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BIG EGOS AND BYLINES

- Modi should discard the sterile media practices of UPA II

Having recently returned to New Delhi’s media environment after reporting from Washington for 14 years for this newspaper, it is difficult to endorse the view of a contemporary publication that the prime minister, Narendra Modi, is engaged in the “disintermediation of the media” in communicating with the nation. Yet, it is a view that is commonplace in the national media these days.

That Washington is at once the freest and the most systematically controlled of capitals for the media is something I can swear by, having reported as a foreign correspondent from some of the most restrictive of capitals in the world and after living — and working for a local newspaper for a decade — in close proximity and being linked to environments where journalists are executed after being accused of spying.

In Washington, unlike in New Delhi, freedom of information is fostered by giving the media every opportunity to preserve their dignity and uphold their ethical standards: the administrations at every level in the United States of America deal with print, visual and other media on a “need to know” basis. The loud reproaches in the Indian media that Modi plans to emasculate the fourth estate as a pillar of democracy would never have surfaced if several of his predecessors and their aides had not wilfully broken the fine and sacred line between sources and reporters or dragged opinion writers down into a world of make-believe, where some of them at least assumed that their job was to make government policies instead of interpreting or dissecting them.

When Barack Obama finalized his plans to visit India in 2010 I received a communication from his administration offering an opportunity to be part of the media accompanying him on that visit, which was, by any stretch, a landmark trip. I did not take up the offer and reasoned with my employers why I did not want to be part of the White House “accompanying media” — but that part of the episode is not relevant here.

It is two other aspects of the administration’s offer that are important. First, it was an open offer to every Indian correspondent in Washington plus the entire White House press corps and those accredited to the US state department. Unlike the practice by successive Indian governments, nobody in authority was picking and choosing the accompanying media in Washington. Any journalist who met the above criteria could have accompanied Obama on that overseas trip.

Second, every journalist who opted to join the visit had to shell out $8,400 in air-fare alone. That figure was arrived at by a process of dividing the charter fare by the number of seats on the plane carrying journalists that would tail Air Force One, the presidential aircraft. At one preparatory stage of Obama’s travel plans, when Amritsar was being considered as a stop, the portion of charter fare, including landing and take-off charges, which every accompanying journalist would have paid for a short, 45-minute flight from Punjab to Delhi would have been $2,800. The hotel room charges were, of course, on the individual journalist. That is not all. Every member of the accompanying media had to shell out $1,000 towards the cost of renting function halls in hotels where administration officials would brief the media. Such costs for publicizing their president’s policies are not passed on in the US to the taxpayer. If an accompanying journalist chose to use work space or broadcast and communication facilities at what are known as “filing centres”, they had to pay for that as well. Moreover, no coffee, tea or soft drinks, not even bottled water, would be served at administration cost at any briefing throughout the presidential journey.

When P.V. Narasimha Rao was prime minister, one media house wrote to Rao’s office that they would like to pay for the seat for its editor on his VVIP aircraft. Rao’s aides concluded that it was too complicated an exercise to work out the exact cost of media transport on a chartered Air India plane. Since then, however, it has been a journey downhill for India’s fourth estate, and they should applaud Modi for a course correction that should eventually enable self-respecting sections of the media to hold their heads high during future prime ministerial travels abroad.

Year after year in September, media delegations to the United Nations general assemblies from Western countries look upon us, the Indian prime minister’s accompanying media, with envy because, unlike us, they cannot get even a bag of chips or cookies from their governments. The explanation from Indian missions hosting VVIP delegations has been that many members of the Indian media party are vegetarians and many more of them have no tolerance for non-Indian food. So, all their meals have to be served in hotels where the accompanying media are staying. But why should the taxpayer foot these bills?

In recent decades, many journalists got so used to being pampered by the government that they began to demand all-inclusive tours with prime ministers as their right. Modi is merely disabusing them of such misplaced notions by refusing to take the usual complement of 34 journalists on his special plane.

The most appalling incident of media highhandedness that I was witness to was at Cairo airport, some twenty years ago, when a very senior journalist flung his boarding pass in the face of an Air India ground hostess because his seat had been changed for the next leg of the prime minister’s flight. He then walked off and had to be pacified by having his chosen seat restored before the Egyptian police physically restrained him for breach of security because he was on the tarmac. The fault-lines go beyond the fourth estate and intersect the government’s media management because this gentleman is a former media adviser to a prime minister: for the record, not one of any recent appointees.

At least, are readers rewarded adequately for all the pains that others have to put up with from media personnel with inflated egos and an exaggerated sense of their importance? Accompanying Narasimha Rao to the UN general assembly one year, we were alighting at the media hotel, the Lexington, once owned by the Tatas. Two senior colleagues urged me to follow them if I wanted to watch some fun. An owner-editor, who was the first to reach the media centre, was already on the phone to his news desk. “Mein pahoonch gaya hoon [I have reached],” he blared into the phone, “Pradhan mantri bhi pahoonch gaya hai. Baaki sab agency lena. [The prime minister has also reached. All the rest you take from the agencies].” He put down the phone, then called his office again as an afterthought, “Oh, mera byline dal dena [Oh, put my byline in).” That was his professional contribution for the day. He was soon out in jeans and walking shoes enjoying the Big Apple.

The rough edges of the government’s media management have so many angularities that it is unfair to lay all the blame on the journalists. In the second term of the United Progressive Alliance government, the flow of information to the accompanying media about the prime minister’s foreign tours became so restricted that it was simply not worthwhile to go on any visit: unless one had independent sources in host countries or if one was in the delegation just for a good time.

The minute-to-minute programme of the prime minister is no longer shared with journalists. The list of the official delegation, their hotel-room details or phone numbers are now secret, making it hard — especially for news outlets outside Delhi’s incestuous power circle — to report beyond sterile briefings. During the Group of Twenty summit in Toronto attended by Manmohan Singh, the media was quarantined in their hotel throughout Singh’s stay except for a dinner on a boat, for which even the host, the media adviser to Singh, did not bother to come.

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, he met every accompanying journalist individually in batches of three on board: the ground rules were that journalists were not allowed to ask questions. Vajpayee questioned them instead. That was one way for him to get an independent feedback. Visiting Bhutan, Indira Gandhi once strolled into the quarters of the accompanying media. An agency correspondent then, the late A.N. Prabhu’s door was open and she peeped in to find a carton prominently labelled “Bhutan Rum” on the floor. “What is it, Prabhu?” she asked. “Apples,” Prabhu replied, unfazed. “I would like some of those apples too,” she smiled. If Modi ever revives the practice of taking a large media contingent on his foreign trips, he should similarly consider thinking out of the box instead of following the sterile media practices of UPA II.