Ranjona Banerji: Highs & Lows of 2020

31 Dec,2020

By Ranjona Banerji


What do you want me to say?

That 2021 will be any better than 2020? That the Indian media will magically transform itself into an effective constitutional mechanism as it used to be, more or less, before 2013?

That Indian readers and viewers will find a free and easy flow of verified information at their fingertips? That readers and viewers will not be lied to and manipulated to suit vested interests? That marginalised groups will find a sympathetic, intelligent media ready to showcase inequalities and injustices to the world?

Dream on. 2020 began with massive citizen protests against the Modi Government’s so-called “citizenship” laws and registers, which were nothing but more ways in which to make India into a Hindu supremacist state. Where were the media’s commentariat then? Weeping for burnt buses so that they could appear objective and look at “both sides”. Or, to put it bluntly, the media was looking at ways in which to give the Modi Government an out, by pointing fingers at a movement full of vandals rather than people protesting for their rights.

Where was the bulk of the Indian media when the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was trifurcated, disenfranchised, shut down, its communication lines snapped, and its politicians arrested? Cowering with terror, that’s where. In case the Modi government noticed any criticism of its terrible actions. Local journalists were arrested and harangued, and the international media was banned. A few brave journalists, many international, managed to get through the blockades to tell us stories of fear and misery. But the omerta was upheld for the most part by the Indian media.

What happened with the pandemic? TV anchors fell over themselves with joy with every nonsensical idea the Prime Minister came up with or stole from some other nation, whether it was banging pots and pans or throwing petals about. The lockdown was severe and unplanned. Health infrastructure has still not been augmented. Cases kept rising. Deaths were hidden. Official communication was fudged.

The walking migrants? How did we do with that? Bar a few exceptions, the bulk of the media followed the government line: there were no migrants walking home in the height of summer. For every photograph of wilting children and feet which has lost their skin, there were even more of the PM’s dedicated yes men and women pushing the government’s story that everything was being done.

And so we somehow got through the year. The economy is in shreds. Business collapsed. Jobs down. People in distress. Despair all around. When it came to “stimulus packages” these were so absurd and almost all debt-oriented, that even our capitalist business papers had to push themselves to some mild criticism.

The media coverage of the death of Sushant Singh Rajput was one our lowest points in a year of lows. Notice how everyone now pretends it never happened.

The Indian media perfected the art of shooting from someone else’s shoulder: the opposition said, X person said, one lone industrialist said and thus. For the most part however whatever anyone said that was anti-government was prefaced with: How dare X and Y say this and that. The same “every critic is an anti-national” tune that we’ve heard since May 2014.

And the farmers protests. We’ve seen what’s happening here. A lily-livered gutless mainstream media shamed by independent journalists, outlets and the farmers themselves. Our crowning glory in an inglorious year.

Many of us wept because of the strong way in which the American media stood up to President Donald Trump and dealt with his lies and false accusations as he lost the US presidential elections. What use?

And when it came to our own? Grudgingly did many of our most venerable associations stand up for those attacked by governments for just doing their jobs. There has been silence as more and more news organisations shut down and pared back in the middle of a pandemic where there are no jobs and almost no new opportunities. Media managements have displayed their short-sighted lack of imagination in dealing with short-term problems. No contingency plans or ideas for the future. Just huddle back in the well.

If I have one prediction for the future, if not for 2021, it is that this cowardice, either in journalism or in journalism management, it cannot last. Money will be lost and so will names.

In the end, thanks to those many journalists, who have done their jobs, in spite of all the odds. Those who have managed to squeak past their bosses, slip away from the general trend and produce some good work.

My hopes for 2021?

That many of these big-name TV people realise their potential is being wasted and start publicity companies.

That Television itself wakes up to a modicum of journalism as it could be practised.

That despite this government’s effort to control us, digital and independent media find a method of commercial success which leads to good journalism.

That Rahul Kanwal unblocks me so that my entertainment on Twitter continues.

Happy New Year!! See you on the other side.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her column appears every Tuesday and Friday, and sometimes on other days as well. Her views here are personal

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