On May 12, two interviews appeared of Narendra Modi. One was in print, the other on TV. One was exceptional because it was unscripted. The other was exceptional because despite it being quite obviously scripted, the prime minister offered some gems that had social media ablaze all of that Sunday.

While the latter, an interview by Deepak Chaurasia and Peenaz Tyagi on News Nation, has been the cause of much hilarity, it is the interview conducted by the chief editor of The Indian Express, Raj Kamal Jha, and Ravish Tiwari that requires closer reading. It reveals more about Modi than his answers to searching questions posed by the two journalists.

This interview, coming as it does at the tail end of Modi’s term as prime minister, confirms his disdain for the media. We know he has not held a single press conference. We know the only interviews he had granted until then were to friendly channels and journalists. There was also the now legendary “non-political interview” to film actor Akshay Kumar where urgent questions such as how Modi eats a mango were asked.

So why, after an unblemished record of avoiding difficult questions, did the prime minister agree to be interviewed by a newspaper that has been critical of his policies? Did his media managers decide that Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, who has been giving a series of TV and print interviews, all unscripted and several live, was getting too much coverage and there appeared a noticeable softening in the media’s critical attitude towards him?

Clearly, a week before the end of this prolonged election process, through which Modi and his media team have successfully maintained the media focus on him and ensured the Modi narrative from his campaign speeches dominates primetime TV debates, no space could be ceded to the man the prime minister loves to attack.

As far as TV is concerned, Modi has not spoken to any channel that might be critical. Neither the combative Karan Thapar, nor the persuasive yet incisive Ravish Kumar of NDTV India have featured on the list of journalists to interview him. None of his television interviews have been live, unlike the ones Gandhi has been giving lately.

Idea of a neutral media

The Indian Express interview is a case study of Modi’s responses when the questions are not predetermined. There’s a pattern in most of his interviews that can be seen here as well. For instance, Modi has perfected the art of using every interview to state what he wants irrespective of what he is asked. He turns every question around instead of giving a direct answer.

Hence, when asked whether he brooked dissent as prime minister, Modi spoke about how he worked during his 13 years as chief minister of Gujarat. When asked why he does not speak about his government’s achievements at his election rallies, he said he did not want to “limit my government to one or two issues” and that this “will be a great injustice to Modi”, referring to himself in the third person.

Not surprisingly, his visceral hatred of the English-speaking elite comes through. The “Khan Market gang”, Modi declares, cannot “dismantle” his image (referring to a term used earlier by Gandhi).

For people unfamiliar with Delhi, this reference might be mystifying. Is it because it’s called Khan Market? After all, Khanna Market, which is close by, would not have the same resonance. In any case, the term is inappropriate given the people who eat, shop and hang out in Khan Market are mostly apolitical yuppies, expats or the upper-class residents of the neighbourhood. What is clear from his remark is that despite five years in Delhi, Modi continues to distrust and dislike the so-called liberals, whose prominence in the media is probably greater than their political clout.

Narendra Modi's obviously scripted interview by Deepak Chaurasia and Peenaz Tyagi on News Nation has been the cause of much hilarity. Photo via YouTube
Narendra Modi's obviously scripted interview by Deepak Chaurasia and Peenaz Tyagi on News Nation has been the cause of much hilarity. Photo via YouTube

While his allergy to the liberal elite is an old story, it is Modi’s view of the media and how he defines “neutrality” that should be interrogated. Using the strategy of offence being the best form of defence, Modi launches into The Indian Express, asking why it waited until after May 6, the fourth phase of voting, before it reported the gang rape of a Dalit woman in Alwar on April 26. How come a paper known for investigative journalism did not investigate this atrocity, he asks mockingly, alluding to a bias. Like most other papers, The Indian Express did report on the Alwar rape case. All the reports pointed out what the victim and her husband have stated: that the local police had asked them to wait for action against the accused until after the election.

Even more significant were Modi’s comments about individual journalists and their social media profiles. “Today the masks are off all journalists,” he said. “Your personal views are visible on social media. People now analyse that...the personal views being reflected in the media are not the neutrality of the media. That is why your reputation is on the line, it is because of that.” He went on to say, “The crisis of credibility is not of the media but the person who is working there. So do not abuse us.”

This is as disingenuous as it is dangerous. First, his test for “neutrality of the media” is linked to whether it covers the news the way the administration desires. Second, he is telling journalists their “reputation is on the line” because their personal views are known through their social media posts. In other words, a desirable media is one that is “neutral”, peopled with “neutral” journalists with no personal views about the state of affairs in the country. Is this why the prime minister has assiduously avoided journalists who might not be “neutral”?

At the cost of credibility

Whether the media in a democracy can or should be neutral according to Modi’s definition is debatable. But at this juncture in our history as a democracy, it is worth looking back at the media’s role in the last three decades. Vidya Subrahmaniam’s excellent essay for the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy titled, “Speaking truth to power: the Indian media’s descent from sharp hawks to screeching parrots”, does this. She notes how, after a short honeymoon period, The Indian Express and The Hindu were at the forefront skewering the Rajiv Gandhi government over Bofors through relentless exposes. Such critical and investigative writing continued right up to the end of Manmohan Singh’s second term. Was the media “neutral” then? Was it biased against the Congress? Or was it doing what the media must do at all times?

The reason mainstream media has not been so critical of the ruling dispensation since, writes Subrahmaniam, is because the Modi government “whipped up hysteria and intolerance against the media and created an impression of unofficial censorship. The chilling effect of this has been to prevent the media, the mainstream media in particular, with its dependence on government advertisement, from playing the watchdog role expected of it.”

This perception of neutrality, as articulated by Modi in The Indian Express interview, as well as his comments about journalists and their personal views, adds up to a worrying understanding of the role of the media. No journalist can ever claim to be without a bias. We enter the profession with our class and caste biases as a given, and sometimes a clear political bias. But in our training as journalists, we are taught to try and set this aside when we report.

A useful article on media neutrality, based on the book The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, appears on the American Press Institute’s website. To quote:

“Being impartial or neutral is not a core principal of journalism. Because the journalist must make decisions, he or she is not and cannot be objective. But journalistic methods are objective.

When the concept of objectivity originally evolved, it did not imply that journalists were free of bias. It called, rather, for a consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence – precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of the work. The method is objective, not the journalist.

Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards. This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other forms of communication such as propaganda, advertising, fiction, or entertainment.”

It is probably too late to teach these lessons to a politician who has chosen to interpret neutrality as being pliant to the powers that be and not questioning them. But it is an important reminder for us as journalists in a mediascape that is increasingly adopting this version of neutrality at the cost of its credibility.

You can write to the Readers’ Editor at readerseditor@scroll.in.

Also read: Modi’s interview spree: From Khan Market gang to eating mangoes, here’s what PM has discussed

The Readers’ Editor writes: Dear media, go beyond asking ordinary Indians, ‘Who will you vote for?’