Those in charge of publicity policies hardly realise that by attacking critics they are instigating an equally vitriolic counter-narrative
The criticism of the present turmoil in the Indian media, particularly television, comes with the rebuttal of the critic being a Libtard. The next volley is about the media being sympathetic to the earlier regime too and why then no questions were asked for such sympathies. There is no denying the fact that many present-day vociferous flag-bearers, protesting the slant being brazenly projected in the media, were themselves guilty of enjoying undue access and patronage, blighting the line between honest journalism and patronised pen-pushing.
Having said this, the aforementioned premise cannot be justified as the only factor for acrimony and rancour, which has come to define the state of Indian television. It has more to do with the market and the revenue models. This writer worked with The Pioneer at a time and in an era when it was seen as the only major Right of the Centre English daily. But to the credit of the editorial leadership of the newspaper, despite the slant, it never discouraged contrary opinion and gave prominent space to it.
More importantly, it held the ideological position, paying a commercial price as many Government agencies and departments worked overtime to demolish the revenue model of the newspaper. It indeed was a challenging task to be the paper of the Opposition and also being the paper of the Right of the Centre thought.
The same cannot be said about the present-day votaries of the Right of the Centre ideology. It’s more a case of being on the right side of the Government. Being honest to an ideology demands a price, which these present-day pretenders did not pay then, nor are they paying now, as on both the occasions they were on the right side of the Government.
Then there is another issue. Does being supportive of a political thought make a media house mortgage its right to question a Government of the same ideology? During the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, there was this instance of a border skirmish with Bangladesh in which a Border Security Force officer was killed. His corpse was returned in a most undignified manner. The images made one shudder and at the same time angry even as the Government talked of peace.
The front-page editorial in The Pioneer said, “Bend, don’t genuflect.” Now this was a startling criticism coming from the newspaper known for its ideological proximity to the Government of the day. This must have needed much courage on the part of the editor, and a real large heart on the part of the Government to take the criticism in the right spirit.
The current news trend followed by the media houses, of the Government never going wrong, should make the powers that be worry. This worry should be on two counts: First, the loss of credibility of these media houses and anchors known to be sympathetic to the Government. Second, by giving no space to the Opposition, the mainstream media has pushed it into a situation where it has launched its own agitprop vehicles, expressing distrust in the media houses, calling them vehicles of Government propaganda.
Those in charge of the publicity policies of the Government, by unleashing a vendetta towards critics, realise little that they are instigating an equally vitriolic counter-narrative. With social media and technological advancements completely democratising the media space, a Government’s image cannot be lynchpinned on mere whataboutery of prime-time anchors.
We live in times where troll armies are ever-ready to provide their services at mud-slinging. It’s just the question of who is hiring them. While it has taken more than half-a-century to create memes of Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being subjected to this obnoxious criticism in his lifetime. Nehru and several Prime Ministers after him were lucky that they were subjected to such criticism by erudite scholar-cartoonists like RK Laxman. They were at the same time fortunate that the space of social media did not exist then, which could have dragged them into the muck.
Today counter-narratives on Government claims make it to various social media platforms within moments of being released in the public domain. Dependence on fake and misrepresented facts has come to create an atmosphere of distrust, where ready acceptance of a news, howsoever true, is not easy.
This situation has given rise to such an atmosphere that reason is the biggest casualty. When fake information becomes a marketable commodity, there would not be very many clients for evidence-based, well-reasoned information. Let’s take the case of the “infodemic”, a term coined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the surge of information regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. The contagion in fact has hit the media hardest both in matters of finances and credibility. The failure of journalists, both television and newspaper, to go beyond the Government’s briefings on the pandemic and its opinionated criticism has left the consumers of news absolutely chary. Nobody has a clear picture on where the virus is steering the world.
If there is distrust for a product, there obviously would not be a market for it. The market searches for such products which can be easily consumed. So here is a case of a market looking for news products. In fact, the present situation reminds one of Italian dramatist, novelist, poet and short story writer Luigi Pirandello’s early 20th century play titled, Six Characters in Search of an Author. The initial reception to the play from the audience was it being incomprehensible. It was only after Pirandello added a foreword to the play a few years later that it came to be better appreciated. The connoisseurs of news are today eagerly waiting for the foreword to the current incommensurable media scenario.
(The writer is professor-chairperson, Vivekananda School of Journalism and Mass Communication, VIPS, GGSIPU, Delhi)