Rough Edges: How Not to Speak Truth to Power

A column reflecting on contemporary society and politics.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Reuters

In June 2016, when the former Censor Board chief Pahlaj Nihalani boasted about being Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chamcha, the media roundly blasted him. And rightly so. The matter erupted when – in the wake of the controversy sparked by some 89-odd cuts Nihalini suggested for Anurag Kashyap’s film Udta Punjab – the Censor Board chief publicly declared obeisance to Modi. “Yes, I am a chamcha of Narendra Modi as Anurag Kashyap said. I am proud to be a Modi chamcha (acolyte). Should I be a chamcha of the Italian Prime Minister instead?” he asked.

Cynics would argue that Nihalini was being publicly brazen about what many others would execute by sleight of hand. The reality is that flatterers who are in awe of the powerful abound in every sector, including in our own – the media. The reality is that a largely sycophantic media can have serious repercussions because the industry – unlike many other spheres of social life – has the power to influence and mould public opinion. This is the reason why having an abundance of flatterers, susceptible to power and the powerful, negates the very idea of free and independent media.

In this context, let’s consider some recent interviews given by Prime Minister Modi. Two prominent media organisations Zee News and Times Now – interviewed the prime minister close on the heels of one another. What could have been turned into a razor-sharp exercise in journalism, aimed at prising difficult answers from the head of a government, tragically plummeted to the depths of a bad experiment in public relations.

In both form and content, there was little to distinguish the first interview – anchored by Zee’s Sudhir Chaudhary – from that of Times Now, conducted jointly by Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar. In both cases, the interviewers lobbed soft questions that clearly suited Modi, who was free to steer the conversation in any direction he wished.

Here are some samples of questions as published by Scroll:

Sudhir Chaudhary from Zee:

  • “After you came to power, a new tradition started that GDP growth rate, how it’s moving. I remember that before that, three-four years ago, the people didn’t even know what the GDP growth rate was. Now people follow it like the Sensex, every three months seeing how much it’s gone up and down. And based on that every three months you are questioned. And if it is not as much as you promised, then the attacks start. Isn’t this a new sort of tradition?”
  • “I was doing a lot of research while preparing for this interview, and I was thinking about this new world order, what is the new world order? So I found a new thing, which is referred to as PTM – Putin Trump Modi. This is the New World Order?”

Shivshankar and Kumar from Times Now:

  • “From 1991 until now, no prime minister of our country has got this opportunity to occupy the stage, why has this happened?”
  • “Prime Minister, you have been trying to improve India’s image abroad, but some of our leaders go abroad and tell the Indian diaspora that things are not working well in India. They urge Indians abroad to return home because everything is getting worse. What will you say to those people?”

The anchors stayed away from questions that could even vaguely rattle or provoke Modi. There was no attempt to seek answers on issues that have recently been in the public discourse. The interviewers seemed indifferent towards the continued and ongoing incidents of casteist and communal violence, the rampage of cow-slaughter vigilantes across the country and repeated attempts to muzzle dissent in any form. Not to mention crackdowns on freedom of expression in the media, the abysmal quality of school education, or the increasing regimentation of higher education.

Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar of Times Now interview PM Narendra Modi.

Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar of Times Now interview PM Narendra Modi.

Significantly, while large chunks of the interviews hinged on the optimistic talk about growth rates, there was little or no attempt to question Modi on the bleak employment scenario, and his pet projects like Swachh Bharat, Jan Dhan Yojana and the Skill Development Mission. There is a wealth of statistical and other material in the public domain which could allow a rigorous interviewer to research and ask hard questions to the prime minister of the country.

Also read: ‘Responsible Journalism Never Felt as Joyful’

Media interviews can be hugely revelatory if the interviewer is ready not to treat her subject with kid gloves; to not indulge in mere flattery. In such cases, interviews can reveal the personas of both the interviewer and the interviewee; ferret out information the government has been reluctant to part with – eventually pushing the powerful to concede their failings. These are occasions when the much bandied about credo of “speaking truth to power” is put to a critical test. Tragically, the Indian media hasn’t often passed such a test with flying colours.

Kirsty Wark, a BBC presenter, described the political interview as a “a riveting piece of TV theatre with the interviewer cutting and jabbing at a seasoned political operator, hoping to get under their skin, while said politician draws on their slick media training to bob and weave.” She goes on to add: “The political interviewer is the viewer’s representative. They articulate the questions they believe need answering in order to aid voters’ thinking on the effectiveness, suitability and competence of elected representatives or those seeking office. Put simply: they may be aggressive, unrelenting and dogged, posing as devil’s advocate, but in reality they are doing all this for one person only. And that’s you, the voter.”

Spin doctors are an essential part of the contemporary political scenario. They coach politicians to deal with media, dodge prickly interview questions, swing an “unfriendly” question to your own advantage. Since the 1980s and 1990s, as spin doctors have made their presences increasingly felt in the corridors of power, the art of the interview has become less about informing the public and more about deflecting pointed questions. Wark suggests that, to some extent, spin doctors have defeated the informative potential of intervening those in power.

The situation in India is, however, potentially a little different. Journalists are not ready to wade into deep waters. Their terms of engagement are clearly set by the interviewee, someone who strings the interviewer along – not the other way round. There is simply no room for “aggressive questioning” in this kind of “feel good” interview. The interviewer is under no pressure to “dodge” because the whole idea of the interview is to promote the image of the interviewee (and in the process, the journalist who has been fortunate enough to be given a chance to conduct the conversation.)

One particular question in the Times Now interview is revealing of this mindset. After citing the IMF chief Christine Lagarde’s optimistic outlook for the Indian economy, the interviewer asks Modi: “If world economic institutions like IMF and World Bank are convinced about demonetisation and GST, then why is our domestic constituency not convinced with demonetisation and GST?”

If you weren’t paying attention, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was Modi’s feeble attempt to make a case for a disastrous policy. Then you’d realise it was a question his interrogator asked him. It is hardly a wonder that the prime minister looked pleased.

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  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    Maria Bortiromo of Fox News – President Trump’s bosom friend and mouthpiece – interviewed Trump a few months back. Watch the softball questions she lobs him, the idolatorous look in her eyes, her nods and prompts of encouragement. A cringeworthy interview for which she was roundly ridiculed and criticized.

    Zee News and Times Now obviously watched and learned “How To Lick The Boots Of Power And Show The Finger To Voters”!

  • Reshma

    These two channels have ridiculed themselves.