The Indian mainstream media, over the last few years, has been accused of kowtowing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. There are TV news channels in fact, that take it upon themselves to put tough questions, but only to the Opposition, every night.
And now there is about as perfect an encapsulation of the thinking of many in the mainstream press: CNN-News18’s Bhupendra Chaubey argues that press conferences by elected leaders “do not help the cause of democracy” and that Modi has created a new paradigm by not addressing one.
Here is the transcript of the segment, the equivalent of a newspaper editorial, which the channel calls “Bhupendra Chaubey’s Viewpoint.”
“Whenever Narendra Modi had had an opportunity of speaking directly to the Indian people, well, he’s used that opportunity. Let’s take a straight position on that question, which frankly is the very benchmark of India’s democracy because the allegation that is being made by the Opposition today is that India’s prime minister is not being transparent.
Where do I stand? I believe, folks, that Congress is of the view the only way of successful and democratic communication is for a prime minister to have an open press conference. I’d love a press conference, and I’d love the opportunity to ask 10 questions to the prime minister.
But I believe that Narendra Modi, for his own benefit, which suits him politically, he has created a new paradigm of communicating directly to the people of India.
In a democracy, what matters most is whether the people are listening to you and whether people are willing to trust the comments made by a leader, with or without the media. There’s no point if Manmohan Singh gave many conferences and the people were unwilling to believe, it does not help the cause of democracy.”
It is almost unnecessary to draw out all the reasons this is problematic, but let’s do it anyway. Chaubey, to his credit says he would “love a press conference” and the chance to ask Modi questions. He also admits that Modi, “for his own benefit” has created this new approach of talking directly to the people of India, and that this suits the prime minister politically.
The next section though is deeply problematic.
“In a democracy, what matters most is whether the people are listening to you and whether people are willing to trust the comments made by a leader, with or without the media.”
That sounds like the opposite of a democracy. Elected representatives are supposed to listen to their people, rather than only be listened to. And the media is often the forum that represents public interests, once leaders have been elected. Plus, how exactly are we supposed to gauge whether people are willing to trust comments made by a leader, especially if he or she is unwilling to answer questions from the press?
“There’s no point. If Manmohan Singh gave many conferences and the people were unwilling to believe, it does not help the cause of democracy.”
Here Chaubey is arguing that an elected representative giving press conferences “does not help the cause of democracy.” Again, this is entirely wrong. If indeed, a leader does not have the trust of the public, there is no better way to drive this home than by having to face difficult questions at a press conference. Inability to provide credible answers would only confirm such an impression, whereas a solid defence might get people to change their minds.
Chaubey admits later in the clip that his position is contrarian, but that does not cut it. Journalists making arguments like this are not simply playing devil’s advocate for the world. Every programme like this can guide the mind of a viewer, and with media literacy being the way it is, a journalist arguing that press conferences are bad for democracy will have an impact, and a deeply problematic one at that.