Assume for a moment that Mr Donald Trump, President of the United States, was in the habit of changing his clothes four times a day; assume also that he was extra fastidious about what he wore, carefully coordinating colours, choosing headgear to suit an occasion, and always paying obsessive attention to his sartorial appearance. If all of that were true, how do you think America’s media—mainstream or otherwise—would have portrayed these attributes? Yes, they’d have a field day. Late night talk show hosts would lampoon him with delight; cartoonists would go to town; and, in general, the media would get enough fodder to go berserk.
America’s media, like Britain’s, enjoy degrees of freedom and the constitutionally protected right to express one’s views like few do in other countries. In many places, undemocratic or simply authoritarian governments clamp down hard on what the media can say. In others, such as in India, the censorship is less visible yet quite effectively imposed. Take the stories about the sartorial obsessiveness of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Unlike Mr Trump who favours bland and boxy Brioni suits and doesn’t change his clothes four times a day, Mr Modi’s penchant for wearing carefully considered clothes is quite well known. In 2015, when the then US President Barack Obama visited India, Mr Modi wore a custom-tailored suit (which was later auctioned for a reported sum of Rs 4.3 crore) with pinstripes that were inscription of his name embroidered in gold thread. And later that year, while visiting the US, in Silicon Valley, he changed his clothes, choosing different ensembles, four times in a day.
It’s more than a little ridiculous that the executive head of a country as vast and as beset with complex issues relating to governance and development to grapple with is seemingly obsessed with the way he dresses. Yet, the response in India’s mainstream media is typically one of fawning. This month, on Independence Day, when Mr Modi addressed the nation from the ramparts of New Delhi’s Red Fort, one report in a leading Indian newspaper gushed about how “he swapped his typical white short-sleeve kurta for a crisp full-sleeve kurta pyjama set and finished the thing off with a complementary stole and a vibrant saffron and red turban, once again proving he knows his way around bright Bandhini print headgear. Modi’s latest Independence Day attire is a refreshing way of dressing like a prime minister and a masterclass in festive Indian dressing”. No irony; no satire. Only unbridled adulation.
National leaders, including prime ministers and presidents, even if they dress well, usually keep things simple in order to focus on other, more important things. Mr Obama, for instance, usually wore his trademark navy blue suits and sober ties; his successor, for all the ridicule and criticism flung at him otherwise by the US media, dresses in suits that are far from flamboyant. CEOs of giant companies do the same. Apple’s late Steve Jobs was always clad in a black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance sneakers. It saved him the trouble and time everyday of thinking about what to wear. He had more important things to think about. Many have followed his example.
But Indian media’s indulgence for Mr Modi’s sartorial flair is only one example of how mainstream press, TV and other channels have come to treat those in power: with deference instead of a demand for accountability. That trend has intensified in the past few years and it is probably not coincidence that this has happened after Mr Modi’s government took charge in Delhi in 2014. But by no means is it a new trend. For long, India’s mainstream media have thrived on what is known as “access journalism”, a form where you do stories, articles and interviews in exchange for access to the rich and powerful, which also means that what you are able to publish or broadcast is usually approved by those who give you that access. Recently, there were several interviews with Mr Modi published in leading Indian newspapers, some of them via email with softball questions that were presumably pre-vetted by his office. Questions pre-approved by the interviewee, especially a powerful one, are a common phenomenon in Indian journalism. But what is inevitably lost in such an exercise is journalistic objectivity, which gets traded in for the all-important access.
India’s senior journalists and editors, particularly in the older, traditional media establishments, enjoy a hail-fellow-well-met familiarity with those they report or write about, or interview. Such familiarity is obviously not conducive to objectivity in what is published, which is usually weighted in favour of the people who ought to attract more journalistic scrutiny but because of the “relationship” with the journalists, don’t. An affable senior member of Mr Modi’s cabinet of ministers is known for his good relations with editors and other senior Delhi journalists, often hosting them at his residence for informal freewheeling discussions and trade in political gossip. Such coteries can and do effectively shape the course of political journalism and influence editorial opinion at some of India’s biggest media establishments.
Even a casual observer of the current state of India’s journalism can easily note the emergence of disturbing trends. India’s mainstream media—the newspapers, news TV channels, and magazines—abound with journalism that is roughly in line with what the government wants to project. Such “positive” treatment can be observed in the coverage of most issues—government schemes and projects; and Mr Modi’s speeches and utterances and those of his colleagues. There’s a varying degree of that “positivity”, of course. Some outlets, notably a few news TV channels, take it to a fan-boy level of adulation for the government in forms that can be downright harmful. Others resist from delving too deep into critiques of controversial decisions—such as Mr Modi’s surprise, and possibly hasty, decision to demonetise large currency notes. Or of whether there is some sleight of hand in his government’s claim of GDP growth and employment generation.
When it comes to investigative journalism—such as the non-transparent deal to buy Rafale fighter aircraft from France for billions of dollars—the mainstream media’s coverage is lukewarm, superficial, or worse. The instinct to play it safe and leave powerful feathers unruffled has sadly become the mainstay of the mainstream media. Indian journalists love to crow about and ridicule the shortcomings of US president Trump and his regime. But just look at the relentless and hard-hitting critique that his country’s established media metes out to him, scrutinising in detail every controversy that arises. There is not even a semblance of such scrutiny and diligence when it comes to controversies embroiling the government at home.
Yet there is a silver lining. The rise of small and independent digital media publications in India has filled the gap that old and established media conglomerates are leaving. In recent times, these are the places to look for if you seek objective, meticulously put together probes and analyses that hold the government and people in power to task. Many of these new media endeavours are refreshingly free of vested interests; neither do they seek “access” and bonhomie with those whose affairs they report and write about; and several of them have quickly won for themselves credibility and the trust of their readers. There is hope.Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan ]]>
New Delhi: A delegation of journalists calls on Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in New Delhi on Oct 4, 2017. (Photo: IANS/PIB)[/caption] Yet the Sridevi episode and how 24-hour TV news channels breathlessly covered it is a symptom of a larger malaise that has begun affecting Indian media. For a better sense of what it is that has struck newsrooms across India, it would be wise to look for what Indian mainstream media are not doing stories on rather than what they are covering. Let’s take the print media. Even a desultory survey of publications will show that besides the stray op-ed pieces in some newspapers, stories that are even mildly critical of the government are strikingly rare. And when they’re published, they seem to be underplayed in terms of their prominence in the publications. In contrast, milquetoast stories on the government’s achievements, favourable interviews with its ministers, and platitudes, often in the form of the prime minister’s utterances are given bigger play. [caption id="attachment_24266" align="alignleft" width="463"] What happened after four Judges raised serious questions about Judiciary?[/caption] Last month when the president of the regime’s main political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, took ill while touring a southern state, a newspaper earlier known for its indisputable credibility, ran a story that listed items that he ate while sick and how long he rested. And, not very long ago, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a man not particularly defined by his academic achievements, wrote a book for high-schoolers on how to tackle the challenge of exams, many publications chose to run a story replete with plaudits on their front pages. Compared to those, you’d be hard-pressed to find well-researched reportage on the plight of India’s burgeoning youth, millions of who stare at a bleak jobless future. Or the real effect that demonetisation had on small traders who eked out a living in a cash economy with little resources to fall back on when currency notes were abolished overnight. The same is true for issues such as the deep trouble that India’s institutions such as the judiciary faces. When four dissenting judges of the Supreme Court held an unprecedented press conference and raised serious questions about the functioning of India’s apex court, there was frenzied reporting about the event. And then it stopped with little or no follow up of what those senior judges had brought to the fore. There are scores of such instances where India’s mainstream media have appeared to hold back. Few of the channels that were exercised over knowing the “truth” about Sridevi’s death have shown similar zeal in investigating the mysterious death of a judge who was presiding over an alleged “fake encounter killing” in Gujarat in which one of India’s most powerful politician could be involved. In a democracy that prides itself for having a free press and where one of the key roles of the media is to hold a mirror to authority and provide constructive criticism, India’s mainstream media every so often appear to pull their punches and look the other way when they ought to do the opposite. Curiously, this is true even in the absence of any formal governmental gag order to control India’s media. Last month, The Washington Post reported that India had slipped to 136 in 2017 on the World Press Freedom Index rankings, finding itself below Afghanistan and Myanmar (neither country a paragon of press freedom) and quoted the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders as saying that this was because of “growing self-censorship and Hindu nationalists trying to purge ‘anti-nationalist’ thought.” It is true that unlike in the era of “emergency” that was declared in the 1970s by the then Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when press freedom was formally curbed and newsrooms subjected to rigorous censorship there is no government-sponsored ban on the press or other media. Yet, in recent years in many Indian states, as the Post story mentions, journalists have been subjected to threats, imprisonment, or worse. India’s ruling regime at the Centre is not known for its tolerance towards criticism and even mild censure of its actions by media has been known to cause displeasure of those who are powerful in government. Many of India’s media barons have interests in other businesses whose fortunes can be dented by official retaliation and it is not uncommon for the publications or TV news channels that they own to take extra care not to ruffle important feathers. [caption id="attachment_25483" align="alignleft" width="832"] Jaipur: Journalists stage a demonstration against Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill that was tabled in the Rajasthan assembly in Jaipur on Oct 24, 2017. This bill amends the Criminal Code of Procedure, 1973, and also bars the media from naming the public servant till the Rajasthan government allows the case to be investigated. (Photo: Ravi Shankar Vyas/IANS)[/caption] [caption id="attachment_25488" align="alignleft" width="416"] New Delhi: Conference of Senior Editors, (Photo: IANS/PIB)[/caption] Self-censorship or tacit pressure on media from those in power make for an unfortunate trend in a country where readers and viewers of news media run into hundreds of millions. If covering stories that raise questions about the government’s functioning, or the effectiveness of its policies, or the the truth about its achievements become no-go areas for media then media outlets will have no choice but to do grotesquely inane stories such as the ones they did when Sridevi died and reporters will, like the poor chap from the TV channel, have to clamber into bathtubs or do worse.]]>