A complaint that some readers of Scroll.in occasionally make is that the publication is anti-Narendra Modi government. Most recently on October 8, a couple of readers accused Scroll.in of consistently going overboard in its criticism of the government. One said there was a need for “constructive criticism” alongside “healthy praise”, and the other said there was a focus only on criticism without highlighting any of the government’s achievements.
I am not surprised that there is such a view. I say that not because I think Scroll.in has gone overboard in its criticism but because these days, any criticism of the government anywhere in the media stands out because there is so little of it.
Since 2014, ever since the Modi government swept into office, the media as a whole seems to have lost its voice. Newspapers (in English and the Indian languages), magazines and television have all forgotten that they are supposed to be part of an independent institution that speaks truth to power. Social media has, of course, been dominated by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the trolls among them do not allow any discussion. (The situation has changed a bit in recent months though.)
The reasons for this loss of independence are somewhat puzzling. There has been no formal censorship as during the Emergency of 1975-1977, so there was no formal pressure on the media to bend before the government. Yet, a media that was so forceful in its criticism of the United Progressive Alliance government, its prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the Congress went into a slumber immediately after the 2014 parliamentary elections.
In awe of the government
It was not a brief honeymoon period for the government that saw the media go all quiet. It seemed like a traditional marriage of inequality between the government and the media: the government showed no respect for the media, but the media chose to be permanently in awe of the government.
So we are now in a situation where television news channels are more interested in demolishing the Opposition than in holding the government accountable and newspapers have lost their sense of proportion in swallowing what the government says. There certainly are exceptions. A small band of journalists and a few small publications working in towns as well as in the cities have not been afraid of showing us what journalism is supposed to be. Gauri Lankesh spoke truth to power and she was made to suffer the most extreme of consequences.
However, the large print and television empires that have more clout and, therefore, cannot be pushed aside easily seem to retreat very easily. It would seem that fear of the state flexing its muscles and concern about loss of advertising revenue is enough to make them forget their journalism.
The situation is slightly better online where the publications unlike print do not carry any baggage and unlike television are more conscious of journalistic proprieties. This is where digital news publications like Scroll.in and The Wire stand apart.
A duty to question
The media does have many roles to perform. These include dissemination of information, educating its audiences and even offering entertainment. But in a democracy, its core agenda is that of a watchdog. It is supposed to be the “Fourth Estate”, standing apart from the three estates of the legislature, executive and judiciary.
The media’s main role is to be an adversary. It has to question the government at all levels, pick holes and find fault. Its job is not to offer praise, even occasionally. A media that is conscious of its responsibilities must be a thorn in the flesh of the state.
We are far from being in that situation. So when a few publications do stand up and raise their voices, we must welcome them rather than complain that they are not balancing their criticism with praise. There is uncritical praise aplenty in the media. There is more to come as the government works overtime to influence public opinion through planted op-eds, and through private consultancies to influence opinion on social media in one direction – as this article on, you guessed right, Scroll.in pointed out two weeks ago.
Since on one side we are being bombarded by official handouts and articles planted by the government and on the other we have a studied silence, the few brave media outlets who are full-throated in their criticism need the support of their readers.
This does not mean that anything goes, or that any article that criticises the government automatically qualifies for publication. The standards of accuracy and verification that generally apply are equally, if not more, applicable to critical reporting. (It is a different matter that the many stories on television that stir up hate and abuse would fail to meet even the weakest of journalistic standards.)
It is a difficult time world-wide for journalism. In the West, newspapers were first hit by falling advertisements and then a decline in readership. Later, with the birth of “citizen journalism” and the arrival of social media, traditional journalism seemed to lose all legitimacy in the eyes of the old audiences. To make matters worse, Facebook and Google have eaten up most of the advertising revenue and are now offering news as well. And we have United States President Donald Trump who has the same contempt for the media that the government of India currently has.
The one important difference is that while the media in the United States gave Trump a free pass during the 2016 presidential elections, they now go at him hammer and tongs every day. This is very, very different from India, where the media is now the meekest of lambs.
So, when a publication like Scroll.in chooses to criticise the government, we should be somewhat relieved that, yes, there are still institutions that have not forgotten what journalists are supposed to do – even if they are abused on social media, and even by ministerial members of the government, as presstitutes. More power to their critical reporting and analysis. And there is no need, I would say, for any attempt at balance with a showering of praise on the government.
However, Scroll.in has not forgotten its other functions of disseminating information and educating its readers. While it did recently run a four-part series on how the government’s pilot experiments ahead of a nation-wide reform of the fertiliser subsidy regime have failed, it has also published an article that favourably reports on an experiment by the government of Madhya Pradesh (under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party) to radically recast the agricultural procurement regime.
So I would say that Scroll.in needs to continue what it is doing. All that it has to do is to ensure that its reporting – especially the critical pieces – adhere to rigorous standards and the opinion pieces too do not take short-cuts in expressing a point of view.
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