Media Must Get Rid of the Enemy Within to Fight the Hypocrisy of Political Class
Condemnation is savagery through subjectivity. Opinion is outlook of objectivity. Emotion is the alchemy that binds both. In the larger biological metaphor of history, politics and the press are twins with incompatible DNA. They are meant to be adversaries during times of conflict between public interest and political profiteering. The recent outburst of General V K Singh, the Minister of State for External Affairs, against sections of the media reflects the growing conflict between the might of the pen and the powerful politician. Enraged over negative reporting about his earlier conduct as former Chief of Army Staff, Singh continues to carry his hostility in his holster. He has coined an innovative term of abuse, ‘presstitutes’, against journalists who have been hounding him. He has perhaps forgotten that he is no longer an Army commander who can command an independent media. He pulled off a stellar performance by leading from the front in getting stranded Indians evacuated from Yemen, but he couldn’t wait for his work to speak for him.
Singh’s excessive ire has raised questions about the credibility of the cursor. More and more politicians are veering towards his opinion. The India media has been at its most fearless when it pulls on its gloves to take on the establishment. In the past decade, however, ‘media’ has become a dirty word and journalism an adjective to describe all that is rotten in the industry. With over 250 news channels, 50,000 newspapers and magazines, and websites at their disposal, almost all literate persons have become either reporters or commentators. Most of them not only contradict each other but also provide innovative versions of the same story. The perception among readers and viewers is that the media—particularly the electronic—is like a stage on which actors are performing their roles with sound and fury, signifying nothing but according to a script. Anchors have replaced reporting with rhetoric. TV panelists are asked in advance about their opinions instead of letting them evolve their views during the debate. If any of the participants don’t agree with the pre-drawn conclusions, they are dropped as panelists or aren’t allowed to express views in print or on TV. The illusion of independence was perpetuated during the last elections by TV channels, which gave hours of live coverage of political rallies without even informing viewers that the source of the feed was the parties. What is source for the goose is not sauce for the gander.
Such selective self-imposed censorship has perhaps provided a handle to Singh and his type to hit out at the media, which needs to do some introspection. In the wake of fierce competition for ‘breaking news’, regurgitating old news or stealing from other papers and labelling them as exclusives, some of us are forced to dole out novel nuggets which destroy the credibility of the truth. Let us accept that the recent sting ops have exposed the vulnerability of many journalists who try to extract information from sources by engaging them in indiscreet conversations. The recent Documentgate and earlier the Radia tapes damaged the credibility of many journalists. The leakage, however, was selective and unrelated, passed out by a few politicians and civil servants who meant to protect some journos and defame others. Then the media did not question the tapping of phones, like it is doing now. Even I have received puerile payback for speaking to Neera Radia, though I don’t mind reiterating that I would speak in the same language with her, or someone like her, if she was to call me again. There are manufactured ‘truths’ and the real truth that will prevail. Curiously, I seem to be the only journalist to put the entire conversation with Radia on my website for social scrutiny. None of the other 36, including famous and infamous names, dared do that. Incidentally, both the previous organisation where I worked and the current one carried stories on my banter with Radia. From breaking news, I became news.
The media is under much severe scrutiny now than ever. Since the public, which doesn’t own any press platform, is mounting pressure on the mainline media to speak the truth and nothing else, we have to be more transparent in our practices. We must inform the public that journalism today is a lucrative career. The average monthly salary of a mid-level journalist is over Rs 1 lakh. Some editors draw seven-figure salaries every month. But it isn’t enough to rant against morality while sipping a Macallan 18 or a glass of exclusive wine and sharing cozy club gossip about politicians they are beholden to. All of us in the media, especially the titans, must declare our assets. We should also make public the shares we bought of companies at what price and sold to whom at what price. It should be mandatory for every columnist and editor to disclose his connections with ministers and corporates, government agencies, NGOs and foreign think tanks. Even media owners should disclose subsidised land or any other benefits they got from a particular state or the Centre, and whether they have sold it accruing huge commercial gains.
Unless the media becomes more transparent than the government and big business, it will remain the target of politicians and others who subvert the system. There are clear signs of a class and corporate coalition taking shape in the media industry. Ominous signals aimed at maiming independent opinion are emanating from various parts of the country. Contrarians are hounded by the establishment. Surprisingly, such a trend was noticed years ago by social scientist Noam Chomsky. At a lecture, he said, “Those who occupy managerial positions in the media, or gain status within them as commentators, belong to the same privileged elites, and might be expected to share perceptions, aspirations and attitudes of their associates.” Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures. Chomsky concluded by saying “those who fail to conform will tend to be weeded out by familiar mechanisms”.
The media needs to restore the balance between news and views, and subjectivity and objectivity. Unless it gets rid of the enemy within, it will continue to be targeted by the political class, which thrives on demolishing those who challenge its hypocrisy.
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