It could be a tricky 2021 for those who practice play-it-safe journalism. For over six years—ever since the BJP came to power—many indulging in this dubious craft (opinion writers included) have been treading the tricky middle path where even mild criticism of the ruling dispensation is carefully calibrated without crossing the Laxman Rekha to ensure no displeasure is invoked.
But time may be running out for such journos. Reports in the press reveal the recommendations of a Group of Ministers (GoM). It has called for “evolving a multipronged strategy to amplify messages through media engagement, outreach programmes at the level of states and districts, and working with influencers.”
Reading between the lines one can safely assume that this PR exercise would end up with the government covertly demanding nothing short of total allegiance from those who wish to be in its favoured category of “friendly reporters, editors and influencers”. The new “communication thrust” will no doubt shrink the already diminished grey area further. And this will result in many more journos lending their services to one-sided journalism favouring the government and justifying all its actions.
Ordinary reporters may be compelled to do so to hold on to their jobs. Many newspaper managements are clear that they do not want strong anti-government stories. A few reports against the so-called fringe elements in the BJP and minor policy decisions are tolerated. But those who venture further risk being side-lined, or, worse, asked to resign to facilitate “restructuring” of the organisation that employs them.
Those who would rather quit than become a PR arm of the establishment have one option—go silent or write for alternative websites which welcome their reportage. The number of such journalists have grown in the last few years and 2021 will see many more joining the tribe.
Of course, those in the mainstream will still be encouraged to prove their journalistic mettle by attacking and exposing the Opposition, particularly the Congress. The grand old party, thanks to rebellion in its ranks, electoral failures and the capricious functioning of Rahul Gandhi has been a favourite target. It is even occasionally questioned on the failures of the ruling party, almost as if it is in power. But far too many anti-stories against one party and lampooning its leader, have rendered this journalistic exercise predictable and repetitive.
Perhaps the same micro-targeting of other opposition parties may be the next step as journalists and commentators continue their “good work” for the government. However, one understands that the establishment is now looking for fresh voices to endorse its governance and to attack the Opposition. In this effort, the GoM recommends employing the services of out-of-work journalists. The objective, a journalist tells me, could be to propagate not just a Congress-mukt Bharat but an Opposition-mukt India.
Defanging political forces standing in the way of the government is one thing, but what about heaping praise on those in power? The BJP would like its court poets to further sweeten their verses. They cannot get away by merely rubbishing the Opposition. Or by subtly advancing a “balanced” thesis that despite all his flaws, there is no alternative to Modi.
As journalists, we are already familiar with thinly-disguised PR pieces which have already appeared as “think” pieces using stock phrases like “give the devil its due” and “at the end of the day this is a step in the right direction.” Some editors/opinion writers have even gone so far as to project an Assembly election result as the endorsement of policies implemented at the national level.
But pushing the envelope further and blindly applauding the BJP may be difficult for “liberals” who would not like to lose their standing as commentators with an “unprejudiced” view. Also, to be taken seriously in forums and universities abroad, while still pleasing a regime at home which has scant respect for human rights will be the challenge of 2021.
Indeed, maintaining a façade of being secular and democratic may be difficult. But even at the risk of losing credibility, some “influencers” and editors will make compromises to show their allegiance to those in power. We have already seen some honourable gentlemen go out on a limb and say that too much democracy is bad for reforms. Implying that what is required is a supine republic and a media that will ask no questions.
There has been a string of issues on which the press has not discharged its role as a watchdog. On a range of issues—from Aadhaar and anti-CAA protests to Kashmir, China and the pandemic—sections of the press have silently presented the government’s narrative without raising any significant questions. Others have carried fake news without any fact checks and drawn up report cards favouring BJP chief ministers.
The latest example of one-sided journalism is the farmers’ agitation. The media has been guilty of portraying lakhs of agitating farmers as rich and not deserving our sympathy. And opinion writers have been presenting the view that only privatisation can save rural India. In fact, they would have us believe that every businessperson in a suit and a fancy car is full of noble intentions and has only the best interests of the nation in mind. Any minor lapses on their part such as the mega loan defaults must be written off with taxpayer’s money since these were risks taken to boost the economy!
With the next general elections due only in May 2024, expect more such opinions thrown at you from “fresh” and converted “influencers.” Also, some compliant journalist friends, rendered unemployed during the pandemic, are likely to be placed in media organisations or compensated for being active on social media where they will lend their name to government-friendly reportage, posts and tweets.
As for the “liberals” who pleaded the case for voting Modi in 2014 and changed their tune since, the new year offers a chance to “redeem” themselves and join the band of government influencers and be close to those in power. To justify the U-turn to their 2014 position, the cliche “we must change with the new reality” will come in handy.
Real journalists, however, have their work cut out. Though they have been excluded from the mainstream, they must continue to raise questions and keep the public informed. This is a task they have been dedicated to in the past even when the UPA was in power. Also, publications and websites bold enough to carry reports that hold the government to account must be encouraged and supported.
Propaganda alone cannot fool people for ever. Perhaps the only silver lining one can hope to see in 2021 is the realisation among a growing number of people that the so-called truths being fed to them are falsehoods. Luckily, such a realisation has become more pronounced after the farmers’ agitation has exposed the real intentions of the government.
The writer is a senior journalist and author. The views are personal