Modi Magic Media Tragic

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The modi-media relationship needs a drastic makeover. Social media has enabled the prime minister to talk directly to the people, bypassing the media. Government officials do not talk to journalists, so information is hard to come by. But these are symptoms of a larger problem internalto the media. BY HARSH RANJAN

It was a routine orientation and introduction session for student of Journalism at my university in August this year. Routine, until a chirpy and bright student Ruby Chhetri, gave her reasons for taking up media studies in India.

What made Ruby’s case different from the others was not that she was from Nepal, although that was important. Ruby and her family had suffered great loss during the April earthquake, it shattered their dreams for the future. But, as she recalled, it marked a turning point in her life because of the manner in which Indian media reported from her country.

The electronic media clearly went over the top in covering relief and rescue efforts by Indian government agencies, to the point where ordinary Nepalese became uncomfortable. Here was a country and its people shattered and in pain, yet the Indian media failed to adequately record that. There was little sensitivity shown, it was like applying salt to open wounds.

Ruby recalled her deep sense of hurt, and from there came the decision to study media in India and pursue a career in journalism with an Indian media house. “I may not bring about a 360 degree change in Indian media perspective and approach,” she said, “but I can surely ignite the first spark towards making it more neutral and balanced with a human touch.”

CREDIBILITY AT STAKE

This is not the first instance where Indian media has faltered in the recent past. Apologies have been made for telecasting wrong or misleading stories. The head of a popular news channel personally expressed regrets for putting out misleading data related to the exit polls for the Bihar assembly election. It destroys media credibility, people begin to doubt what is being reported. This is an alarming situation for any society.

I remember the days when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister. It was the mid-1980s and the only television available was state run Doordarshan, often derisively referred to as ‘Rajiv- Darshan’ because of its obsessive focus on him. Today there are 150 regional and national privately owned TV channels, but for all that, pressure from the government to reflect current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda and policies is no less. Channels invariably cut to any live event featuring the prime minister. When he or the RSS chief speaks, commercials are unceremoniously dropped.

This also explains the Indian media’s (print and television) over the top reporting from Nepal, because it was an opportunity to show how the NDA government was responding to the earthquake and the personal efforts being made by the prime minister. This has been evident since Modi launched his election campaign in 2013; others say it dates back to Arvind Kejriwal’s dramatic ‘roadshows’ against corruption when media, as the pundits put it, “lost line and length in connecting with audiences”.

MODI REVOLUTION

But the show was actually stolen when Modi’s 2014 election campaign rolled out because for the first time, a national political party the BJP, hired cinematographers and other professionals from Bollywood to shoot the election campaign. Naturally every angle was taken care of and given the excellent technical quality of footage the BJP was offering, TV channels were more than happy to hook on and telecast. In the process they forgot or preferred to overlook the point that they were being fed information and visuals which the BJP’s media managers had selected, previewed and edited. The TV channels were telecasting what the party wanted to project, which was not necessarily what the public wanted or needed to know.

Recall those moving pictures of Modi entering Parliament the first time? How he bowed his head at the doors of India’s temple of democracy. This is not to say Modi was insincere. Very likely, he must have experienced an outpouring of emotion, undefinable and his bowed head symbolized his humility. But it’s odd that only DD News had that visual. DD in fact seemed to have shot that moment perfectly, which experts will tell you can only happen when one has been briefed in advance about the movements of the character to be shot.

The point I am trying to make here, is that DD had instructions to position their cameras in such a way as to capture (for posterity), Modi’s crowning moment. It means that moment had been practiced and rehearsed (not by Modi) but certainly, the camera crew ensured nothing was left to chance, no mistake would be made. The visuals captured the imagination of the Indian viewer but an important point must be made here: News is always sudden, raw and unpredictable. Its beauty lies in letting it happen as it happens and not stage-managing it.

Increasingly, media tends to behave as the handmaiden of governments, whether state or central. I remember many of my former colleagues waited for Arvind Kejriwal to come up with exposes against corrupt officials so they could show it on their channels. Newspapers followed suit. But in Bihar many reputed newspapers would not publish any story critical of the state government. They did not want to risk losing government advertising.

Media does criticize government and there are anti-government stories every day in print and on television. But media is also becoming cautious, defensive, as government responds. You blame Modi and take a bash from the RSS; you show something against the Kejriwal government and be ready to be confronted the next morning by a full page newspaper advertisement challenging the fairness of your report.

Media’s editorial defensiveness is an indicator of something seriously wrong here. It suggests that editorial benchmarks are not being enforced rigorously, or perhaps the media house is under financial pressure and cannot afford to offend its biggest advertiser. Either way, the development is alarming.

Government media officials no longer talk. Direct interaction of government officials with field journalists are few and far between. It’s not uncommon to hear senior officials tell you, off the record, that they cannot brief you and have to wait for directions from higher up.

When Moody’s cautioned India on its economic functioning and advised corrective measures, government media organizations chose to ignore it. Was it not big news? Yet nobody in the official media touched the story.

When Modi became prime minister, his official website underwent a swanky makeover to reflect “Brand Modi”. From the website’s clean user-friendly interface to the addition of sections like RTI and ‘Quest for Transparency’, it was clear the site was designed to draw more people to it for information about the government and governance, and that too directly from the PM.

What no one realized then was the fact that ‘direct communication’ with the citizens meant PM Modi would also leave the media out in the cold. Unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t have a media adviser, refuses to take journalists along on important diplomatic tours and his ministers don’t interact on a regular basis with the media. Senior editors warn that the lack of interaction is not good either for government (and Modi) or the media.

Modi has occasionally obliged the media by inviting select editors for an off the record interaction. The meetings are more notable for journalists falling over each other to shoot selfies with the PM.

It is now 18 months since Modi became PM and the media is still awaiting an invitation for a full-fledged press conference. How helpless it has become?

The relationship between Modi and the media has long been vitiated by old biases. Social media has enabled the prime minister to largely bypass the media. But this has made the relationship with traditional media even more fraught. Journalists have large egos. Being ignored does not endear them to a prime minister seen as remote and aloof. So what is the solution? The question is whether media or Modi will develop suitable responses in the New Year. Cheers to that.

The relationship between Modi and the media has long been vitiated by old biases. Social media has enabled the prime minister to largely bypass the media. But this has made the relationship with traditional media even more fraught. Journalists have large egos. Being ignored does not endear them to a prime minister seen as remote and aloof

SUMMARY

  • India’s media is under fire domestically and from overseas for the quality of reporting, analysis and selection of stories
  • Many media houses are also accused of bowing to government dictates because of their reliance on government advertising
  • Narendra Modi’s rise to prime minister has seen the deliberate side-lining of media as he talks directly to the people
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