Monday, 20 January 2020

Distancing Media Is Safe For Modi

Updated: June 5, 2015 8:42 pm

Modi keeping a safe distance from the media is more visible in his overseas trips. For long such occasions were preceded or accompanied by media visits both to familiarise with the hosts and to create a media buzz back home. These are either funded by host countries or ‘facilitated’ by the Indian government. That was how achievements of the Indian visitors were publicised back home. Many leaders used such means to cultivate a media-friendly face. As a result, importance of a visit came to be judged not by the hosts or expertise but through sponsored jaunts

One prominent and notable ‘victim’ of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first year in office is the fourth estate. His decision of not appointing a fulltime media adviser disappointed some. His only exchange last October did not go beyond personal interactions and scores of journalists were satisfied with selfies with Modi rather than complain about not being allowed to ask tough questions. Until his recent transfer, spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affair Syed Akbaruddin silenced many critics of the government with his round-the-clock engagement with the media. Thus, the Prime Minister survived the year without even trying to befriend the media or bridge the distance.

Modi keeping a safe distance from the media is more visible in his overseas trips. For long such occasions were preceded or accompanied by media visits both to familiarise with the hosts and to create a media buzz back home. These are either funded by host countries or ‘facilitated’ by the Indian government. That was how ‘achievements’ of the Indian visitors were publicised back home. Many leaders used such means to cultivate a media-friendly face. As a result, importance of a visit came to be judged not by the hosts or expertise but through sponsored jaunts.

Moreover, the Indian media is an interesting specimen. Many are owned by corporate houses but thrive on the patronage of the state and by extension, the party in power. Just like its proximity with business houses, media’s reliance on the government is dangerous to democracy. Unlike corporate houses, the party in power has more instruments and resources at its disposal. Though the idea and hence controversy is recent, paid news has been in the vogue for long. State-sponsored advertisements are the principle mode of this influence peddling. Carrying special supplements on the ‘achievements’ of the governments, both central and state, is an effective way through which media cozies up to the ruling party. This has been more widespread in the states even though various central governments are not averse to such practices. Commemorating the anniversaries of ruling party icons, mostly past but also present ones in case of regional parties, has been the norm. Such media blitz is financially rewarding and some papers thrive only all on such largess from the state.

This nexus is not one sided. When it comes to patronage, media has no ideological pretentions and even those backed, funded or run by various political parties routinely carry corporate advertisements. It is not uncommon to find multinational advertisements in papers that are ideologically opposed to corporate culture. As they say, what’s the colour of money?

Since assuming office, Modi has ended this media-friendly practice. His decision of not taking a jamboree of journalists to his frequent foreign trips stunned many and saddened some. By relying exclusively on the state broadcasters, he has communicated a subtle message: fourth estate should foot its own bills. Media autonomy and accountability cannot be maintained if it were to rely on state patronage. Some got the message but some settled for the least resistant and cheap option. Rather than funding journalists to cover Prime Minister’s foreign visits, many TV stations have settle for noisy talk shows against the backdrop of Doordarshan newsfeeds.

Modi’s ability to distance himself from the established media is also a by-product of modern technology. He is the most technology savvy leader the country has ever seen. Coming from obscure background and with limited formal education, he has stormed, some might say taken over, the bastion hitherto dominated by the elite and the haves. Many pundits continue to make fun over his penchant for selfies but none could match his skills and timing. Through his hyper-active social media networks and Mann Ki Baat the Prime Minister is directly connecting with the people. With the help of technology, he is breaking barriers not only with the Indian masses but also with world leaders and people. He is still uncomfortable in expressing himself in English but has been connecting with his foreign audience through his well-timed selfies and greetings in local languages. These are something the Indian media was never able to accomplish. At best, they were merely reporting the engagements for the home audience and did not bother much about the host population.

Dictatorial, authoritarian and intolerant to criticisms- these are some of the choicest adjectives thrown at Modi by the leading lights of the fourth estate. But the boot is on the other foot and Shashi Tharoor’s recent outburst is a case in point. While the Congress leader could have been more careful in his choice of words, some in the media are protesting too much. The very papers which publish these harsh remarks and admonitions against Modi are anything but liberal when it comes to key managerial decisions over editors and senior journalists. Many prominent papers are owned and run by families and are governed through dynastic succession and centralised control. At times, plurality and scope for dissent exist only in their mascot and not in inside pages. How often one finds diversity of views on crucial issues in their opinion pages? In some cases, ‘opinions’ are not confined to edits but percolate into news coverage and reporting.

Naturally, government’s one-year in office evoked considerable criticisms over a host of issues: non-delivery of promises, frequent foreign trips, policy U-turns, loose talk by party functionaries, ordinance route of governance, centralised decision-making etc. Motives of many of these critics and their criticisms are questionable. At the same time, to be effective and credible, Modi has to be receptive towards them and separate the contents from the container. Message is more important than messenger. For his part, Modi also has powerful message for the media: autonomy and credibility come with a price and hence try to be financial independence from the government.

By P R Kumaraswamy

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