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MORE THAN JUST A CIRCUS - Responsible media and a democratic government

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By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 19.02.11

Some of the questions asked during Manmohan Singh’s televised press conference reminded me of Lee Kuan Yew telling the International Press Institute that it was naïve to believe a free press curbs corruption because “the media itself is corrupted”. Listening to the prime minister’s appeal to editors not to erode self-confidence recalled Vallabhbhai Patel’s argument that the test of a newspaper’s loyalty lies in supporting the government when it is wrong because support is automatic when it is right.

But it’s arguable whether Wednesday’s hour-long staged show will yield dividends since television is by definition a circus that thrives on excitement and will not be robbed of its customary sustenance. One might as well ask newspapers to publish not news but features. The interaction did, however, go to the heart of the old question of how a responsible media should relate to a democratic government that acts on its belief in liberal values. Unexpectedly, it also threw some light on the undefined role of media adviser. The model ranges from India’s H.Y. Sharada Prasad, who was seen (with more than a little help from himself) as the strong silent man behind three prime ministers, to Britain’s Alastair Campbell, the spin doctor who became the story and famously pre-empted Tony Blair at a press conference.

Seven years after P.V. Narasimha Rao’s death, I am surprised to learn from the internet that he, too, had a media adviser, an IAS officer named P.V.R.K. Prasad. As both external affairs minister and prime minister, he would do his own talking and sometimes complain I had written the opposite of what he had said! Occasionally, he mentioned trusted aides like Ramu Damodaran and Shyamala Cowsik but never a media adviser. Though he follows Prasad’s admirable precedent of anonymity, Harish Khare did well on Wednesday to emerge from the shadows when obstreperousness had to be rapped on the knuckles.

If, as the need for Khare’s intervention showed, Manmohan Singh’s diffident manner invites hectoring, it also induces a sense of protectiveness. Prannoy Roy’s perception of an honest man fallen among wheeler-dealers — evident from the preamble to his question — is widely shared in objective sections of the media that are neither committed to an opposition cause nor searching for titillation to make their product saleable. But respect for the man need not mean automatic support for everything his government says and does. Manmohan Singh must know that C.P. Scott, whose famous dictum about facts being sacred and comment free he invoked, would never have agreed to circumscribe that freedom to strengthen “the self-confidence of the people”.

Not that the high priest of journalistic tradition was himself always the epitome of consistency. The classic instance of double standards was that while the Manchester Guardian that Scott edited for 57 years took a lofty moral tone against tobacco in any form, its survival depended on the advertising (including for cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco) revenue of its lowbrow stable mate, the Manchester Evening News. Not only that. The popular Evening News played up the sleazy and sensational stories that the Guardian disdained to notice. When Malcolm Muggeridge, who worked for the Guardian before joining The Statesman in Calcutta, described this duality in a novel, the Scott family sued for libel and the publisher withdrew all copies of Picture Palace. It was a severe professional and financial setback for Muggeridge. The ban was not lifted until 30 years later. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of slaves?” Dr Johnson asked.

It may sound heretical for a newspaperman of more than 50 years’ standing to voice scepticism about the media’s prized halo. Even Manmohan Singh, who chided the media on Wednesday, subscribed to the popular theology the previous Friday when he described journalists as “the conscience keepers of society” charged with “pointing out what is wrong not only with the administration and government but also society at large”. But he may have had no choice since he was speaking at the centenary celebrations of the Malayalam daily, Kerala Kaumudi. The Eid greeting with which he launched the press conference was another genuflection to convention. Of course, he may actually have believed what he said for, after all, press freedom is one of the pillars of the Indian state like democracy and secularism.

But several caveats must be entered about this idealized image. Lee touched on something that has long bothered working journalists when he noted that “freedom of the press really means the freedom of the owner, the man who owns the newspaper, who hires and fires the journalists”. The late Ramnath Goenka was our veggie version of Citizen Kane aka William Randolph Hearst. Manmohan Singh noted another shortcoming in the same speech by stressing the importance of accuracy and fairness, defining the latter as “not merely the absence of bias in reporting on events but also a very conscious attempt to present diverse and different views on a situation or an issue”. This absence of a “conscious attempt” to be fair can be attributed to ignorance, malice or both.

The Indian Buddhists’ recent memorandum to the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi about “many wild reports” circulating in the media is instructive in this context: “We were astounded to hear a senior TV anchorman, Mr Arnab Goswami, say on the Times Now channel that the Karmapa had gone to Hongkong and met Chinese leaders there. We wonder who Mr Goswami had in mind! Since leaving Tibet in 1999, His Holiness the Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, has left India only once, and that was for his highly successful tour of the United States in 2008 undertaken with the Government’s permission. [Otherwise], he has not set foot outside India and has certainly never been to Hongkong.” Goswami’s bloomer was a godsend for Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s supporters. Gloating tongue-in-cheek that “a journalist of [his] standing will not invent events”, they pounced on a relatively unknown aspirant for the Karmapa’s crown, Thinley Thaya Dorjee, who had, indeed, visited Hongkong and been feted by the Chinese authorities. In trying to weaken Ogyen Trinley Dorje, Goswami ended up by strengthening him because he had neglected his homework!

However, a three-column DNA heading “HP lets cash-stashing karmapa go scot-free” was pure mischief. It was bad journalism because it was a single-sentence editorial masquerading as news. It was dishonest because the PTI report below said exactly the opposite. The Himachal Pradesh chief secretary had given a “clean chit” to the Karmapa precisely because he was not “cash-stashing” even if others were.

I go back to Lee’s point: a bent media cannot be the watchdog of probity.

All this has a bearing on Manmohan Singh’s plea that the media “must not focus excessively on the negative features, important though it is that the government should deal with them”. Tomes can be devoted to this subject, and I have written extensively elsewhere that the sensitive communal balance of Asian societies cannot afford the West’s publish-and-be-damned bravado. My favourite illustration is of the Indonesian editor who said that if a bus rammed into a rickshaw, he couldn’t say the bus-driver was Chinese and the rickshaw-driver Javanese.

I don’t regret the many occasions when I have had to exercise similar circumspection. But the justification for restraint is less well-founded when abstractions like the people’s self-confidence or the country’s image are concerned. The answer in such cases lies not in expecting the media to exercise self-censorship over scams and scandals but in providing firm and convincing evidence that the government is tackling abuses. Manmohan Singh’s promise of being “dead serious in bringing to book all the wrongdoers regardless of the position they occupy” may not deter television’s frenzied quest for entertainment but is far more relevant in this regard. However, it will have to be proved in the days and weeks to come.