Pramod Kumar for BeyondHeadlines
By rudimentary definition media both print and TV, is supposed to inform, educate and empower people about political, social, economic and cultural developments in a fair, un-biased and non-partisan manner. Also it is expected that media will, displaying healthy scepticism, question, investigate and exercise due diligence before disseminating news. It does have apparently an adversarial role as far as governance is concerned but not that of a hostile antagonist.
The basic tenets of journalism are being flouted every day. Of course there are a few exceptions (like The Hindu/Indian Express in print) but none apparently in mainstream English News TV. Apart from “paid news”, the subtle and subliminal attempts to pollute the profession have disconcertingly become every day occurrence. The venal and ideological interests of the editors/anchors and owners have gained such an ascendency that it is almost impossible to differentiate between news and their platitudinous proclamations and motivated spin. The anchors have no qualms in setting up Kangaroo Courts to try political class even when the matter is “sub-judice” but will not do so in case of Jindal-Zee scandal citing this very excuse. The fine of Rs. 1L imposed by NBSA on CNN/IBN for” biased, tendentious and factually incorrect” reporting in case of a land allotment by Haryana Government too did not find any traction with media (except TIMES OF INDIA (Goa) of 23.12.12). Mr. S. Vardarajan has put it aptly though a little crudely that “we (media) do not like pissing in the tent”.
Ours is admittedly a flawed democratic process, more so because of tremendous heterogeneity and inhuman economic disparities. The political class has failed to come up to the expected standards and the downside of democratic process – hankering for votes to gain power – has resulted in endemic corruption, division of polity and other ills. The media has taken full advantage of weak and divided political class and has succeeded in engendering a sense of disenchantment and even disgust with the political process largely through unprofessional, unethical, biased and irresponsible journalism. The anchors/editors have used extortionatory methods of 24/7 coverage of alleged wrongdoings of politicians and perverse use of right to free speech so that they may enjoy a disproportionate sense of power that too without any accountability. And have succeeded, it is obvious, but for how long?
On the other hand, media has had no compunction in churning out trivia, sleaze, muckraking and gossip in huge doses to cater to its main consumer, the burgeoning middle class, which has always been averse to rough and tumble of electoral process and is happy with divisive and subversive spin indulged in by anchors, at least, till now. The middle class has displayed, despite its liberal pretensions, a disturbing indifference to the deprived and discriminated. The same disturbing indifference prevails in News TV too, the fig leaves of programmes like “Positive India, Amazing Indians” notwithstanding, because anchors/editors too hail from the ruling class and work as an “exclusive” group.
The divided and enfeebled political class has failed to withstand media attacks, legitimate or motivated. The editors/anchors have become outlandishly arrogant and have become presumptuous enough to even lay down policy framework not only with regard to internal governance but foreign relations too. It has no mandate to do so. The political class, at least, has to go to the people to get a mandate, through universal suffrage, every five years but the editors/owners/anchors, drunk with the transient power they have managed to usurp, are even not beyond calling for war on drop of a hat. The TV anchors will, if they have their way, go to war with Pakistan and even China and Australia even simultaneously to avenge any real or imaginary infringement of nation`s honour. Then there are media groups like Bennett Coleman (TIMES GROUP) which milk the controversies like the current Indo-Pak fracas from both ends, so to speak. Its one section promotes amity through campaigns like “Aman-Ki-Asha” and the other like Times Now and particularly its anchor, Goswami, is all for teaching Pakistan a lesson for its so called perfidy.
The latest example is the recent ceasefire violation in Jammu and Kashmir. This incident and particularly the beheading of a soldier has been treated as “manna” by so called “non-partisan, liberal and educated anchors” like Goswami, Shivshankar, Kanwal, Sardesai and even Dutt of Times Now, Headlines Today, CNN/IBN (Karan Thapar anchoring “Last Word” being an exception on this issue) and NDTV respectively to derail the tenuous but effective peace which has prevailed on the LOC for the last ten years. Not much importance has been given to the people living alongside the border in J&K who have gained a sense of normality in their lives because of the ceasefire. While Times Now, Headlines Today did everything to raise the emotional pitch about beheading, NDTV (Dutt) has tried to ridicule the attempts to retrieve the situation by claiming that the State is sending “mixed” messages and maliciously insinuating that the Prime Minister is more worried about the legacy he wants to bequeath than “honour” of the country. The Government has, seemingly succumbing to the pressure, put the “peace process” on hold. Only temporarily it is hoped.
The means adopted for rabblerousing are equally subversive. The facts are distorted, the negative aspects are over emphasized and issues which can lend some reasonableness are either ignored or given perfunctory treatment. Even the case of beheading was not an uncommon incident it was made out to be. The Army Chief himself, in his interview, admitted that even in 2011 two such beheadings had taken place and the matter was sorted out at the level already agreed to by the two countries. Also, Najam Sethi, a senior journalist and a senior diplomat Hilaly, both of Pakistan, claimed (on “Last Word” anchored by Karan Thapar of CNN/IBN and on “Centre Stage” by Rahul Kanwal of Headlines Today respectively) that Indian Army too had beheaded Pakistani soldiers during Kargil war. This was also stated by our own Ex Naval Chief Admiral L. Ramdas in the “Kangaroo Court” conducted (on NDTV) by no less than Barkha Dutt herself. Sethi and Hilaly had also claimed that they learnt about this from a piece written by Dutt for a Nepalese journal Himal. None of the anchors/editors of other channels considered this as an editorial imperative to confirm the veracity of these claims nor has Dutt so far admitted or contradicted claims of Pakistani Gentlemen.
Further, inquisition or the Kangaroo Courts conducted by the anchors in the studios raise some legitimate questions. The panelists are carefully chosen so that the line pre-determined by the anchor gets confirmed. In this case also, most of the Army Brass consisting of retired Colonels, Brigadiers and Generals were competing with each other in sabre rattling. No one asked if these worthies have any direct/indirect connections with an Arms Manufacturer or a Supplier or a think-tank espousing a particular ideological stance. The viewers should be informed about such links for the sake of transparency, if nothing else. Was it only a co-incidence that those retired Army Officers who had espoused the cause of retired Army Chief V.K.Singh were more vociferous than others in condemning the Government for compromising national interests? In fact, there was a brazen attempt to sow discord between political arm of State and Army. The anchors have been a willing accomplice in this nefarious attempt.
The jury for the Kangaroo Courts is chosen with great deliberation and it includes retired diplomats/bureaucrats, political analysts, intellectuals and people from “intelligence” world. Here again, it is futile to look for any transparency. There is no knowing what baggage a panelist has brought to the discussion. The anchors never reveal the links or connections these people have with think-tanks, whether indigenous or foreign. The narrative is influenced by the ideologies of different hues some of them subscribe to. Many a bureaucrat and a diplomat try to get even with government of the day for not providing a sinecure after retirement or on some other personal grouse. The anchors, instead of asking the panelists to be transparent mislead the viewers. The political commentators like Swapan Das Gupta, Ashok Malik or Pranjoy GuhaThakurta are introduced as independent analysts whereas their ideological colours of “saffron” or “red” are discernible and evident in every word they speak or write.
It is very easy to rabble rouse the people by stoking raw emotions by portraying everything starkly black. However, the situations and issues have grey areas too and a rational and nuanced approach to matters concerning national honour is called for. Media has the power to shape the mind of the people. We have, no doubt, lived and still live with an uneasy situation on our border and have fought three wars too. Yet to keep on harping on this and to overplay the fact of militancy, jihad and infiltration from across the border and to under play the – “peace dividend of ceasefire resulting in reduced deaths of civilians and Jawans and relative peaceful life for people living on the border” – on again off again attempts to reduce the tension is tantamount to distortion of the actual position. Opposition political parties will do what suits them and even ask for “head-hunting” as demanded by Sushma Swaraj of BJP. But will it end there? Pakistan is having problems of its own and there is an apprehension that it may end up as a “failed state”. Is it in our national interest then to ask for “Final Solution” or as Arnab Goswami has asked rhetorically and on behalf of the NATION “Can imploding Pakistan ever dare needle India again”? Does he realize that a failed state will pose far greater danger than a state which is in need of a helping hand in its struggle to preserve democracy?
Anchors/editors must return to the task of editing and professional journalism. By raising the temperature through jingoistic rhetoric, hysterical pronouncements and by appealing to the lowliest of low instincts of people, the anchors not only betray but dis-honour their profession. Above all, it is imperative that the media tones down its belligerence (even if it is synthetic) and evaluates the situation in an impartial and a just perspective. Its task is not to promote enmity, distrust and discord but to work for conciliation, consensus, convergence and peace no matter how many pitfalls have to be endured in the process and no matter how long the process lasts.
(Pramod Kumar retired from Glaxo and now lives in Goa from where he keeps an eagle eye on Media and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)