Craven Journalism At Its Worst
Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan at the time of the 1965 war with Pakistan, which echoes to this day, was “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”. Our then prime minister understood that the brave jawan could stand tall because the doughty kisan stood guard behind him- with food supplies that fuelled the nation’s economy.
Shastri Ji was careful not to leave out the “kisan” even when a war was on.
But PM Modi is different. He seems happy with just “Jai Jawan!” This is consistent with how little has been done for the poor kisan in his regime, though there have been words galore. But chiefly, he thinks this will make him look “strong”.
No, we are not near a Fourth Reich yet. But Third Reich thought - of looking “strong”, saluting the soldier at the drop of a hat, asking no questions of a department of the government called the Army, and becoming “nationalistic” by hurling the expletive of “anti-national” or “traitor” at everyone outside your fold- is upon us.
In fact, this is a catching disease and the first to have caught it are prominent sections of the television media who have converted themselves into nationalistic media warriors.
After the “surgical strike”, some sat in their studios reading the news and conducting discussions wearing military-style flak jackets, mimicking soldiers. Poor chaps. Their mission was not to cross the LOC or do cross-border reporting. That needs gumption.
They just wanted to win the studio-vir chakra by pleasing the PM and the ruling party, and chalk up favours or lodge a credit so that the government may have no cause to look into any irregularities they may have been guilty of in the past.
Quid pro quo is the name of the game. Saving your skin is the name of the game. And they are all winning the game of being craven. One channel typified what’s going on. It said the PM’s speech in Lucknow on the day of Vijayadashmi this year, staged in the first place to extract political mileage for the cross-border raid of September 29 before the UP Assembly election, was a “surgical strike on the opposition”. Just imagine what might have happened if a war had been won, like in 1971.
PM Modi and his party love the jawan because our soldier is a silent hero. He doesn’t “reason why”. He is “ready to do and die”, just like in the lines of Tennyson’s famous poem.
The soldier will stand stiffly to attention even if the politician jumps onto his back and stands up on his shoulders to take the salute. You can’t do this with the kisan. The fellow will gather his tribe and march to Parliament House, denouncing the government all the way.
To a politician, the kisan is a tricky customer; therefore, he is no use. The jawan is the opposite. When it comes to “nationalism”, it is the politician in India who speaks the loudest, and the trooper lets him. He goes about his business quietly- not bothered with accolades.
This was summed up graphically in a newspaper cartoon recently which contrasted the situation in neighbouring countries. In Pakistan, the cartoon showed, the Army was the Naked Ape that had climbed on top of the politician, while in India the Naked Ape was the politician who had climbed on top of the soldier.
This is regretfully our reality. But the media is not saying so. The brilliant political cartoon is the dazzling exception. What’s going on otherwise is stiff competition in the media to demonise the opposition while seeking to notch an entry into the good books of the ruling party.
It is hard to recall another time like this in India. In the Emergency years, the ruler was extolled but the opposition was not punched around in the media and called names, leave alone on a steady basis.
A particular channel has gained particular notoriety since the Modi sarkar was ushered in. Studio guests on the carefully prepared list go on a hunt each day, led by the especially obnoxious anchor. They lynch that one guest who is not on the government’s side. The show has got nauseating by now. But people seem to like gladiator sports, whatever they may choose to do at the hustings- as we saw in the Delhi election and then in Bihar.
A rival channel- a “sober” one, which claims to give us news, not noise- has now joined the ranks of the faithful. A few days ago, it interviewed P. Chidambaram, who was finance minister in the last government and before that the country’s home minister- in both capacities a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security.
Chidambaram has publicly asked some leading questions about the “surgical strike”. Probably that’s why the interview was conducted in the first place. This showed good professional news sense. Extracts from the interview were run on the network to whet appetite. But the interview vanished into thin air. It was not shown. Period.
There were no explanations to the viewer. It would be a reporting coup of sorts if an enterprising journalist can land the story one day what happened behind the scenes. Was there threat held out by the government? Or, was there temptation? Or a jumble of the two?
In lieu of the viewers getting the Chidambaram interview, an internal communication in the channel informed all concerned that they worked for a serious news organisation which believed in standing by the country’s armed forces and would not countenance anyone politicising the actions of the army.
Many journalists who work for this outfit now revealed to be weak-kneed and shabby, almost all in fact, felt personally humiliated by this Orwellian talk. The reason is that the ruling party chaps are having a field day on the same channel as they milk the “surgical strike” dry for politics. How the mighty have fallen.
Are individual journalists on the take? Is that the reason why the PM and his party are getting a free pass? The thought is absurd, although a few bad apples can always be found. The problem is more structural, really.
A number of news outlets these days are run by businessmen or politicians with a close nexus with the saffron party that is running the show. And that’s the story. The Indian media today, or prominent sections of it in any case, arguably represents the worst in journalism for any democracy- the least hard working, the least enlightening, the least questioning. Pakistan is no democracy. It’s also had the tradition of “Trust papers and Trusted papers”, which cannot do any country credit. But elements of the Pakistan press are top-notch. This is because they dare to hold the mirror to their rulers.
(Anand Sahay is a senior journalist and editor. He writes regular columns and is a recognised expert on politics and international affairs).