Among the several institutions that took a knock between 2014-2019, the Indian media will stand out as one which suffered from self- inflicted wounds as much as it did from injuries caused to it by vested interests acting on behalf of the government or the party in power, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In fact, the unstated message that went out to media managements as well as journalists when the Narendra Modi government took over from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2014 was this: “You are either with us or be prepared to suffer our displeasure.”
Save for a few honourable exceptions, the mainstream media chose to submit to the pressure rather than invite the wrath of those in power. It not only backed the government but also nurtured the friendly relationship over the last five years at the cost of its credibility. As a result, those looking for an objective/alternative view have had to increasingly turn to news websites, a small clutch of publications or the foreign media.
How did much of the mainstream press—print and television-- suddenly forget the watchdog role it had more than fulfilled when exposing mis-governance and corruption in the previous government headed by Manmohan Singh? Could the investigative skills of reporters have atrophied overnight? Or were media managements/editors no longer interested in stories critical of the new government? The latter seems to be the case, given the number of mainstream journalists who have had to quit their jobs and find a platform on independent websites and news outlets.
Of course, part of the problem lies in big businesses owning media houses. It is a given that they can be easily influenced by governments which are intolerant to criticism and feel the need to restrain coverage. And when under pressure, such managements are known to yield since obliging those in power serves their larger business interests. So, journalists and editors who articulate the position of the government of the day are encouraged, while those who don’t are side-lined, or worse, their services terminated. This has happened in the past and is something that the media must be guarded against in the future.
However, media manipulation hit a new low within six months of the Modi government coming to power. That was when newspapers and TV channels carried “fake news” related to a major official announcement without any confirmation or verification. The unfortunate part was that the entire nation believed the information to be authentic since it was reported in the ‘trustworthy’ mainstream press. The government, on its part, chose not to deny the news since it worked to its advantage.
It happened on October 30, 2014 -- the day before the 30th anniversary of the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage. News broke in the morning that the Modi government had cleared the allocation of an additional Rs 5 lakh as compensation for each of the victims of the 1984 riots. The sensational news sourced to the Home Ministry not only became the subject of TV discussions, but also made the lead story in several newspapers the following morning. It left the Congress party embarrassed no end since some of its leaders were allegedly involved in the rioting.
However, what was billed by the media as a “masterstroke” by the government turned out to be misinformation planted by it. The truth came out only after the Election Commission (EC) —which had announced three Assembly bye-elections in Delhi five days earlier—formally enquired if the news about the compensation, violative of the model code of conduct, was correct. Interestingly, the EC query was necessitated since it “did not come across any denial from the government”. In its response, the Home Ministry denied the press reports outright. The denial was either conveniently ignored or not given due prominence by most newspapers and TV channels.
October 30 proved to be just the beginning. The latest analysis by Factchecker.in, a Mumbai-based research organisation that scrutinises the veracity of statements made by individuals in public life, reveals that at least 43 major claims made by the Prime Minister, his office and the BJP in the last five years, were untrue. However, many of these were widely reported in the media with no questions asked. Those who dared to counter the tall claims were dismissed as anti-national, ‘urban Naxals’, frustrated Left-leaning economists or stooges of Congress party.
The claims in question related to economic growth, job creation, financial inclusion, direct transfer of social security benefits and the success of several government programmes, such as Swachh Bharat, Jan Dhan Yojana and the rural electrification scheme. In many cases, figures were exaggerated or fudged to show ‘progress’. For example, foreign direct investment inflows in 2014-2016 supposedly touched an impressive $130 billion. But data from the Commerce and Industry Ministry reveals that this figure was only $101.72 billion.
Similarly, it was claimed by the Prime Minister that till 2014 only 70% of rural households had electricity while 95% electrification was achieved in the first four years of his tenure. The truth is that when the Modi government took charge in 2014, a good 97% villages were already connected and only 3% were out of the loop!
But if one were to go beyond facts and figures, sections of the mainstream press, by closing their eyes or downplaying developments, have also covertly helped the larger socio-cultural project of the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of reshaping India. So, when the plan of giving a push to Hindutva got under way through Sangh affiliates, the media kept referring to them as the “loony fringe” who could be ignored. They were supposedly the “misguided” lot which targeted minorities and dalits and had nothing to do with those in power.
Thus, gau rakshaks, anti-Romeo squads and those fighting Love-Jihad were all clubbed into this grouping which, editorials mildly urged, must be “reined in” by the government. In fact, sections of the mainstream media even dragged their feet to acknowledge that the “fringe” enjoyed the tacit support of the government. And when it finally did, it was too late, and the government was past caring.
Ever since Modi rode to power amid much fanfare and expectation, the mainstream media has not only been soft on the government but much of its firepower has been directed at the Opposition. It was almost as if the latter was in power and, therefore, responsible for all the country’s ills. Reporters of national dailies will tell you that a story belittling or ‘exposing’ an Opposition leader has higher purchase with editors than one critical of a senior cabinet minister or a BJP functionary.
It may be argued that reportage critical of the government is difficult, since getting official reaction, particularly to a negative story, is not forthcoming. But exposing shortfalls in governance, corruption and the promotion of crony capitalism is not impossible, as demonstrated by several news websites and a select few in the mainstream media. Interestingly, many of the big-ticket stories which have attracted national attention—from the Rafale jet deal to environmental concessions given to favour vested corporate interests—were first reported and consistently addressed in the alternative media. So too were major flaws in the Aadhaar programme and several poverty alleviation schemes.
To be fair, the mainstream media did show muscle on one occasion. Post-demonetisation it focussed on the hardships caused by the note ban and its economic fallout. It tested every claim made by the government. But this new found voice of the media was silenced after the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh which the BJP won by a landslide. The mandate was projected by the government as public endorsement of demonetisation. However, sections of the media still pursued the note ban story and it is no longer trumpeted as an achievement by the government in the ongoing general election campaign.
To reclaim its credibility, the media must start on a clean slate after the Lok Sabha polls. Irrespective of which party comes to power, it must resolve to maintain a distance from the government and not become part of the official propaganda machinery. That is easier said than done if there is an intolerant regime in Delhi and pliable media managements. But it is not impossible.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. The views are personal.