2019 saw Complete Polarisation of Indian Society

31 Dec,2019

 

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Cries of “Media go back” or “Godi Media go back” have faced members of our tribe who have arrived to cover the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protests across India. The media is often the brunt of anger and worse, during the course of its duties. Usually this anger comes from officials, authoritarian rulers, puppets of the state, political party functionaries or goons. Usually, when people protest against government atrocities, the media is seen as an ally. Someone to be relied on to help, spread the word, speak to power when power does not listen.

For members of the public to turn on the media in their hour of need is nothing but tragic. For some sections of the Indian media, this is the sad note on which 2019 has ended. With them being called “Godi”, or to translate the idiom, “sitting in the lap of those in power”, with a rhyming twist on the prime minister’s surname.

The end of 2019 is marked by the most complete polarisation of Indian society since the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, since the 2014 majority government of Modi and friends and the 2019 majority government of Modi and Shah. The Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register between the three of these efforts of the Modi-Shah government have spilt India. But what have they done for the media?

Funnily enough, and in spite of the “Godi media” or even “modia” chants by protestors, some sections of the media have been less supplicant to the powers that be than one might think. I was shocked to see that even Times Now, which usually competes with Republic TV, ANI and PIB as a government publicist, found itself compelled to correct the “spiritual” celebrity guru Sadhguru Vasudev on his “interpretations” of the CAA-NRC-NPR. This is so against the grain that many have shrugged it off without trying to analyse what just happened. I was doubly surprised because I was under the possibly false impression that Vasudev was the current patron “guru” of the Bennett Coleman group, having taken over from or ousted the earlier incumbent, Double Sri.

It is another matter that so many sections of the media found it perfectly normal for the Prime Minister of India to recommend via a tweet the cud-chewing ruminations of Vasudev and then call them “lucid”, when even Times Now found about six errors within the first five minutes. And indeed, that Vasudev starts by saying he has not read the actual acts or proposals.

But one cannot blame either Modi or Vasudev. Modi has gone largely unchallenged by most of the media since 2013. And even after the horrors of demonetisation and the subsequent collapse of the economy, of our various foreign affairs disasters, of the signal lack of governance in every sector, the media has remained compliant. Whatever little shoots of courage sprung up in the 2019 election campaign died out with the May 2019 return to power.

It is matter of shame and amusement that for some sections of the media, the various parties which lost the general election are still held responsible for the state of India today. I still haven’t understood whether this comes from extreme love or total hatred.

It is only between the Maharashtra elections and the students’ protests that we have seen signs of media courage.

However, I must make some distinctions here. Individual journalists across India have shown remarkable courage across platforms and owners. The worst slip-sliding sycophancy comes from the big names. They are unable to criticise without adding riders. And that is no longer a sign of “objectivity”; it is a sign of cowardice.

English language newspapers like The Telegraph, The Hindu, increasingly The Deccan Herald, the Deccan Chronicle, Asian Age, Business Standard to some extent, remain at the forefront of challenging those in power, this praise comes with caveats for all. Some allow more variety on their opinion pages like LiveMint. The Indian Express has become a sore disappointment. The Times of India? Well, it depends on which part of the country it is based in. Hindustan Times, hmm. The international media has been strident in its criticism. When it comes to news channels, it is still NDTV which is seen as the sole reliable, non-publicity mouthpiece of the Modi-Shah government. Some like CNN News18 or India Today TV have their moments of freedom from government PR, but they are few and far between. The rest are largely sucker-uppers. When they change, you know Olympus has fallen!

Websites like the Wire, Scroll, Quint, Catch, NewsMinute, and a whole bunch of local news sites from Kashmir to Kochi fill in where the mainstream media fails. And this remains the main media battleground, much as so many in print or TV refuse to accept it. All those who thought citizen journalism and blogs could bring them into the 21st century ought to have realised by now that there’s no substitute for fact-finding and groundwork. Which is why AltNews, Boom and all the other fact-checking websites remain the most trustworthy.

The last shout out has to be all the young and brave reporters, deskies, producers who follow, report, track and edit the first drafts of history being made, in spite of the tremendous pressures from their seniors, their owners, the public. These are the only hope as long as they stay this way and learn this simple lesson: Those glamorous fence-sitters? History will not remember them well.

On that note, Happy New Year and see you on the other side!

 

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

 

 

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