The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting
Imagine a situation, if you will, where an elected government in a democratic society has the uncritical, approving support of the media; all that is done in various fields of governmental activity is invariably acclaimed, and every decision duly applauded. Would even this imaginary scenario be considered as acceptable as, say, the Illyria of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night'
It may, but it would appear to most to be lacking in something. Even imaginary scenarios have to be, within their own terms, credible. Here the imagined scenario would be, to most people, either boring, dull, or stifling, because of the absence of the element of dissent, of disagreement. It would be perfectly acceptable — as an imaginary or even real situation — were it a totalitarian society, or an absolute monarchy or dictatorship; but not, even in imaginary terms, if it were a democracy, a free society.
That dissent is an integral part of democracy is a truism is generally known, but that does not mean it doesn’t bear repetition. Especially when it appears to provoke reactions out of all proportion from those in power, those who have got where they have through elections, that is, by being voted into office. Too often one finds ministers and others in the structures of power transforming in a surprisingly short time to people who consider that they have developed a superior ability to know better than others what people should and should not know; they become the arbiters of what is in “the public interest”.
That perhaps is an inevitable part of the process of governance; but then, so is the freedom of speech and expression, and, as far as the media are concerned, it has always been — again, inevitably, as this too is a part of the same democratic process — wary and sceptical of the arbiters of power, ready to disbelieve what they say, and investigating the many actions and decisions the powerful would rather not expose to public gaze.
This is, as one has said, a part of the very nature of a free society; and there is even some virtue in it being what it is. Because the powerful know the media are sceptical, if not antagonistic, they are in many cases careful about what they do, though, of course in many cases they aren’t, and hence the dramatic exposes one gets to see in the media of various kinds — moneymaking, sexual escapades (though this, oddly, is one area that the media are rather discreet about) and other kinds of strange behaviour.
But, to the extent that at least some restraint is brought about for fear of exposure, it must be seen as a desirable attribute, the obverse side of which attribute being the fact that the credibility of the government — any government — is never very high. Commendable achievements in various fields of activity are reported, it is true, but never with the kind of interest that failure in a particular field is. Thousands of tubewells may well be provided in thousands of villages, but what would make bigger headlines would be a story that of the thousands more than half were out of order. “There’s so much good work done in the rural areas,” a sometime secretary in the ministry of rural development said to me bitterly, “and does any of it get even mentioned by the media' You’ve got a hope in hell. But let one bloody BDO embezzle five hundred bucks and they’ll have it on the...front page.”
He was right, of course, and also not right. We know how much is spent on the vast advertisements which crow about the achievements of the government; we also know that if the government’s achievements are remarkable in any field, it is reported, in the way in which the media considers appropriate — perhaps when an annual survey of what went right and what didn’t is being done. And embezzlement is always news, as the poor secretary should have known. It shows up the system, and anything that does that is fair game for the media.
The point is, however, something else. It is the acceptance by those in power that their credibility is never going to be as high as they would like it to be. It’s in the very nature of the process; it begins when election promises are made which sound splendid and are in some cases not even practical. Nonetheless once in power attempts are made to justify them, and the process of disbelief starts. This is only one of the many ways in which it does, but it does happen. And it needs to be accepted that it does.
Of course the powerful and mighty will issue denials, angry or otherwise; of course there will be clarifications, explanations, and all the rest. That, too, is a part of the ritual. What is not is excessive reaction; that happens only when those in power truly fear for their position, and see the spectre of being removed becoming very real. It was fear that led Indira Gandhi to impose the Emergency in 1975, and jail hundreds of journalists. The fear that she would lose her position. Ironically, it was this one action of hers that ensured that she would, indeed, lose power, which she did in the elections held in 1977, elections which the intelligence agencies assured her she would win.
What is of present concern is that there have been, in the recent few months, one or two instances of those in power reacting excessively to stories in the media. There was the disgraceful summoning by the police of Alex Perry, the Time correspondent, after the magazine carried a story by him on Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Was it necessary to react ' And in a manner that would have done a banana republic proud' The police can summon anyone; so what did they prove by summoning Perry' Who takes these decisions' Not the police officers who summoned him; they would always, but always, act when instructed to do so.
Then, the hounding of the Tehelka editor and reporters. Would they have been arrested, roughed up, summoned and otherwise harassed if they hadn’t put out the story about money being taken by people in power, both political and in the defence services'
It is the signs of intolerance among the powerful that are the danger signals. Intolerance of reports that they consider cause them damage will inevitably weaken the structure of our society, which is, goodness knows, shaky enough. The continuous tension between those in power and the media is a factor that needs to be accepted generally; but what is even more important is that some ground rules for this be accepted as well.
As the media need to avoid sensational, uncorroborated stories, the authorities have to accept that reactions need to be kept within some basic limits. To exceed them is to venture into realms of censorship and control, something that will hasten the destruction of what has taken over half a century to build amidst endless brawling, arguments and quarrels — our own form of democracy. So far the voices of maturity appear to be the stronger; but other, more strident voices are now being heard, and the evidence of fascist reaction to criticism is beginning to appear.