Controlling An Already Tamed Media
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping took over the reins of the US, the UK and China respectively. All three believed in the maxim that the creation of wealth was the supreme objective of humankind. In Deng’s immortal words, “To get rich is glorious.” From that time onwards, assisting in the accumulation of private wealth became the primary focus of government, with the poor having to make do as best as they could. Income inequality grew sharply in all three countries, and indeed in the rest of the world. Speculation replaced productive economic activity, and asset-stripping rather than asset creation became the norm.
Till that time, an individual was respected for qualities intrinsic to himself or herself, but once Reaganism, Thatcherism and Deng Thought fused into a global ideology, all that mattered was a bank account. Even at hotel counters, the warmth of the welcome got tailored to the size of the room. In the UK for example, popular culture changed almost as much as it did in China, creating in the process a class of High Spenders, the most egregious example of which is in Russia, where a few have so much while the rest subsist on the margins.
Till that time, what counted in the running of a media empire was the effect that one had on social progress. The more idealistic a publication, the more the owner was honoured. In the UK, an example was Roy Thompson, who allowed the media outlets owned by him to remain free of managerial control over editorial content. Even if major advertisers were rebuked in newspaper columns, and complained to Thompson, he was silent. But he had finally to make way for a new type of owner, one who counted everything in terms of the profit ratio, a breed exemplified by Rupert Murdoch, whose only goal was to make money, and lots of it. Murdoch became the new media icon, feared by politicians across the world and fawned upon by them, including in India. His example got followed by local media tycoons, who began using government contacts to grab prize bits of public land for themselves, or to partake of other official favours. Such media barons fought each other for invitations to the homes of the powerful, promising VVIPs so that their interests could be looked after.
They ensured that their editors functioned as PROs, doing the bidding of ministers and high officials so that the media proprietor could continue to enjoy official backing. In the process, those few within the upper reaches of the journalistic fraternity who sought to expose high-level misfeasance soon found themselves out of a job. The era of the Fixer-Editor dawned, to the delight of newspaper owners whose only interest was in increasing their personal wealth.
In 2002, this columnist was told by eminent medical personnel that the then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee was unwell to such a degree that he was unable to function effectively in his demanding office. Those meeting him reported a loss of concentration, as well as bouts of inactivity. Medication piled up, to a degree that made it desirable for the 78-year old to finally retire and enjoy the companionship of his loved ones. Those close to Vajpayee were aware of his condition, yet all pretended otherwise. They did not want to see their influence disappear, as it would have, were the Prime Minister to retire. The media remained silent about his condition, even though several at the apex of the profession knew otherwise. The only politicians that the Indian media tear into are those who are known never to fight back, such as 1992-96 Prime Minister Narasimha Rao or present PM Manmohan Singh.
The media know that Dr Singh will never ask for an income-tax raid against the owners of a newspaper, even one that incessantly and unjustly abuses him. In contrast, others with powerful posts are known to be vindictive, and are hence left alone. Only lesser fry are targeted, or those who can be expected to not fight back in an effective manner.
However, even this mild show of “independence” is proving to be too much for the unquestioned supremo of the United Progressive Alliance government, Chairperson Sonia Gandhi. The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting is headed by Ambika Soni, who is one of the most devout admirers of Sonia Gandhi. Indeed, the graceful minister has been a loyalist of the Nehru family for more than forty years, transferring her fealty from Sanjay Gandhi (younger son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi) in the 1970s to Rajiv Gandhi (the elder son) in the 1980s and to Rajiv’s widow Sonia subsequently.
While Ambika Soni herself is known to be liberal and progressive, as a loyalist, she has to put aside her own predilections and do what the supremo wants, which is to bring the media to heel, so that even infrequent criticism of the dominant Nehru family gets silenced. Even in the 1980s, an attempt was made to impose leg an shackles on the press, through getting legislation passed that was drafted by P Chidambaram, then a junior minister but now Union Home Minister. Fortunately for the media, so steep was Rajiv Gandhi’s political decline from 1987 onwards that Chidambaram was unable to impose the harsh legal restraints on the press that he sought.
Now that the internet has become so important in the creation of public opinion, the UPA has got passed legislation that is dictatorial in its scope, and which can punish almost any internet user with long periods of imprisonment even for opening spam. So vague are the offences listed (such as “disaffection to foreign governments” or “injurious to public interest”) that wide swathes of commentary can be used as the pretext for harassment. While the government has been ultra-active in seeking to sanitise the internet of content that it sees as harmful (mostly relating to criticism of the suremo), and in blocking sites, overall fear of adverse public reaction has thus far prevented the full rigour of the internet laws from being imposed. Of course, not that the new laws were needed.
The British colonial laws so carefully preserved by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors give a battery of excuses that enable government to act against the citizen. Now, however, the I&B Ministry is in the process of darting new laws that would place even greater curbs on freedom of expression, an endangered activity in present-day India, where First Information Reports (FIRs) are routinely issued against those who express views unpalatable to any influential group, FIRs that soon get followed by Warrants of Arrest, after which the critic is at the mercy of the judicial system. Once an individual gets into that particular maze, he or she is likely to remain enmeshed in its coils for decades, usually at great cost. Going through a judicial proceeding is like undergoing a chronic medical condition, only more expensive.
Although Ambika Soni is aware that such actions harm her reputation for modernity, she has been made by those higher-up within the Congress Party to send a stream of Show Cause notices, especially to television channels. Almost all of these are unjustifiable in a genuine democracy, especially in the 21st century. Many are ludicrous, such as protesting against a programme that showed women at a beach, in beachwear. Soon, You Tube will be banned, for showing such scenes. Several notices have been sent in response to television shows that show politicians in less than a flattering light, especially those involving the Home Minister.
There is, of course, no danger of the Indian media ever showing the UPA supremo in a critical light. Such else majesty would be unthinkable. The ministry has even protested against content that won several international awards, on grounds that they depicted activities that it regards as heinous. No, not murder or mayhem, but hugging and kissing. Recently, the ministry warned against a show where a nurse was shown as being less than perfect. The reason? Such a portrayal “hurts the sentiments of the entire nursing fraternity”. Clearly, the only shows that would be permissible will be those that show creatures from outer space, as any depiction of human beings can be considered objectionable to some. Sadly, when the world has moved into the 21st century, India is sought to be pushed back to the 19th.
By MD Nalapat