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Head of the Republic Bats for Real, Not Fake News

In a major speech on the challenges facing the Indian media today, President Pranab Mukherjee highlights the importance of journalists asking questions of those in power. 

The following are excerpts from President Pranab Mukherjee’s speech at the second Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture in New Delhi on May 25, 2017.

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Ramnath [Goenka] embodied the finest virtues of journalism: fierce independence, fearlessness and a determination to always stand up to the powerful and fight against the abuse or misuse of power. In fact, there was nothing he enjoyed more than a fight to protect the right of the Indian Express to publish what he thought was proper and just.

He was a fighter. In the face of attempts to control the press, exemplified his willingness to stake all for his principles and to set the highest standards for press freedom in India. The blank editorial published by the Indian Express during the  Emergency, under the leadership of Ramnath ji, was perhaps one of the strongest protests ever published against censorship in India. It spoke more loudly than any words could have.

In a way, everyone with a phone can be a publisher and a broadcaster – a schoolteacher, a mother, a student and a political activist … This has had many positive outcomes: foremost, it has broken the shackles of silence imposed on the powerless. The sense of liberation that the internet and social media especially, allows, has ensured that everyone has a voice and that even small voices in the remotest areas can be heard … However, the downside is that the sheer scale and volume of data and information means that much of what is available today remains unfiltered and unmediated. In many cases, even unchecked.

When so many people speak in so many voices across mediums, many voices are drowned out in the cacophony that is created: and in that noise it is difficult to hear or make sense of what is being said. This is where good journalism plays a vital and irreplaceable role: it intervenes.

It sifts through all the data, separates facts from what is now described as “fake news,” ensures accuracy and provides context, analysis and opinion so that the public can be better informed and form informed opinions.

Aggregation and algorithms, the multiplicity of choices, have meant that while our access to the news is unfettered and vast, it has become increasingly, personalised. People now have the choice to read only what they want to and more importantly, only what they agree with.

Inherent in this process of selective sourcing of news, is the danger of people turning a deaf ear to one another, and a refusal to listen to points of view that may differ from our own. This in turn diminishes the room for agreement and can increase intolerance.

As I have said on many occasions earlier, discussion, dissension are crucial to public debate for decision-making in a vibrant, healthy democracy such as India’s. There should always be room for the ‘argumentative Indian’ but not for the ‘intolerant Indian’.

We need to be sensitive to dominant narratives, of those who make the loudest noise, drowning out those who disagree. That’s why social media and broadcast news have seen angry, aggressive posturing by state and non-state players literally hounding out contrarian opinions.

People in power, across the spectrum of politics, business or civil society, by virtue of the position they enjoy, tend to dominate the discussions and influence its direction.

The need to ask questions of those in power is fundamental for the preservation of our nation and of a truly democratic society.

This is a role that the media has traditionally played and must carry on playing … As its role of the primary source of information has diminished due to the variety of mediums now available, the media’s other responsibilities have increased: it must be the watchdog, the gatekeeper and the mediator between the leaders and the public.

I believe fact-checking is one of the most significant roles the media can play in the contemporary space where extreme opinions to the left and to the right, present what is now called ‘alternative facts’.

When opinion is deeply divided on issues of public importance, be they related to governance, the law, social change or personal beliefs and conduct, objectivity is at a premium. Facts must never be sacrificed to elevated opinions as truth.

This abundance of media outlets has led to a highly competitive media environment which often results in the survival of the shrillest voices rising above the others to be heard. Dumbing down the news to attract an audience is another consequence of the phenomenal growth of the media.

Together, these compulsions have led to complex issues being reduced to binary opposites which, in turn, create a polarity of views and distort the facts.

Media houses need to ask themselves how they can find sustainable economic models that will allow them to resist all kinds of pressures and let them perform their role with honesty and transparency.

Even as the youth look to the future, there has been considerable questioning of the past in the public discourse over the last few years. Each generation has the right to look back and reassess the strengths and weaknesses of the past. Let the brave new India draw its own conclusions.

However, such inquiry should not be blinkered by biases or resisted with a closed mind. Indian history and centuries’ old civilisation is replete with examples of a willingness of the people to, as I have said, ‘doubt, disagree and dispute intellectually’.

To my mind, while the press will be failing in its duty if it does not pose questions to the powers that be, it will have to simultaneously judge the frivolous from the factual and publicity from reportage. This is a tremendous challenge for the media and one that it must stand up to. It must resist the temptation to take the path of least resistance which is to allow a dominant viewpoint to prevail without questioning it or allowing others the opportunity to question it.

Media must learn the art of withstanding pulls and pressures without sacrificing its commitment to free and fair reportage and always remain on guard against conformity. Because any tendency towards conformity to be enforced, often requires disguising or dissembling the truth and the facts. This is completely alien to the ideals which inform professional journalism which lives and even dies by chasing the facts and the truth.

The question that faces all of us including the media is whether we will choose to define ourselves as a nation enriched by the diversity of views or allow partisan views to dominate our national narrative?

We ought to remember that democracy will be the loser when and if we cease to hear voices other than our own.

The full text of President Pranab Mukherjee’s Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture is available here.