Colour Coding, Turning Narratives: Friendly Journalists Suggest Ways of Reining in Media

A 97-page report titled 'The Group of Ministers on Government Communication', documents an extensive list of responsibilities to be undertaken by various ministries, based on suggestions by several journalists.

New Delhi: The leak of a government report containing a detailed toolkit for media management has sent senior ministers and a group of journalists who purportedly gave inputs scurrying for cover. Some members of the Group of Ministers whose 97-page report reflects the Narendra Modi government’s efforts to control and influence news media denied having seen – or even signing off on – the final product, while many of the journalists whose names figure in the document denied taking part in any consultation process or making the suggestions attributed to them.

In a series of meetings held last year when the pandemic was at its peak, the Union government set a mandate for its ministers and secretaries to identify, track and control its critics in the media and social media, promote journalists, websites and commentators helping the official narrative, and engage “positive influencers” on social media, retired journalists, and “former army generals” to “turn the narratives” in its favour.

The consensus among Union ministers was that the conventional dissemination of information by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) is severely lacking in its ability to set the “narrative”, especially in a situation where digital media and social media amplifies criticism of government policies.

The report titled ‘The Group of Ministers on Government Communication’, documents an extensive list of responsibilities to be undertaken by various ministries to tackle the influence of “international media” and Indian digital news platforms like The Wire and Scroll.in, which, according to the report, have created a negative impression about the Union government through “false narratives”.

“While we get insightful suggestions, it is not explained how despite being in Government, there is still a gap in the online media, like [The] Wire, Scroll and some regional media,” senior minister Ravi Shankar Prasad laments, adding, “Our core media intervention is not getting enlarged.” Prasad is minister for law and justice, as well as information technology. The IT ministry last month promulgated controversial new rules that will grant the government sweeping powers to ‘regulate’ digital news platforms, including ordering the deletion of content.

The report’s main recommendations were first broken in December by Anisha Dutta of the Hindustan Times. On Wednesday, Caravan magazine ran a detailed story about its contents.

A copy of the GoM report has also been leaked on the internet which The Wire has been able to independently confirm as authentic.

The GoM had six meetings in June and July, 2020, and on December 3, the report with an ‘action plan’ was shared with all ministries for implementation. 

The GoM comprises five cabinet ministers – Ravi Shankar Prasad, Smriti Irani, Prakash Javadekar, S. Jaishankar, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi – and four ministers of state – Kiren Rijiju, Hardeep Singh Puri, Anurag Thakur, and Babul Supriyo. 

Also read: Modi Govt’s Digital Media Rules Framed After Ministers Wanted to ‘Neutralise’ Independent News

Significantly, the report also notes that three meetings with “prominent personalities” were held by various Union ministers to seek advice on how to contain media criticism of the government and chalk out an effective strategy to ensure favourable coverage.  

The first such meeting was organised by the Union minister Kiren Rijiju at his residence with 12 journalists on June 23, 2020. The report lists the attendees as follows:

  • Alok Mehta, former editor of Hindi Outlook, Navbharat Times, Nai Dunia and Dainik Bhaskar
  • Jayant Ghoshal, former political editor of India TV, currently with the India Today group 
  • Shishir Gupta, executive editor, Hindustan Times 
  • Praful Ketkar, editor of RSS mouthpiece Organiser weekly 
  • Mahua Chatterjee, senior journalist, Times of India 
  • Nistula Hebbar, political editor, The Hindu
  • Amitabh Sinha, believed to be political editor of News18 India
  • Ashutosh, believed to be chief of bureau of Dainik Jagran,
  • Ram Narain, senior journalist 
  • Ravish Tiwari, senior journalist, The Indian Express 
  • Himanshu Mishra, senior journalist, Aaj Tak 
  • Ravindra Gautam, senior journalist, former TV anchor of News 18 and CNBC Awaaz

The GoM’s report states that these journalists observed that “around 75% of media persons are impressed by the leadership of Shri Narendra Modi and are ideologically with the party”, and that “We (the GoM) should form different groups of these persons and communicate with them on a regular basis.”

“Lack of communication has resulted in the positive things not being put in an influential manner. Government should give the supporting background material to the supportive media before the launch of any big programme and also during the follow-up for its better publicity,” the report said while stating the observations made by the attendees.

Apart from such suggestions, the GoM’s report said that participants also suggested that “all ministries should speak in one voice” to avoid any contradictions in the “messages of the Government”. 

“Groups should be formed of supportive editors, columnists, journalists and commentators and they should be regularly engaged.  The government resources should be effectively used to ensure that the information reaches to the last person.  The differences between the government and the media have increased and it should be taken care of.  The interactions with the foreign media should stop as it is turning out to be counter-productive,” the GoM report says the participating journalists told Rijiju.

Another such meeting was held by Union minister Prakash Javadekar on June 23, 2020, with journalists who have established right-wing credentials, and have held or are currently holding top-level government positions. They are as follows:

  • S. Gurumurthy, RSS ideologue and currently in the board of the Reserve Bank of India 
  • Swapan Dasgupta, journalist who is currently an MP in the Rajya Sabha
  • Kanchan Gupta, former editor of The Pioneer and a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
  • Nitin Gokhale, national security analyst who runs a defence-related website
  • Shekhar Iyer, former political editor, Deccan Herald
  • A. Surya Prakash, former Prasar Bharati chairman, currently in the executive council of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
  • Ashok Tandon, former media adviser to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, currently with the board of advisors in Prasar Bharati
  • Ashok Malik, former press secretary to the President of India 
  • Shashi Shekhar Vempati, CEO of Prasar Bharati

A third such meeting was also held by Smriti Irani on June 24, 2020 with five staunch ‘Hindutva’ advocates who are influential in promoting “positive narratives” for the government on television social media: Swarajya editor Anand Ranganathan, film critic Anant Vijay, Swarajya columnist Sunil Raman, OpIndia head Nupur Sharma, and former Mail Today editor Abhijit Majumder.

Some of the observations made by the participants in the meetings held by Irani and Javadekar are revealing. 

S. Gurumurthy. Photo: PTI

For instance, Gurumurthy is quoted to have said that news should “carry mixture of truth and untruth”.

He recommended that former Army generals should be asked to question the opposition parties to “turn the narratives”. He also reportedly suggested that the prime minister, home minister, and other senior ministers talk to the proprietors in media houses and with editors to “build confidence”. Gurumurthy is quoted as having said that this was the best time to “help” the media because many media houses are facing a crisis.

He also reportedly said a Pokhran-like effect should be created to tackle “media hostility” – a suggestion that Union minister Prasad readily espouses in the final set of recommendations.   

Swapan Dasgupta, on the other hand, reportedly emphasised “back-channel communications” with journalists by giving them a “a little-bit extra in a calibrated approach” to persuade them to cover the government favourably. He also reportedly said that apart from social media, “The print media should get a larger share of narrative”.

In a similar vein, Kanchan Gupta reportedly espoused, “deep throat briefing by individuals.” He is quoted as having said, “Handpick people who brief them well, draw boundaries, as a tightly knit group with single command and control for such briefings. Contact should be maintained with the representatives of foreign media and Indian media. A list of influencers from the party should be given to such journalists who could be regularly contacted.”

“Google promotes content on Print, Wire, Scroll, Hindu, etc. which are online news platforms. How to handle this needs a separate discussion and should be looked into,” he reportedly added.

Nitin Gokhale. Photo: Twitter/@nitingokhale

According to the GoM report, Nitin Gokhale went a step ahead to suggest a monitoring mechanism for media personnel. “Journalists can be colour coded: Green – fence sitters; Black – against; and White – who support. We should support and promote favourable journalists,” he recommended, according to the report. In a tweet on Thursday, however, he denied saying this.

Shekhar Iyer reportedly said that since the relationship between the editor and the government has been traditionally “adversarial”, the government could cultivate reporters who could explain a fact-based build up leading to major decisions by the government. This, according to him, could solve the problem of adversarial reporting. 

How to counter digital media’s adversarial reporting formed the crux of former Prasar Bharati chairman A. Surya Prakash’s suggestions too, according to the report. “The party spokespersons or bureaucrats should be trained to handle media to create counter to the digital media narrative. We need separate platform particularly to engage with the literate class. Therefore, social media/digital platforms should be taken on priority,” he reportedly said. 

While recommending that ministers should stop writing op-eds in newspapers as they are hardly read with seriousness, the former press secretary to the President, Ashok Malik, reportedly offered an alternative.

“Have spokespersons for clusters of Ministries to provide background information to spin the stories. For example, outward looking Ministries like MEA, Commerce etc; social sector Ministries like Health and Family Welfare, Education etc; Economic clusters: Political narratives like CAA, NRC, environment, and green energy. These clusters should have spokespersons who can be anyone, viz., Ministers, Advisors, Academicians, Bureaucrats and they should be working 24×7,” he said. 

The report quotes him as saying, “So called social issues are becoming problems in support [of] the foreign media.  [Which] Take cues from Print, Wire, etc. Therefore, there is a need to tackle both together.”

The participants at Irani’s meeting reportedly thought it fit to advance the Hindutva agenda aggressively to tackle adversarial media. 

Ranganathan, for instance, is quoted as having said, “We lack historical narrative like Tipu’s manifesto talked about annihilation of Hindus.” While Anant Vijay reportedly felt that the PIB should be updated with “Left ideology”, Sunil Raman said that “the text books should be changed to include proper narratives. The works of Shri Shyama Prasad Mukherjee should be digitised.” Mukherjee is founder of the Jana Sangh, the forerunner to the BJP.

Nupur Sharma of the pro-government ‘OpIndia’ is quoted as saying said that her website should be promoted. Majumder echoed her demand: “Help OpIndia and re-tweet OpIndia tweets.”  But he is also quoted as recommending that the government “watch WhatsApp groups of various communities.”  

Union cabinet ministers in the group include (L-R) Abbas Naqvi, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Smriti Irani, Prakash Javadekar and Smriti Irani. Photos: PTI

Journalists deny role GoM assigns to them

One of the journalists, Jayant Ghoshal, who met Rijiju at his residence on June 23, 2020, told Caravan magazine that the meeting was called by Jaishankar. “We went there to meet Jaishankar,” Ghoshal told the magazine. “We were never informed of any interaction with a GoM on government communication and no such formal interaction took place. No notes were taken by anyone on behalf of the ministers present there. I do not know how they came up with these observations.”

Meanwhile, Nitin Gokhale tweeted in response to a Caravan story on the report, saying it contains “utter lies”.

The Wire reached out to more journalists who met Rijiju on June 23, 2020 and learned that the meeting at Rijiju’s residence was indeed called by the Union minister of external affairs S. Jaishankar to discuss the situation at the India-China border after the Galwan valley clash between the troops of the two countries in May, 2020. Jaishankar did not attend the meeting eventually but Rijiju and Naqvi spoke to journalists.

The Wire sought the views of the editors of the newspapers and TV channels whose reporters were quoted in the GoM as having advised the government on the propriety of this interaction. Two editors, who requested they not be identified since they said they were still looking into the matter, said the journalists in their organisation had denied having any discussion with Rijiju or Naqvi about the government’s media strategy.

While it is possible that the GoM report may have wrongly attributed the “observations” to the attendees of the meeting, it is not clear if the news organisations concerned intend to formally complain about this to the government.

Image concern

The meetings were held at a time when the Union government was facing sustained criticism over its handling of the pandemic, its inability to stabilise the Indian economy, and the problem of vast unemployment. The emphasis of the report to contain critical journalism, and draw a holistic strategy to get favourable media attention reflects the government’s deep concern over its negative image. The importance attached with controlling the media in the report does not appear out of the ordinary considering that the government at the Centre depends heavily on public relations strategies. 

The report says that the government urgently needs to feed the media with positive stories and push what it calls are “10 narratives” that showcase the government in good light. The report also says it was necessary to engage with journalism schools so that budding journalists, too, could be carriers of the government’s communication strategy. 

“The deliberations of the GoM focussed on evolving multi-pronged strategy to take these 10 big narratives to the people by various means including direct connect by elected representatives and state & district level representatives, engaging with media houses and academia at national and international level, utilizing all types of media, feeding them with positive stories and testimonials, developing institutional mechanisms for structured engagements, developing DD International on lines of best international public broadcasters and strengthening a resource pool of domain experts,” the report said. 

Censorship and spin doctors

Curiously, senior journalists themselves have gone out of the way of their professional demands to purportedly help the Centre in its efforts to censor the media. The new Information Technology Rules notified by the Centre to regulate digital media and OTT platforms appears to be a direct culmination of this strategy – in the works for over a year now. The rules have put in place a three-tier structure which gives the Information and Broadcasting ministry unprecedented powers to summarily take down digital news content without giving the publisher a proper hearing.

Ostensibly, the GoM’s report is geared towards containing “false narratives” and “fake news”. However, the crux of the report focuses on tackling “media hostility” with an underlying assumption that any critical coverage of the government’s policies should be deemed as false or fake.  

Also read: Explainer: How the New IT Rules Take Away Our Digital Rights

At least one Union minister – Naqvi – made this amply clear in the report. “We should have a strategy to neutralise the people who are writing against the Government without facts and set false narratives/spread fake news,” he reportedly said.

The section of “responsibility” allocated to various ministries as part of the government’s new communication strategy reflects this quite clearly. 

The I&B ministry has been tasked to “promote supportive online portals like OpIndia” because the government is of the opinion that “most of the existing online portals are critical of [the] Government.”

In addition, the ministry has also been asked to track “50 negative influencers” who “discredit” the government. At the same time, the report said that the ministry should also “encourage” at least 50 positive influencers “who project Government’s work positively” and that they should be “provided with requisite information”. 

The government was more vivid in another responsibility it has tasked itself with. “Same fact can be presented with different narratives. So, a pool of Spin Doctors who can do it for the Government should be identified and utilised,” read one of the roles to be taken up by the I&B ministry.

The report notes that ministers have already made the first presentation on the communication strategy to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “who guided the GoM with his insights and gave vital inputs.”