Free press: Government’s best friend

Some of the exuberant coverage of Narendra Modi’s American odyssey reminded me of those spirited debates of the 1970s on the media’s relations with the government. Inspired by unthinking American crusaders, several veteran Indian newspapermen insisted during and after the Emergency that a free media could only oppose. My position was – and is – that the media’s role should depend on immediate circumstances. No two nations are ever “permanent” or “natural” allies or partners, despite what Atal Behari Vajpayee and now Modi might claim. Similarly, both government and media will suffer in the short and long runs if they are locked in a permanent relationship of hostility or friendship.

Of course, one can’t be divorced from the other. “A Government is protected by the vigilant care of the press. But who can look after the press except the conscience of the editor” C. Rajagopalachari inscribed on a photograph that Ian Stephens, editor of The Statesman, took of him at his desk in Kolkata’s Raj Bhavan.  There is no question mark at the end of that arresting sentence. Though phrased as a query, Rajaji was making a statement, expressing his conviction that it’s the press that protects the government, not the other way round. Jawaharlal Nehru eulogised press freedom as an absolute ideal. Vallabhbhai Patel proclaimed that since press support is only expected when the government is right, it’s when the government is wrong that newspapers must demonstrate their loyalty. But Rajaji implied a detached corrective force, whose vigilance and wise counsel saves governments from their own follies.

Actually, the adversary role champions didn’t mean the media should be hostile to all governments. They meant the media should be hostile to the Gandhi clan and Congress. Their squeamishness about supporting the government vanished as soon as Morarji Desai became prime minister. This surrender of principle to practice – or, rather, camouflaging pragmatism as morality – is one of the most disconcerting features of mainline Indian newspapers and TV channels.

Proprietors don’t always force conformism on practitioners; practitioners gratuitously offer adulation to authority as the fee for their right to exist. Not every commentator accompanying Modi was equally effervescent. But most were, and the optimism they exuded was also evident when Ronald Reagan received Indira Gandhi and her son, or when Manmohan Singh visited George W. Bush, Jr.

Any mention of Singapore in this context will probably raise a hollow laugh. Some degree of mockery may even be justified: a senior Chinese Singaporean editor told me that on foreign assignments, whether in Moscow or Mogadishu, he always kept Singapore time. But Singapore doesn’t let its journalists indulge in the illusion that they are members of the government. They are sternly told to use the first person plural “we” to mean only the institution that employs them, never the national government. Listening to the Indian reporters covering Modi taking American officials, politicians and commentators to task for befriending Pakistan or for not doing enough to befriend India, one felt these poor souls had taken a shade too literally Jawaharlal Nehru’s homily that every Indian abroad is an ambassador for his country.

It’s a common mistake. I remember the editor’s sharp comment during rehearsals for an Eamonn Andrews Show on British Independent Television during a Commonwealth summit in London. “Tell the panellists not to behave like prime ministers,” his voice boomed from wherever the monitor screen was hidden. “They are journalists commenting on prime ministers!”

That’s what our journalists should have remembered, instead of boasting of the mission to Mars, haranguing foreigners on not appreciating India’s greatness, holding forth on New Delhi’s tolerance towards Kashmiri terrorists and urging Washington to recognise India as Asia’s dominant power. The vainglory left little scope for objective reporting. More than once, too, a TV anchor’s ignorance of the history of India-US relations was exposed. There was little attempt to examine past bilateral relations, India’s economic, political and strategic options, or likely US expectations. One had to rely on Al Jazeera for details of protests against Modi.

Two factors probably explain this abdication of journalistic responsibility. Adherence to the BJP is not one of them. The first is instinctive deference to power; the second, a yearning to be player and not voyeur that makes even many responsible senior journalists boast of having shaped the events they are assigned to cover.

When the Press Council huffs and puffs about “paid journalism”, which is a serious enough menace, it blames businessmen and industrialists, forgetting that the government in its many avatars is the country’s biggest employer and the richest source of patronage. It appoints journalists as envoys, sends them to the Rajya Sabha, includes them in official delegations, provides housing and distributes many other forms of largesse.

Nor does the government hesitate to use its power. When it didn’t like the man a leading national daily had nominated to cover an international conference, the external affairs ministry’s official spokesman (this was long before the amiable Syed Akbaruddin) bluntly ordered the editor to send someone else. Journalists, the spokesman explained, were part of India’s official delegation and should, therefore, enjoy official benediction. Even the editor was flatteringly told he was an official of sorts, since he could choose a member of the delegation. In any case, the editor was himself in the running for various officials perks. He did as he was told.

Many Western media institutions reject government hospitality. If its reporter accompanies the president or prime minister on an official trip, the newspaper or TV channel insists on paying its own costs. Of course, there are other ways of winning over reporters.

An American journalist — Tom Wicker of The New York Times — wrote that Henry Kissinger’s practice of calling journalists by their first names (could the courtesy be reciprocated?) suborned independence more surely than any bribe. Stephens obviously made an exception of Rajaji when he warned against getting too close to people in power because of the “peril in confidences.” He wrote in 1945, “A journalist must guard against accepting any (confidences) that seem designed to curtail his scope for comment. Great men are not always scrupulous. Of late a publicity technique has developed for nobbling writers of integrity and conscience, by deliberately divulging secrets to them, reckoning that this will stop their writing about or around that subject.”

Harold Evans, former editor of Britain’s The Times and Sunday Times, backs Rajaji’s assessment. “Government just cannot govern well without reliable independent reporting and criticism,” he writes in his memoirs. “No intelligence system, no bureaucracy, can offer the information provided by free competitive reporting; the cleverest agents of the secret police are inferior to the plodding reporter of the democracy.” We knew that already in 1977 when Indira Gandhi was so soundly defeated.

India-US relations, so necessary to attract capital for infrastructure, for technology transfer and to set up the manufacturing hub Modi desires, demands informed journalists capable to delivering impartial verdict. Instead, we have courtiers.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray

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