Ranjona Banerji: Wanted: Some brave souls in the media

07 Aug,2018

By Ranjona Banerji

 

“On July 14, 2018, the proprietor-cum-editor-in-chief of the national news channel ABP, owned by the Ananda Bazaar Patrika Group, had a conversation with me along these lines:

“Proprietor: “Can you refrain from mentioning the name of Prime Minister Modi [in your programme]? Mention the names of his ministers by all means; point out anything amiss in a government policy if you want to, even name the minister of the concerned ministry. Just don’t refer to Prime Minister Modi anywhere.”

“I replied: But when Prime Minister Modi himself announces every government scheme, involves himself in the work of every ministry; and when every minister utters the name of Prime Minister Modi every time s/he mentions any scheme or government policy, how is it possible for us to not take Modi’s name?

“Proprietor: I say, stop insisting. See for a few days how it plays out. As a matter of fact you are doing the right thing. But leave it be for the time being.”

 

These are the opening lines of an article written by TV journalist and well-known TV anchor, Punya Prasun Bajpai, for The Wire about why he quit ABP News. It puts in perspective the enormous pressures which the Narendra Modi-led government has put on media house owners in India. Across the media, one hears the same story again and again. Do not criticise Modi, do not say anything against him, do not use his name.

It also exposes to the world just how “brave” our media owners are when it comes to pressure from the government. It’s not that we do not know it. It’s not that it hasn’t happened before. But we do need to examine this every time it happens. Some media owners will go by the “choose your battles” theory. Others will run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Some will succumb immediately. Some will look at market pressures. (Bajpai contends that Patanjali ads were stopped from his show Masterstroke, which reappeared as soon as he quit.)

Journalists are often either honoured as the upholders of truth or democracy or reviled as those who sold democracy down the river. But journalists are only one part of the giant wheel that is “the media”. And publishers (not that there are many publishers in the old sense left) and owners are also integral parts of that famous Fourth Pillar of Democracy.

India has very few media owners who openly declare their political affiliations. Most will walk the middle line and veer this way or that depending on who or what is in power at the time. But more than ever, these media owners are behaving in craven or brazen ways. And regardless of The Emergency and what happened then (I was in school then, so spare me the manufactured hysterics), in my over 30 years in journalism, things have not been as bad before as they are now.

In Gujarat in 2002, The Times of India where I worked at the time, withstood all the pressures put on our owners by the BJP governments at the Centre and the state. Within the organisation, it was the circulation department which stood stronger with editorial than the advertising/marketing department. But overall, we were supported as we reported on the riots and the role and subsequent actions of the Modi government.

As the UPA started crumbling in its second term, there was pressure on media houses, including the usual threat/tactic of stopping DAVP ads, but who gave in to that? The writing appeared to be on the wall for that government. Indeed, when I was in DNA my biggest failure as city editor was being unable to push through an excellent expose on a housing fiddle by Mumbai’s top police officers because one of the owners was close to one of the cops. Ultimately Times of India carried the same story with presumably no ill-effects on the organisation. “Choose your battles” was the argument used then, as I recall.

The fights within newsrooms are obviously not seen by the general public. But they are real and perhaps they are a necessity. But when media house after media house (and there are any number of examples) succumbs to the pressure of the Modi government, then the media is in crisis. And we are in crisis now.

It also shows the extent to which the media is being bullied when the very argument being used by media owners and the government is “criticise the government and other ministers but not Modi” in fact exposes the weakness within this administration. When top Union ministers are trotted out like two-bit TV spokespersons to protect the prime minister from every joke, any journalist would sense the desperation within the BJP and its government.

The time now is for more courage, not less. The dividends will come later.

 

https://thewire.in/media/punya-prasun-bajpai-abp-news-narendra-modi

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal

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