In a normal time for a free news media, it would be the story of the day. On November 29, thousands of farmers and their families made their way to Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata to protest against the rapid unraveling of their lives. The marchers represented rural India, where 70% of India’s population, or more than 900 million people, live.

But these are not normal times, and nothing could be more abnormal than India’s rash of television channels with so-called “nationalist” and pro-government proclivities as they spent hours on November 29 debating the Congress manifesto in Telangana. Rohini Singh, a reporter, published a compilation about this on Twitter.

“Rajasthan mein Brahman, Telengana mein Maulana [A Brahmin in Rajasthan, a Muslim in Telengana],” screamed Zee News, with a composite photo of Congress President Rahul Gandhi praying at a temple and grinning while wearing a taqiya (skullcap). Other pro-Modi channels had variations of the Congress sucking-up-to-minorities theme, centred around a manifesto that supposedly promised special education and job opportunities to Muslims, special salaries for imams, Muslim-only hospitals, and free electricity to mosques and churches.

Did the Congress manifesto actually say all this?

It did – if you excised inconvenient phrases, reported the fake-news-busting site, such as the fact that the free electricity was for temples as well, or that salaries on par with government staff were promised for priests in Hindu temples, and so a honorarium would be given to imams and pastors too. It did – if you twisted words, such as changing “minority concentrated areas” to “Muslim-only” hospitals.

Farmers march towards Parliament House in New Delhi on Friday. (Photo credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters).

No longer watchdog?

A long-accepted function of the media since the days before television and the internet is that they set the agenda. That agenda-setting function has scarcely changed, although it is now shared with and magnified by social media. What has changed in many societies with fake-media-and-nationalist ecosystems is that the agenda setters proffer news that, if not outright fake, is a twisted version of reality. These manipulated facts serve as confirmation bias – the tendency to interpret or present information that strengthens biases.

This is not an entirely new allegation. In 1955, the first Press Commission noted that some among the media were “partisan in the presentation of news in respect of the financial interests with which they are allied”. It spoke of “a certain timidity” to investigate those in authority and “a tendency to suppress facts” unfavourable to their interests, financial or otherwise.

It was thus that the media came to be called the “jute press” in the 1950s, a reference to the fact that most newspapers were owned by jute barons. The antidote, according to the first Press Commission and the next in 1978, a year after Emergency was imposed, was to set up a Press Council as a watchdog and ombudsman and separate the media from the commercial interests of the owner. The Press Council was set up, but to expect it to uphold media ethics in modern India is like asking for a trip to the moon. As for separating the media from commercial interests, that is, currently, fantasy. A few non-profits exist (Disclaimer: I am the editor of one), some are the last bastions of India’s free press, but they do not have a viable, sustainable business model yet.

The media are faced with challenges that they have never faced before, and they are not facing up to them particularly well. In the West, which is also plagued by the nationalism-and-fake-news menace, the mainstream media have held their own. They continue to tell truth to power, and when the pressure from the government threatens the core of their mission, they stand together, as in the US, when even President Donald Trump’s favourite media outlet, Fox News, said his ban on a CNN reporter from the White House was unconstitutional.

A question of credibility

In India, calls to media barons and editors from the party in power are now routine. This applies as much to state capitals as to Delhi. The media are intrinsically linked to commercial interests that are either incapable of allowing independence to those journalists who seek to exercise it or unwilling to do so. To be sure, there was always pressure. In my years as an editor in various mainstream media, I struggled occasionally with pressure – usually indirect, rarely explicit – to stay away from certain topics, interests and people. I quit too many jobs, had too many run-ins with authority and am quite unemployable. But the pressure on editors today from proprietors who cannot or do not want to stand up for a free media is intense, frequent and explicit. If you tell a roomful of people not from the media that you are going to discuss media ethics, you are likely to face incredulity.

India’s ruling party, the BJP, pioneered this emasculation of the media. State governments and conglomerates are quickly learning how easy it can be: Call the proprietor, threaten a business interest, file a defamation case, set the trolls lose, withdraw advertising. The danger is that once freedom is lost, credibility follows, and both are hard, if not impossible, to regain.

The credibility of the Indian media is, perhaps, at its lowest ebb. The aficionados of fake-news-and-nationalism are likely to say it is the “liberal”, mainstream media that cannot be trusted. But the fact is that the Indian news media, while never being shining beacons of objectivity and independence, were certainly not given to outright religious bias, lies and pro-government propaganda of the kind we are now witnessing.

So, expect to see little coverage of those thousands of farmers sweeping into India’s cities and little debate around their demands. These great marches may be, as the writer Amitav Ghosh, put it, “the most important thing happening in the world right now”. Fortunately, the same social media that play an important role in accentuating the frivolous and the fake also bring attention to the important things. That is good, but it may not be enough to make India realise that the crisis on its farms is somewhat more significant than salaries to its priests.