In the nearly five years since he has taken charge, India’s prime minister, Mr Narendra Modi, has rarely granted interviews to the Indian media. When he has, the preparations undertaken by his office before an interview—be it to a print publication or a television channel—have been elaborate and have involved not only prior vetting of questions but also a careful consideration of the media outlet he selected and the person he wanted to be interviewed by. It is not uncommon, particularly for print publications that get to interview him, to receive copies of prepared responses to questions that are asked during the meeting (Disclosure: this author landed one of the first interviews with Mr Modi a year after he became prime minister for a leading Indian newspaper in English; and Mr Modi’s answers to questions in person over breakfast at his official residence were supplemented by detailed printed copies of the responses).
Such an arrangement for interviews (as most Indian journalists and editors are aware) isn’t something that is exclusive to Mr Modi. Prime ministers who have preceded Mr Modi, including Dr Manmohan Singh, have, in the past, agreed to be interviewed only via email. Editors of publications usually agree to print such responses, and, in most cases, mention the fact that it is based on written or e-mailed responses to questions, letting readers know the format that was followed. Obviously, such interviews tend to skirt controversial issues: I can’t recall an interview in which Dr Singh was asked whether he was in any way constrained in his decisions as prime minister by the president of the Congress party (in the circumstances, it would have been a legitimate question to ask him).
The issue of interviewing India’s chief executive or prime minister was recently in the news after the Congress’ current president Rahul Gandhi critiqued an interview of Mr Modi by the editor of a news agency. Mr Gandhi implied that the interviewer was “pliable” and that “she was questioning and also giving the prime minister’s answers”. His comments set off a maelstrom of protests. The ruling alliance’s spokespersons attacked him and invoked memories of his grandmother, the late Indira Gandhi, who as prime minister had promulgated Emergency in 1975 during which the media was gagged, censored and controlled by her government. Journalists too were angered. The Editors Guild of India, an organisation comprising leading Indian editors that aims to protect press freedom and raise the standards of editorial leadership of newspapers and magazines, issued a statement in which it said Mr Gandhi’s criticism of the interviewer was offensive. The Congress party responded by defending its president’s statement and said: “Pliable isn’t offensive; it is the state of the Indian media today.”
There are two issues that derive from this latest controversy involving India’s media and its politicians. The first is specific to the Congress president himself. For much of the 14 years since 2004 when Mr Gandhi, now 48, formally entered politics, he has largely been leery of the media, rarely agreeing to interactions with journalists and nearly never agreeing to grant interviews. In one-on-one interactions, which have almost always been off the record, his responses to controversial or uncomfortable questions have attempted to obfuscate the issues, and in the extremely rare on-the-record interviews that he has granted he has often seemed baffling. It is only now after his party suffered a humiliating loss in the general elections of 2014 that Mr Gandhi has seemed to have come into his own, speaking more coherently about things such as Mr Modi, his government, and now, the media. But has he agreed to free, no-holds-barred media interviews where questions aren’t previously vetted or the journalist or the publication not screened? You’ll be hard put to recall any.
That takes care of issue No. 1. But it is the second issue that is more disturbing. In India, senior politicians, particularly those occupying high offices such as the prime minister or senior leaders of the Opposition, unless they are accused, charged or convicted of high crimes, are usually given the kid glove treatment by traditional media publications. It is common to find publications and the journalists working for them treating India’s politicians with a sort of polite submission and respect. Such is the deference that, unlike in the UK or other western markets, it is rare to find even “tabloid” publications trying to unearth scandals, salacious or otherwise, about Indian politicians—although it won’t be wrong to assume that such peccadillos, involving Indian politicians, exist in abundance.
But the bigger issue is the reason why India’s mainstream (or traditional) journalists go soft on its politicians, leaders, and ministers. The real answers lie in the way India’s publications are owned and managed. Most of India’s big newspapers—in English or other languages—are proprietorial establishments. It is not uncommon to find that some of these proprietors also have other large business interests. It is also not uncommon to find links between some of these owners and political parties. In many large newsrooms, the professional, hired editor may seem to call the shots but the interests of the publication’s owner always influences the decisions. Sometimes it is a simple case of advertising revenues. Like everywhere in the world, India’s print publications are facing a squeeze on revenues—print ads from erstwhile mainstay sectors are fast migrating online—and the dependence on advertising from government agencies has increased. Or it is about vested interests. The owners of a media group may need the approval of the government of the day to set up a new business, acquire land in a state for expansion or diversification purposes, or just stave off prying governmental investigations into their own business discrepancies.
Much is made of the existence of crony capitalism in India—the nexus between the business class and the political class. The thing is India’s mainstream media business is not outside such a nexus. With very few exceptions, India’s media barons are pretty much linked to the political class—and instances of media owners crossing over to the other side are not uncommon. If pliable is the state of the Indian media as the Congress party and its president have alleged, then it may be time to take a close hard look, not at those who work in the newsrooms but at those who own them.