Four pillars are needed to hold up a structure. Take one away and the structure tilts.
In a democracy, the four pillars are the executive (government), the legislature (Parliament and state assemblies), the judiciary and the media. Each of these pillars has had its moments of turbulence: the executive and the judiciary during the Emergency; and the legislature through the decades when state assemblies were routinely dissolved and President’s rule imposed.
The media, before and after independence, faced several challenges. Under colonial rule, newspapers like The Times of India often toed the British Viceroy’s line. Many others though were nationalist and suffered colonial interference. After independence, the Emergency marked a new low point. Most newspapers lost their nerve and bent their spine.
The late 1970s and 1980s were the golden period of Indian media. The Emergency was gone. New publications were launched. Specialised Sunday papers made their appearance. So did specialised magazines.
In the 1990s, television was nascent but neutral. News had not yet fallen hostage to vested political and business interests. When did media’s fall begin? The seeds were sown in the late 1990s when the first BJP-led government took office. It was around this time that Sonia Gandhi displaced Sitaram Kesri as Congress president.
In 1984, the BJP had two MPs. In 1999, it had 182. In 1984, the Congress had 414 MPs. In 1999, it had 114.
It is within these numbers that lie clues to the schisms that would develop over the next 16 years. The media was drawn into this political vortex. Senior editors in the 1980s and 1990s were (relatively) politically neutral. The concept of paid news was notably absent. I launched my first media company, Sterling Newspapers Pvt Ltd, in the 1980s. Our journalists researched, interviewed, wrote and edited without fear or favour. Very few editors had fallen prey to external influences: political parties, business houses, foreign intelligence agencies and power brokers.
The real change came in the 2000s. By then the Indian Express group had acquired Sterling Newspapers with our cache of nearly 100 editors, writers, designers and marketers. I set up a new media firm soon after that and began hiring a new generation of young editors and correspondents.
But things had changed. By 2004, when the Congress-led UPA government returned to office, more and more journalists had begun to cosy up to politicians and business houses. Between 1998 and 2004, when the NDA was in office and LK Advani home minister and then (from 2000) deputy prime minister, it did not even occur to me to seek an appointment with him though he had been a regular columnist in one of our publications for over 10 years. That was the arm’s length approach to politicians we had always maintained.
As I once wrote: “The first principle of journalism is to keep politicians at arm’s length. Do not socialise with them. Do not curry favour with them. Do not treat them as friends. In a democracy, journalists and politicians have to be natural adversaries.”In short, keep the relationship professional.
When the Congress-led UPA government took office in May 2004, we found ourselves receiving invitations to interview UPA ministers. Soon after he assumed charge as finance minister, P Chidambaram conveyed to our Delhi bureau chief that he would be happy to accede to our request for an exclusive interview.
We did the interview in Chidambaram’s North Block office. This was followed in the next few months and years by exclusive interviews with (then) Industry and commerce minister Kamal Nath, (then) petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar and the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who hosted us to a sumptuous Kashmiri lunch at his residence along with daughter Mehbooba. Not once did we attempt a further meeting with any of them beyond the strictly professional.
But on every trip to Delhi – and Srinagar – from 2005 onwards, I noticed a distinct change in the interaction between journalists and politicians. It is around this time that the scourge of paid news became an epidemic. Many journalists became PR intermediaries for political leaders. It was inevitable that PR would overwhelm journalism. The Radia tapes were recorded in 2008-09. Unofficial versions were circulated in early-2010 and finally published by two weekly magazines in November 2010. They revealed the nexus between politicians and journalists.
The nexus has only grown stronger. It has also – since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in May 2014 – become more brazen. The masks have slipped. Pretence has been dropped. Shame at violating the principles of ethical journalism has evaporated. Paid news and private treaties are not the issues any more: they are far too common. The real cancer is the politicisation of journalism.
According to an article in Mint published on January 8, 2013, “In the aftermath of the 2009 general elections, a news report by Rediff.comcited Congress MP Kapil Sibal as saying that over 150 media publications were owned by individuals affiliated with the Congress party. The report said that with the impressive win under its belt, the Congress party would activate this machinery to ‘carve a legend out of Rahul within a decade.’ “
An existential threat
Sonia Gandhi was among the first in the Congress to spot Narendra Modi’s potential as a threat to the Congress’ political hegemony. Hermaut ka saudagar invective in 2007 sparked a chain of abuse that lowered standards of political discourse which have today become mainstream.
A campaign of vilification was launched against Modi by the Congress in 2013 which saw him as an existential threat – a fear that would be borne out in May 2014 when the Congress plunged from 206 Lok Sabha seats to 44.
It was now that the mainstream media lost the plot. A large section had been co-opted by the Congress and by 2013 was fully embedded into its ecosystem. Some columnists were so obsessively – and often viciously – anti-Modi that they achieved three unintended objectives: one, they eroded their own credibility; two, they generated unexpected support for Modi among readers who felt he was being unfairly maligned; and three, they caused widespread revulsion in the public for mainstream media.
Television fell victim as well. Anchors took sides, again violating professionalism and journalistic integrity. Foreign media took the cue from biased, politically affiliated Indian journalists. The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Economistcarried stories that failed the test of neutral journalism. Facts were mangled and interpretations distorted. The victim: the newspapers’ own reputation.
Some Indian television networks are so viscerally anti-Modi today that they no longer attempt to hide their bias beneath a veneer of journalistic professionalism. The charge of being an in-house channel of the Congress does not bother them anymore.
The Modi government’s abysmal media management has further emboldened sections of the media grown fat on old largesse. No longer do they fear a backlash to even serious charges of being fronts for politicians’ money laundering. They know they have defenders of the faith within the highest echelons of the NDA government. Protection is assured – at least till the prime minister wields the axe.
Fortunately, there are still many honourable and upright journalists across media – print, online and television. Alas, there are many more who are not.