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Committed Media, Emaciated Of Wit

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By Sidharth Mishra

In the Bombay edition of Times of India dated 28 June 1975 was published a small obituary insertion, 22-words to be precise, in the classified columns. It said, “O'Cracy, D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justicia, expired on June 26.”

This was two days after Emergency had been imposed in the country and press censorship introduced. The government clerk sitting in the Times of India office and clearing the news reports and paid insertions saw nothing anti-government in the obituary insertion, when it was placed on the evening of 27 June 1975.

The next day, the advertiser, a young reporter with Reader’s Digest, called up a Times journalist to tell him about the obituary and explain how it “looked like a protest against press censorship.” Suddenly the Press fraternity of Bombay realized that everybody among them was not as pusillanimous as their editors were.

The intrepid reporter, who had made the paid insertion, was Ashok Mahadevan, who later went onto become India editor of Reader’s Digest. At that point of time, the social media did not exist, nor did exist the 24x7 television news channels. Thus the intensity of those 22 words was realized much later. Today in the media schools it’s referred to as benchmark of a journalist’s protest against the move to control a liberal, free and autonomous media.

Four decades later, we live in the times which are very different from the Emergency era. There are no clerks sitting on news desks clearing the news copies. There is no de jure censorship under implementation. Nor there is a need to make a paid insertion; these are times of social media. A twiddle of the fingers and the vitriol in its most acerbic form gets poured.

There may not be media censorship but certainly there exists a phenomenon called media monitoring. Not that this is something new, media was monitored in past too but it was not in the blatant form the way it’s being done now. And when I raise my hand to point fingers, it’s not at Narendra Modi government alone; it’s at the present generation of political leaders cutting across ideologies, who have increasingly become intolerant of criticism.

There is another phenomenon, which is more disturbing, media persons taking the responsibility to act as midwife and groom a politician’s career. Thereafter acting as agents for swelling the politician’s following in the Press fraternity. Worse this gets reflected in the news they write, if at all their stories can qualify as plain news and not opinion.

This spectacle gets reflected in its worst form on the television channels. If one were to look for a case study, s/he doesn’t need to go very far back in history. The recent coverage of Nirav Modi’s escape with bagful of public money is the apt example. A senior editor of a national daily recently tweeted, “If you are a TV News watcher, Modi is still the king.BUT... if U follow social media, WhatsApp, Twitter et al, simmering discontent is palpable on Malya, Cows, Loya, LynchingThe only way BJP can save itself from a rout in 2019 is: haulback Nirav Modi, @TheVijayMallya or Dawood.”

While most of the newspapers have been very workmanlike in reporting the Nirav Modi scam, mostly going by the Press releases issued by the Central Bureau of Investigation; several of the television channels have taken it upon themselves to clear the name of the Prime Minister from the bank rip-off. There is no suggestion from this writer either that the PM is directly or indirectly connected with it.

What’s disturbing, however, is the way some of these anchors have vociferously hawked the line given by the ruling party, blaming it on the Congress, the auditors, the bank officials etc to keep the Prime Minister clean of any muck. Their cantankerous narration, one can be rest assured is no lullaby for the people.

As another of the editors tweeted, “Modi’s spin doctors have started sounding exactly like Manmohan’s spin doctors: So what there is corruption. The man himself is not corrupt.” This is important in face of what Nik Gowing had to say, “Capacity for independent reporting has increased with cheap cameras; and phones are challenging the credibility of governments, traditional media.” Gowing is one of the most celebrated news anchors at BBC television.

How does one define the current media scenario? Given the costs, especially in the times of economic downturn, the print and the television are increasingly finding it difficult to annoy their biggest advertisers -- the governments both in the state capitals and at the centre. On the other hand, given that no cost is involved, social media is full of stuff which goes beyond Gowing’s definition.

In fact it’s closer to what the former US president Barack Obama had to say. “One of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities,” Barack Obama told Prince Harry, who interviewed him while guest editing a programme on BBC’s Radio 4. However, in the Indian context, these realities vary from one extreme to another more on the other media platforms than the internet.

Journalism always was a high risk job coming with very low remuneration, as several victims of news monitoring would share. Journalists got their elixir from the power of the pen, scripting a well-researched report; which is now sadly getting drowned in the din being created by the microphone.

In the competition for market share, with a majority of editors functioning not only as hawkers but also promoting themselves as idols for young journalists, one wonders if we could still produce media persons with sufficient wit and intelligence and the courage to even make use of subterfuge to beat the state and print or air an honest opinion.

A committed bureaucracy did not take the government very far during Emergency. A committed media too is only capable of putting their patrons on the dirt track, for media works best when it functions without fear or favour.


(The writer is Editor&CEO, First published in DB Post, Bhopal)



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