Ranjona Banerji: Media has turned into Party Propagandists

07 Aug,2020

By Ranjona Banerji

 

It’s tempting to be dramatic. And mark August 5, 2020 as the day television journalism in India well and truly died. But the sad fact is that there have already been many such days and undoubtedly, more to come.

So, what did happen on August 5? Let’s put it this way: August 5, 2020 is the day all television channels in India decided that India was now no longer a democratic republic with a Constitution but a majoritarian theocratic state.

Hard to decide now which is worse.

The Prime Minister of India went off on August 5 to attend a bricklaying ceremony for a temple.

This would have been bad enough if it was any temple. Of course, this temple has been at the centre of death, violence, destruction, criminal acts and social unrest. Therefore, this is not just any temple. It is a temple which will lie, when built on the fracture lines of Indian society, on the remains of a mosque and on the vestiges of Indian democracy.

Secularism may be a dirty word to Indians who owe allegiance to the Sangh Parivar and the Bharatiya Janata Party. But India is as yet not a theocratic state nor like the United Kingdom does it have a monarch who is head of a church. The allegiance of all elected representatives is to the Constitution of India.

Therefore, when a Prime Minister’s visit to a temple is treated by Indian television as equivalent to the Queen of England opening Parliament, then you know how Indian television journalism is no longer worthy even of being compared to the gutter press. Imagine, a politician fulfils a manifesto promise that is based on religious division, visits that site of division not as a party member but as prime minister of a democracy. How much and what sort of media coverage would that have received under any other administration?

Newspapers sadly did not feature much better as far as their front pages went. However, given the different natures of the mediums, newspapers could not fill up every page of their publications with luridly coloured calendar paintings of  the proposed Ram temple, Lord Ram himself and Narendra Modi in a crown. Some meagre space had to be left for other news.

You know, a raging global pandemic with India fast reaching the top when it comes to numbers of people infected. A collapsed economy. Enormous rain damage. August 5 is also the anniversary of the day Jammu & Kashmir was disenfranchised and its inhabitants put under a severe lockdown. The Ministry of Defence website put up a document admitting that there had been incursions by China into Ladakh which was then mysteriously removed from the website. For context, Modi had claimed that there were no incursions across the LAC. There are also severe problems with the judiciary. It’s not that India is short of news. I have listed only a small number of ongoing and recurring events.

But as we are high on hero worship, it makes it easy for us to ignore news. Imagine any other prime minister, any other democratic country where the mainstream media concentrates with joy and fervour on a bricklaying ceremony for a temple whose history has ripped India’s social fabric apart. When, at that time, it is made starkly clear, by a government department no less, that the same prime minister lied to citizens about a foreign nation crossing a line of control and brutally killing soldiers. And then that document disappears.

Any other media anywhere else would have called for the resignation of the government. But not here. Here the media has turned into party propagandists, covered in majoritarian religious fervour.

It’s not that we haven’t seen such capitulation before. Through LK Advani’s whole Rath Yatra movement, through the lead up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, through the riots that followed, sections of the Indian media displayed their loyalties to Hindutva and not to the Constitution which gives the media its power. Yet even then, there was a sense of reality. That has now been lost. Recovery right now is more optimistic when it comes to Covid-19 than the media’s return to journalism.

**

Meanwhile, media houses are hacking away at jobs mercilessly which means that we can look forward to even less journalism. This quote from American humourist Dave Barry, albeit old, is still perfect for what constitutes journalism in times of manager control.

“The typical newspaper staff has been reduced to one editor, one managing editor, 14 assistant managing editors, 39 deputy assistant managing editors, and one reporter. The editors spend their days holding meetings to think of new ways to cut costs, while the reporter (who, for budgetary reasons, is not allowed to leave the building) looks out the window, in case news occurs in the parking lot” – Dave Barry

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

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