The one politician in India who has boycotted the media is Narendra Modi. In his nearly 10 years as prime minister he has not answered a single question from a journalist that was not previously approved. He has not had a single press conference, unless one counts the one on May 17, 2019, in which he was silent for a full 30 minutes as Amit Shah, sitting next to him, answered questions on his behalf.
There have been a few staged interviews with propagandist TV anchors, in which soft-ball questions have worked as prompts to launch into a series of small speeches in praise of himself.
But Modi has spent the last ten years speaking on television and through the press, as media companies and editors have caved in to his will, providing him a platform and conceding their role as a democracy’s fourth estate.
Television channels often broadcast all of Modi’s political and election campaign speeches in full, without so much as telling the audience that what they are seeing is from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s cameras, not their own. Newspapers report every banal pronouncement and the endless procession of inaugurations that are the bulk of Modi’s public appearances as prime minister. So-called journalists share his social media posts as if they are part of his social media engagement team.
A poison pantomime
During this period, news television has evolved into a poison pantomime. Their daily fare is incendiary misinformation designed to vilify the government’s critics, amplify hate against Muslims, feed religious and community divisions and support BJP or government campaigns against opposition parties and non-BJP state governments.
What they call a “debate” is a high decibel shouting match between political partisans with the news presenter playing both provocateur and active partisan. Only a sadomasochist would voluntarily put themselves through an evening of this more than once. Much of the population that can afford leisure does so evening after evening.
This did not happen overnight. News TV in India has long had an adversarial format. Even on issues where reasoned discussion between political rivals would have better informed the public, the college-debate format pitted political party spokespersons against each other in a gladiatorial contest of accusations and counter accusations. In the words of one of its most successful players, news television in India was “infotainment” – a news TV version of the WWE.
Reasonable, thoughtful journalists, and experts of all kinds, played a part in the growth of the monster media we have today. For the buzz of face recognition and, often, the allure of a cheque for each appearance, they lent their heft to these TV channels, deluding themselves that their presence acted as a counterweight to the poison.
It was journalism that was the loser in this contest. There were already media companies that were ideologically aligned – for example, the Zee and Dainik Jagaran groups, whose owners’ links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the BJP’s parent organisation – were public knowledge, and whose political biases were not easily concealed.
Other media companies, always conscious of their bottom line, their privileged access to government and a new fear of the income tax department saw that they could kill two birds with one stone – fulfil the BJP government’s demand for partisanship, while maintaining the fiction of talking to all sides, and deliver ever more toxic infotainment to a captive audience that had no standards. The space for real journalism, especially on TV, all but vanished. The exceptions were so few, as not to count.
Last week, the INDIA political grouping announced that it will no longer participate in the poison pantomime. They published a list of 14 TV anchors from Hindi and English language channels on whose shows they would no longer appear. The TV channels on which the 14 have prime time shows have long abandoned the pretence of anything that qualifies as professional journalism. Hence the question arises: why did it take these political parties so long? Like the journalists and experts who appeared on these shows, they lent legitimacy to the poison pantomime treating it as an acceptable form of journalism.
The question that needs asking is: will leaders and members of these political parties continue to attend the “conclaves” “summits” “think fests” that these media companies host, which are also their source of major revenue? Will they continue paying for advertising space in the newspapers run by these companies? Or is their refusal to go on their TV shows just a symbolic move, which they know will make no difference to these channels’ line of business, which is to amplify BJP propaganda?
The reaction to the INDIA groupings announcement from the named anchors and from the government and BJP was identical, underlining the deal between them. Consistent with how they work, they made statements that inverted the truth – this is at the core of the manipulative psychological game in which they have trapped their hypnotised audiences as well as their shows’ participants – so, the political parties refusing to appear on specific shows was pronounced a curtailment of press freedom.
The fact is that no one or nothing can stop them from continuing to spread misinformation, amplify hate or propagandise for the BJP every evening, if that’s what their employers want them to do.
The knee-jerk response from some sections of the rest of the media is also of a piece with how journalism is currently practiced in India. The line between journalism and propaganda has been blurred to an extent that most journalists have lost the ability to tell which is which, or who is still a journalist and who is now only a propagandist. Even newspapers whose reputations were built on challenging older establishments publish BJP propaganda as op-eds, interviews and news without actually identifying them as such.
This is explained as, and is generously accepted as, a fine balancing act in a political environment where the BJP government uses the state’s intelligence and revenue agencies to go after the owners of media companies and individual journalists and uses the police to put reporters in jail for doing their jobs.
A less-generous assessment might be that this fine balance, like the opposition politicians and independent experts on TV shows, allows the BJP to perpetuate the myth that India’s press continues to be free and vigorously independent.
Modi – whose boycott of the free and independent media is total – and the BJP have set the terms of engagement for the media. Most have fallen in line. Those who have not accepted the terms have a target painted on their backs. Despite this, some (online, in print, but not on TV) continue to do what journalists must do: inform, invigorate public debate and try to hold the government to account, or at least call it out.
For journalism in India to restore itself, a first step might be for those who are still journalists to learn to tell the difference between themselves and former colleagues who are simply using modes of journalism for the purposes of an extreme and harmful form of political propaganda. To recognise that if they fail to make this distinction, they lend credibility to propagandists of an authoritarian regime and contribute to the subversion of the fourth estate, and hence of a functioning democracy.
Anjali Mody is an independent journalist.