so compelling that even the most pro-BJP media house can neither ignore them or not support them. This would be true in some part, but there have been such issues in the past too (demonetisation’s impact on the economy being one such), and they were given the cold shoulder by the pro-BJP media houses.

 

The real reason, in all likelihood, is the second one. Till about 3-4 months ago, it seemed evident that BJP will be re-elected to power in 2019. But in a fairly short span of time, there seem to be at least three different reasons to believe that much as BJP is still the favourite, the momentum is definitely shifting. One, the bypoll losses across BJP strongholds have shown the chinks in BJP’s election armour. Two, several allies have withdrawn support over the last few months, leading the BJP as virtually a stand-alone party, than the pivot of a bigger group called the NDA. Three, there seems to be an active movement among the regional parties across states to set up some kind of an alternative front. This is still a nascent development, but in politics, one year is a long

 

Media houses, smart enough to sense all of this, are probably just playing safe and hedging their bets. It’s not the best sign of an independent media, for it’s a validation of a new scenario where the media finds aligning to the ones in power a legitimate thought. But it’s happening alright. Like the last four years.

 

2019 is getting closer. Be prepared for more alignments and re-alignments. Both on the political and the media fronts.

 

 

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