Monday, January 23, 2012

Power & Politics / The Sunday Standard/ January 22, 2012


Irrespective of growing public perception, journalists and politicians are not made for each other. By nature and training, they are adversaries. The sudden resignation of Harish Khare—the erudite media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for almost two eventful years—proves the point. Though only Khare and his ex-boss know the real reasons behind the exit, whispers in South Block corridors hint at the growing mistrust between them.

Journalists today may believe it is spin, and not breaking stories, what makes a byline, but in reality, their job is to deliver news. Politicians who hire them expect fancy PR to hide the real news about ugly truths. The conflict between real news and spin invariably proves fatal for both hacks and their political masters. In the process, the penpusher loses both his job and his credibility, leaving the politician to scout around for another journo eager to do the same job. During the last two decades, many senior, credible and intelligent journalists have suffered because they fell victim to the glamourous allure of the post, forgetting its illusory nature. Strangely enough, the honeymoon was brief for these illustrious editors: they soon fell short of the expectations of their political mentors and promoters. Scribes by nature are rebels and inquisitive. They cannot follow the Government’s golden principle of ‘need-to-know’. Used to grilling and questioning rulers, the advisors couldn’t fully reconcile to their roles on the other side of the fence with the same people questioning their performance and dealings.

In reality, an editor has more power than a press advisor and his political guru. Personally, I’m against the idea of journalists associating with the government in a formal advisory capacity without joining the ruling party. When former Prime Minister V P Singh offered me his media advisor’s job in 1990, I reluctantly declined. I suggested Singh not to hire any journalist, as he would only be adding to his already very long list of foes. At the age of 44, I couldn’t risk my journalistic career for a lackey’s loft, and make the prime minister the target of my own numerous enemies, also from within my profession. I hate to admit there isn’t much love lost between most senior journalists. Over the years, journalism has become divided along ideological lines. Like most humans, journalists also carry their predilections, preferences and biases around. In spite of our best efforts, we try to impose our choices on political leaders.(And imagine we succeed.) In the process, the leader ends up facing the ire of other journalists who end up targeting him, thanks to the one in his service. Many journalists have visible or invisible political ambitions. It is more honest to join a political party than masquerading as a self-proclaimed professional while accepting a job from the ruling party.

Indira and Rajiv Gandhi always ignored the advice of their aides to hire a journalist to handle the prime minister’s media relations. Indira used the soft-spoken H Y Sharada Prashad’s services for almost a decade. He had many friends in the media but few enemies. He could call up any senior editor without sounding arrogant or intimidating. After Indira’s death, Rajiv kept him on. But he also added a former diplomat to his team of media advisors, keeping his close friend and my boss then at India Today magazine, Suman Dubey, who preferred to stay in the background.

But the prime ministers who followed Rajiv placed their trust in journalists. V P Singh inducted Prem Shankar Jha and lost the premiership within 11 months. P V Narasimha Rao who followed Singh was wiser and chose PVRK Prashad, an IAS officer from Andhra Pradesh, as his media officer. Rao faced hardly any trouble with the media for years. However, H D Deve Gowda who succeeded Rao opted for senior journalist H K Dua as his media advisor. Gowda also couldn’t complete a full year in office nor was he a media darling. Later, Atal Bihari Vajpayee recalled Dua from an editorial job to handle media relations. But the party wasn’t comfortable with Dua’s style and substance and he was finally packed off to Brussels as ambassador.

When prime ministers want prime time plaudits, they believe taming an editor as an advisor is the answer. Despite the bitter experiences between journalists and prime ministers, in May 2004, Manmohan Singh decided to induct former business journalist Sanjaya Baru to promote his economic reforms agenda. Baru, an economist by training, left the PMO after serving for four years and took up a teaching assignment in Singapore. His successor couldn’t survive for even half of the Prime Minister’s term. Khare’s aborted flirtation with the establishment has proved beyond doubt that politicians and journalists make gauche bedfellows. In this game, journalists are the losers as they keep losing both the bed and the room.
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