The latest issue of the Economist has a report on the ‘South Asian media’, taking off from the recent news story of Islamabad placing Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida on the Exit Control List after a piece he wrote about a rift between the civilian government and the army. The story made headlines all over the world, and in India the “tabloid press gloated.” Considering that there is hardly any genuine tabloid press in this country in the way there is in Britain, one assumes the venerable Economist is tarring even the respectable newspapers with this brush. Or perhaps it means the television channels.
In any event, Almeida was supported by his publishers and also by his peers. Not just his own paper, Dawn, but also rival newspapers such as The Nation carried strong editorials against the government’s move. The ban was soon lifted.
Contrast that with India, where a loud and bombastic anchor demanded that journalists be arrested and jailed. One channel dropped a scheduled interview with the former home minister and Congress leader P. Chidambaram because “it was not obliged to carry every shred of drivel.” A graphic carried by the channel said, in blood red, “National security cannot be compromised by politics.” Presumably Chidambaram had asked questions about the surgical strikes that the channel felt was in some way against national security.
All this is known to Indians so there is nothing new by way of information. The Economist sums up the India media scene with the line: “India’s press is more craven than Pakistan’s”. This is what the Oxford dictionary has to say about the word ‘craven’: Contemptibly lacking in courage; cowardly. It is a harsh description, and in one sweeping stroke, the magazine has impugned thousands of papers, channels and also digital news sites – to say nothing of the countless journalists all over the country who do a honest day’s job in tough circumstances.
Yet, rather than get all prickly about that, it is worth considering the Economist’s assessment of one of the world’s largest and freest media. Indian newspapers and channels have little or no government controls over them. Journalists can and do go about their work without fear though sadly, many also lose their lives. India now ranks third in the world for the number of journalists killed. The first two are Iraq and Syria. That cannot, however, be blamed on the state. Governments have stayed away from imposing formal controls over the media, except during the Emergency during 1975-77. The lessons of that dismal experience have been learnt by all.
So why are journalists craven? The pendulum now has swung to the other extreme. Powerful sections of the media have now become so-pro government that they are indistinguishable from official press notes. Indeed, many television channels and newspapers have gone several steps further. Not only do they not ask any inconvenient questions, they shout down those who do. These sections support the government blindly, accepting every word as gospel; there is no room for even healthy skepticism. The Economist mentions the example of surgical strikes:
“When an army spokesman, providing very few details, announced on September 29th that India had carried out a retaliatory “surgical strike” against alleged terrorist bases along the border, popular news channels declared it a spectacular triumph and an act of subtle statecraft. Some anchors took to describing India’s neighbour as “terror state Pakistan”. One station reconfigured its newsroom around a sandbox-style military diorama, complete with flashing lights and toy fighter planes. A parade of mustachioed experts explained how “our boys” would teach Pakistan a lesson it would never forget.”
But even when it does not concern the military and the attendant jingoism, influential sections of the media tend to be soft in their criticism of the government. Economic figures given by the government are rarely fact checked, and in newsrooms, stories and editorial comments that are critical of government policies – social and economic – are often silenced. This is not a big secret among media professionals, but rarely gets an airing in public. It is left to a foreign publication to hold up a mirror to us and tell it like it is.
Increasing ownership of the media by corporations is cited as one of the reasons why this is happening, but that cannot explain the shrill pro-government tone of many television channels and newspapers. The same companies owned the same media even five years ago. Nor can government pressure be held responsible for the breathless eagerness of high-profile journalists to take selfies with the prime minister or dish out testimonials on his birthday. No, the sucking up to the establishment by journalists is something that we cannot fully grasp at this stage – it will take historians and social anthropologists of the future to really study why the media became so contemptibly cowardly all of a sudden after freely going after the previous government till two and a half years ago.
In all likelihood, this story will either be ignored, dismissed or rubbished. The Economist will be called names; its own credibility and that of the British media will be called into question (That has already begun in the comments section below the story.) Some journalists will quietly agree with the piece and share it on social media, but in a day or two, all this will be forgotten as the media moves on to generating hysteria on some other subject. At the present juncture, the Indian media is in no mood to do critical self-examination. The word ‘craven’ does not adequately describe the media. It is not cowardly, just contemptible.