Over the past few weeks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken on two occasions about the functions and responsibilities of the media.
On October 28, at an informal interaction with journalists during the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Diwali Milan, Modi asked that the media “play a constructive role in democracy”. A specific suggestion was that the media should talk more about democracy within political parties. If everyone knew what that was about, there was a formal speech in Chennai on November 6 where, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Daily Thanthi newspaper, he covered many aspects of what the media should and should not be doing.
All this was somewhat unusual for Modi who, during his term as prime minister, has had a paradoxical relationship with the media. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government has kept a tight control on its messages and the media image it has sought to project of itself. It has been so successful that by and large it has had the media eating out of its hands over the past three-plus years.
Yet, Modi has also demonstrated a lack of interest in, if not an actual dislike for, the press. He has done away with the office of the media adviser in the prime minister’s office. He has not had a single press conference so far. He has given a handful of one-on-one interviews that have all been friendly; one interviewer has even said he had to submit his questions in advance. As everyone knows, Modi prefers to communicate directly with people. He regularly tweets to his followers who number in the millions and he uses the Mann ki Baat radio programme to address another audience.
Modi quite simply does not seem to think the media is important either as a questioning body or as an interlocutor with the citizenry.
So, when he thinks it is necessary to speak at some length on the functions and responsibilities of the media, one needs to take notice.
The prime minister essentially wants the media to facilitate a civic sense of “responsible engagement”, which would be a movement away from what he describes as a civic sense of entitlement. Towards this end, Modi in his speech highlighted three important areas that he felt the media should work on.
One, freedom of the press should not lead to a situation where the media is “factually inaccurate” or “less than accurate” in the reports it publishes. In other words, it needs to be accurate in its reporting. Two, the media needs to pay attention to the credibility of the information it puts out. In both respects, the media needs to introspect on its functioning, because as an institution it is as important as the executive and the judiciary. Hence, the media too has an important “social accountability” that it has to discharge, Modi said. Three, the media needs to educate the people about important issues. The example Modi gives is of climate change where he exhorts the press to “report, discuss and raise awareness”.
This is an important mini-charter, if one can call it that, for the Indian press. No one can quarrel with the call for accuracy and credibility in reporting, and for the press to play what can be called an agenda building role as in climate change. The fact that the prime minister has to say this may reflect how far the media has failed to perform its role in at least these three areas.
There are many other things we can say the press should be doing. It must provide information on a number of areas other than domestic and foreign politics; it should offer balanced coverage of science, sports, business and the arts. It must also give expression to people’s views on the world as they experience it. The press must also offer recreational content. The list is endless.
If the prime minister had ventured to speak about social media, then we would have an entirely different set of issues, including the abusive behaviour of groups and individuals sympathetic to the ruling party.
Staying with the mainstream media – print, broadcast and online – there are a few important subjects that found no mention in the prime minister’s speech. Indeed, what was not said was as important as what was said.
A questioning media
A major part of the social accountability function of the media is to be a watchdog on all arms of the state – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. This must mean a constant questioning of the actions of these arms of the state. This is the kind of questioning that makes all governments uncomfortable about the press. But the National Democratic Alliance government has shown a heightened dislike for the media performing the watchdog function, preferring instead that the government’s achievements be given publicity. So, naturally, no mention of this in the prime minister’s speech.
A related but distinct responsibility of the media is that it must necessarily maintain an adversarial stance with respect to the government. Only then can it maintain its independence and be a watchdog. This is again something that no government likes the media to be, the Modi government even more than the others before it. So, again, no mention of this in the prime minister’s speech.
(A strange aspect of the functioning of the media is that important sections of the television media are more adversarial towards the Opposition than the government.)
There is a third and contemporary phenomenon where the political leadership needs to signal a certain intent. This is the divisiveness and bigotry promoted by sections of the media, especially some news channels on television. These channels regularly demonise the minorities and promote a level of hate that is extremely disturbing. No mention in the Chennai speech of this either, of the need to end unhealthy practices in the media that threaten to further strain the social fabric. The ruling party may be comfortable with such tendencies, but the prime minister cannot be.
Finally, we have some news websites whose main function seems to be to spread fake news that is meant to ratchet up tensions, leading at times to violence against targeted groups. Fake news sites like Postcard News fall into such a category. Fake news websites again push an ideology that the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are sympathetic to. So again, no mention of this dangerous trend in the speech.
Spare no one
In his remarks on the anniversary of the Daily Thanthi, Modi cited Mahatma Gandhi while arguing that the media must be responsible in exercising editorial freedom. Gandhi did indeed say the power of the pen could be like “an unrestrained torrent of water” that causes damage and that the press should show restraint. He said many other things as well. For Gandhi, the editor of one publication in South Africa and three in India, the press was a great instrument first and foremost for service. To perform public service, Gandhi said in Hind Swaraj: “One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand popular feeling and to give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments; and the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects.”
To write fearlessly was one of Gandhi’s leitmotifs. This was exemplified in the three editorials he wrote in Young India in 1921. Gandhi knew that by writing those editorials against British rule, he would be breaking the laws on sedition. Yet, it was important for Gandhi that he fearlessly express his opposition to the colonial regime, and for doing so he was sentenced to imprisonment.
If only Prime Minister Narendra Modi would use the language of Gandhi and ask the media to be fearless in expressing its views. Or like Jawaharlal Nehru telling the cartoonist Shankar “Do not spare me Shankar”, if only Modi were to tell the media to spare nothing in its criticism of him and his government.
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