Role Of The Media In Election
Election season is golden times for the media. The journalists are in great demand. In fact, even before a Party decides its candidate, cars to fetch the political correspondents and invitations for a meal start pouring in. “I don’t get time to see even my children. They are asleep by the time I reach home,” lamented a political correspondent of a widely circulated newspaper which comes out both in English and Hindi.
His face glowed and I noticed a new LED TV in his drawing room. I realized my friend was being properly looked after. When I followed his reports, I could not, but notice that a particular many-times- millionaire was being projected. I know that, that the gentleman was selected but I left on a posting in London and I never learnt whether he won or not. I feel if he did my friend must have squeezed all that he could from the ’MP’. Such tactics are used more by regional language papers, for they have a larger circulation than English dailies and secondly, the correspondents of regional language publications fall easily for such allurements because they are in great demand only at election time.
The practise in democracies, like in the US and Britain, is just the opposite. From the moment, a particular person is chosen or about to be chosen, media persons start digging their past for some scandal. The chosen candidates, in fact, try to balance between meeting the media and avoiding them.
The best example is about Edward Kennedy, a scion of the royal family of Kennedys. The moment his nomination seemed certain, the Chippaquidik incident would be revisited. The respectable weekly Spectator carried an article which began like this; Mum, Mum, I want to be President of America. OK, son you can, but first go and clean your toes.
I had taken a copy of the Spectator when I went to see Alexander Cox, roving ambassador of President Jimmy Carter at White House in the American Embassy in New Delhi.
When I asked him, why the media raises the Chappaquiddick tragedy whenever Kennedy seeks Presidential nomination, Cox said they could not allow Kennedy to become President because of the errors in judgement and the nervousness following the accident. “Suppose he becomes President and there something like the Cuban Crisis happens and he presses the nuclear weapons button. We would have a full-fledged nuclear war.
“Our media never attacks any candidate if no national interest is involved.”
Back home some time, rather most of the time, it is the interest of the party they back, or a candidate that political correspondents go after for reasons one not put in words. Take for instance Jaswant Singh. He was denied nomination from Barmer which he wanted. He threatened he would resign from the BJP and contest as Independent, if he was not given ticket from Barmer.
The media went crazy. The story was carried on first pages of almost all papers for several days. Why should BJP allot the seat, if chances of winning were negligible? The rush to carry on the story was due to the fact that Modi would be blamed. Sushma who never lets an opportunity to hit at Modi, as expected, sided with Jaswant Singh. Her statement was highlighted. Her intervention, one is told, harmed BJP.
Such rifts within a party are not given prominence elsewhere. In the UK most papers follow their tradition. Daily Mirror has been a Labour supporter and Daily Mail equally avowed Tory paper. The reader expects stories on these lines. But if national interest is involved, all these papers sink their differences and report the dangers of national interest being adversely affected.
When in Britain, papers learnt that Robin Cook, the then Foreign Secretary, was having a clandestine affair with his secretary all of them including the Guardian and the Mirror, both pro-Labour, never ignore them because such affairs are considered danger to national security.
On the other hand in France when it was learnt that President Mitterrand had a girlfriend from whom he had a daughter and he looked after both of them, the President was hailed a national hero and the whole country developed a new respect for him. But, the Indian media has no interest in exposing affairs, which in a way a sensible thing to do. The only Tabloid in Germany BILD never publishes any leader’s private affairs, even if they are contesting in an Election. Its political Editor told me in Hamburg that they never as a rule look into “boudoirs” like “our cousins in Britain.”
In the only instance, an attempt was made by the Congress’s Dirty Tricks cell to accuse Modi of having an affair with a young lady, whom he was having tailed by the Gujarat police. A few papers and channels, friendly with the Congress, played it up. But as no one believed the canard, it all died down. Hopefully, such things would in future be ignored.
But the media must expose the candidates, who distribute cash or alcohol to the voters. The media must report it. Yet cases are known that some jurnos ignore it, if the candidate involved is a ”friend”.
The case of the journalists themselves become candidates, for instance, Ashutosh contesting as AAP candidate in Chandni Chowk in old Delhi or Pragati Mehta of RJD . A few others are also in the fray.
The fact is who watches the watchdog? This creates doubts about these journalists. If they had been toying with the idea to join politics by opting for some party, how impartial would they have been as journalists? They would tend to hide negative news about the party they are intending or negotiating to join. And highlight the negative news about a party which is a rival.
“Media folks are supposed to have their ears close to the ground where politics is concerned. Some of them claim to be such big “experts” that they predict events instantly. Bad politicians take at least two years to taint themselves in corruption or misdeeds; some careful ones take 20. But, in their quest to realise their own political agendas, some media crooks wanted instant gratification without the patience to watch and observe.” Wrote Ravinar.
“That’s what they did, when Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP got a good number of seats in the Delhi election. They declared him the messiah. They declared him the man who would be king. They declared him the crusader who would sweep away corruption.”
The latest technical innovations have changed the whole pattern of electioneering. Political parties and candidates tend to find the media, and in particular television, more and more important for campaigning and seek to appear as much as possible on the television. Television is widely regarded as the most important instrument for campaigning and communication to the voters in countries with widespread coverage and audience.
In recent electoral cycles, technology has become increasingly prevalent during the pre-electoral portion of the electoral cycle. These include the use of texting/SMS through widespread cell phone use even in rural areas, smart phone use predominantly in urban areas, and either private or internet café-based on-line platform access (such as FaceBook, Twitter).
The media has a role to inform the citizens about the competing political parties and their programmes and candidates, and to contribute to the formation of opinion of the electorate. This may include formal voter education material provided by the electoral management body; alternatively or additionally, the media themselves may produce their own voter education materials. But in India no such thing is done by any publication.
The overall aim of media coverage during election campaigns in democracies is to be fair and objective reporting and information dissemination. This can, for instance, be achieved through measures such as a just allocation of broadcasting time between all the competing parties and candidates, (voluntary) agreements on fair news programmes, reports, and non-news programmes, or debates between party leaders. It is crucial in the first instance to ensure that, every party and/or independent candidate has access to the media, in particular radio and / or television, since most voters gain their knowledge about politics via the media. That means that a broadcaster is not entitled to influence the public opinion by different treatment of one or another candidate or party. But still, it is often the broadcaster who decides who is the gaining access to the debates and discussion programmes. No rules have been framed here, but in recent times many channels have tried to frame some kind of schedule.
In Germany, the radio time for each party is determined by the number of seats they hold in legislatures. Thus media is not manipulated like it is done by ruling party in India. Manipulation can take place during the designing of the programmes, reports and news, discussion programmes, and even non-news programmes, such as pure entertainment shows and movies. AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal, a product of the media, was seen in a video so friendly with a correspondent, that he was discussing how to present some news about him and what to highlight and what to underplay.
Propaganda may be disseminated under the guise of objective public information by the government. The danger of misuse of government power for campaigning purposes, can be limited, if laws and regulations are in place to regulate the role of the media in the elections campaign. This is why no one sees Doordarshan. And the Congress party gets away with lots of violations. Some political parties work hard to co-opt journalists who are against them. The idea is to keep enemy in one’s fold. Almost all parties are doing this. The journalism thus gets compromised.
In Germany papers openly support one party or the other. When I asked the political editor of a major newspaper, how do they ensure the ideology of a new comer is identical, he said we ask frankly. If he is not too much bound by an opposite ideology we would let him join.
But in India, every journalist is presumed to be impartial. Although, viewers can gauge what side say an Arnab Goswami is tilting by the way he interrupts or cuts off a panellist. Whatever be the reason, NDTV is supposed to be supporter of the Congress. This kind of impression is considered to be a black mark.
During the election, reports however merely inform whether the polling was peaceful and how may turned up to vote. A survey is not allowed until the last polling is not over. These surveys are often off the mark, basically because the number of voters is huge and most do not give the name of the person they voted for.
In contrast, such surveys after the polling are correct up to 95 per cent in foreign countries, I was in Berlin covering the election for Chancellorship between Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schroeder and after learning that the polling would close at 6pm, I called my office and told them that I would send around 350 words on how the poling was. The difference in time was three and a half hour (India ahead).
But about 8pm, some officials came to ask us to go along with them to hear Chancellor Schroeder at the Town Hall. I was taken aback. I called my office in Delhi to tell them that I would send between 500 to 700 words as Kohl was defeated after 16 years.
The night editor said, “Are you drunk on dry white wine. Polling closed at 6pm and Schroeder declared the winner by 7.30pm.”
“Yes” I said “But don’t ask me how the outcome was known in such a short time. I would find out.”
I asked the officials and they told me that the survey people keep their agents at every polling booth and they ask those who come out after voting. That is how calculation is done. I learnt that no voter lies so there is no chance of going wrong. Since in India no one tells whom they have voted for, surveys are quite often wrong. The surveys predicted victory of Atal Bihar Vajpayee in 2004, but he lost.
Another issue troubling here is about hate speeches and defamation. Like accusing Modi of being involved with Mukesh Ambani in the fixing of gas prices was certainly libellous. Whether there is to be a right of reply to factual misrepresentation in the media?
The libel laws are very clear. Many BJP legislators and that of other parties exchange near libellous words. Sonia Gandhi called Modi maut ka saudagar. It titillated our media. They played it up without worrying about libel laws. No paper would dare publish this sort of utterances in any other country, for the fear of defamation.
Another problem is about hate speeches like that of Akbaruddin Owaisi, leader of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM). How much can media report such divisive speeches especially during elections? As it is during elections tensions are high and there is a tendency of being violent. Publications have to be extra careful. There are no policies on “hate speech” and defamation.
On the whole, in a democracy the media has to play multi-functions. It can help ensure that the candidates have a clean background and the government does not play foul. After all this is why it is called the Fourth Pillar of Democracy!
By Vijay Dutt