Ranjona Banerji: Is there a fear of the knock?

03 Jan,2020

By Ranjona Banerji

 

The New Year, which is let’s face it just a calendar change, hasn’t really changed that much as far as news output and intake is concerned. If anyone hoped that the Indian media had woken up from a long Modi-induced slumber, they would be sorely disappointed by now. Although the protests by India’s young have continued into early January and all kinds of odd noises have appeared from political and government sources, it’s business as usual as far as Indian journalists are concerned.

I say “business” but of course the Indian economy remains in the same dump it was wallowing in on December 31, 2019. Of course, the Modi government tried to come up with some new figures about how GST intake was up, and life was about to get hunky-dory but, well, apart from their diehard publicity agents no one really believed all that.

The media response though is to print, upload, broadcast, telecast these government claims with no questions attached and then later get someone else to ask the questions. This reduces their own burden to present the reality to their consumers but lets them off the hook in case of some government midnight knock.

Is this fear of the knock real? Definitely, when your media owner has a basket of interests and needs government help for some business or the other. Only very few owners have the courage to stand up to prime ministers, let alone some local municipal commissioner or even an assistant commissioner of police. That leaves the onus on editors and newsroom seniors who have their jobs, home loans and children’s education to consider. The result is more or less zilch, with a few exceptions at different times.

How far can I predict into the immediate future? From the look of things now, the bulk of the mainstream media will now start focusing on non-BJP run states and run them through the scanner. This will serve a journalistic purpose of “objectivity” and also give the BJP at the centre some breathing space.

Why am I going on about the BJP and why do I sound sceptical of this “objectivity”? It is very simple. The first responsibility of the media is to inform the public about what is going on and interpret these happenings. And when it comes to the two Narendra Modi-led governments at the Centre, a large bulk of the media has singularly failed in journalism’s prime objective.

Let’s just take two examples. First, the massive collapse of the Indian economy. Even if an objective media was justified in blaming the last years of the Congress-led UPA 2, the spectacular downfall of the Indian economy since Modi’s ill-judged disastrous demonetisation in 2016 and the subsequent inefficient rollout of GST, is all on the current government. The changes in economic advisers, in RBI heads, the lack of ideas and the inability to implement policies has brought us to several consecutive disasters. Job losses, industry shutdowns, bank collapses, farmers in distress, manufacturing slowdowns, dwindling consumer sentiment… the government response to all this has been to discredit its own data or change the data to try and manipulate the results.

In any other world, for any other government, the media would have been relentless. The human cost of such disastrous incompetence in itself makes for impactful media stories, if you want to look at it in only through cynical media eyes. The fact that most of the coverage of these non-stop economic disasters has been in the business sections of newspapers and on a few prime time debates demonstrates how lax the media has been or how far it has capitulated.

The second example is of the media coverage of the manner in which the Modi government pushed through of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the protests which have followed. Every other media house which has been forced to cover these protests has tried to blame students, let the police off the hook, equate state-sponsored murder of at least 20 people, most in UP and other BJP-ruled states with the burning of a bus, and given almost as much space to government-sponsored rallies.

When India was burning, slowly with the economy, or openly with these protests, try and remember how many media personalities and media houses celebrated the electoral street smarts of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, and how many concentrated on ground realities.

Just to break this disastrous mood, here’s the HuffPost on police atrocities, which in any other country would have been constant front page news:

https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/caa-uttar-pradesh-police-tortured-children_in_5e0207b5e4b05b08babab722

 

And the screenshot from Deccan Herald, with a little mockery of our celebrated Prime Minister.

 

**

However, do not lose hope as a journalist. This amusing, cynical piece tells you why!

 

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/02/journalism-power-media-gawker-hamilton-nolan

 

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

 

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