Congress President Rahul Gandhi has insisted for the last few years that the vision his party offers for the country is remarkably different from the aggressive, majoritarian approach of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Gandhi has repeatedly said that the media has not been allowed to operate freely, and has promised that this would change if the Congress was in charge. Yet, at a press conference on the Rafale issue on Wednesday, the Congress president also made a point to call a journalist who had interviewed the prime minister “pliable”.
“He [Modi] does not have the guts to come and sit in front of you,” Gandhi said, at the press conference. “And I come here... you can ask me any question... I come here every seven-ten days. You saw the Prime Minister’s interview yesterday... matlab pliable journalist, woh question bi kar rahi thi, pradhan mantri ka answer bi de rahi thi, side mein.” A pliable journalist, she was asking the questions and on the side giving the answers also.
Gandhi was referring to Smita Prakash, editor of news agency ANI, whose interview of Modi was aired on several television channels January 1. The interview was actually commended by some for featuring tough questions. This is a rarity when it comes to Modi. However, the prime minister seemed well prepared for them and was free to dodge the matter entirely in most cases, rather than facing follow-up questions.
Arrangements like these, where the interviews involve questions that are cleared beforehand and the journalist is expected not to push the point, are quite common in Indian journalism. Not least because politicians have learnt from the spectacles caused by open-ended interviews, like Arnab Goswami’s grilling of Rahul Gandhi a few years ago, or Modi walking out of an interview with Karan Thapar.
The propriety of such arrangements is a question worth debating, but not from the leader of a party that has previously operated in the same environment and continues to do so. Gandhi himself may be more open to unscripted questioning at press conferences than Modi. But politicians across his party are as likely to pick the journalists to whom they give interviews, and even demand questions beforehand.
Questions have also been raised of ANI over the past few months, particularly with the agency bagging some of the bigger interviews of late. AltNews has listed out a number of occasions when the agency has misrepresented situations, usually by quoting lay citizens who then turn out to be affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party in some manner or the other.ANI is not alone. Many other news outlets can be justifiably accused of simply toeing the establishment line with little care for the ethics that are expected of journalists.
But criticism, both of ANI or the Indian media at large, would be expected to come from the media fraternity or the larger civil society, rather than from politicians who take advantage of the same structures. If parties are going to do it, the criticism needs to come as a comprehensive response to the media environment rather than adding labels to any individual journalist.
Simply put, it was wrong for Gandhi to name one journalist. Of course, it may not have been the worst thing a politician has said about journalists in India recently. Indeed, the ruling BJP has spent years encouraging its broader ecosystem to attack journalists for being “news traders”, a term Modi has himself used, or “presstitutes”, which a minister in his government has used.
Gandhi has described himself as being different from Modi and the BJP, and has promised to usher in a nation built on “love and compassion” that does not put pressure on the media. If he is going to similarly attach labels to journalists and add to the wider disregard for the profession, how can one expect him to be any different from those he seeks to replace?