Chief Justice of India NV Ramana has pointed to mediocrity and mischief in the media which pose a grave threat to democracy. He said, “New media tools have enormous amplifying ability but appear incapable of distinguishing between the right and the wrong, the good and the bad and the real and the fake. Media trials cannot be a guiding factor in deciding cases. Of late, we see the media running kangaroo courts, at times on issues even experienced judges find difficult to decide. Ill-informed and agenda-driven debates on issues involving justice delivery are proving detrimental to the health of democracy.” Along with the additional pressures created by social media, the Chief Justice unambiguously said, “biased views being propagated by the media are affecting the people, weakening democracy, and harming the system.” It is absolutely impossible to differ with the honourable Chief Justice, as the media’s character has doubtless changed for the worse — and dangerously so. Mediocrity can be explained in terms of inadequate resources, but what about mischief? Media running an “agenda-driven” discourse is no ordinary charge. This is antithetical to the very concept of journalism. Biased views do constitute a real threat to democracy. Instead of educating society and giving correct information, if the media deliberately spreads lies, misinformation and half-truths, fuels political propaganda and adopts a partisan approach to serve the interests of ruling party instead of the people, democracy is bound to be rendered enervated, nay, mutilated. Media is supposed to show the mirror, not to weave illusions and blur the images. Critical analysis of a subject or an event may err at times but strategic positioning to serve partisan interests by twisting facts and clouding truths is totally unacceptable. The media is not a protective gear of the ruling elite. It is meant to interrogate, question and guide. The overriding principles are constitutionalism, truth and people’s welfare. The Chief Justice is right in suggesting that a biased media adversely affects all other organs of democracy, apart from disempowering the people. In the process, the media’s own credibility will get irreparably damaged, setting the stage for anarchy and autocracy.
It is truly regrettable that we are passing through a phase in which every democratic institution, including the judiciary, has weakened. This is not good for the nation. A democratic balance established by empowered institutions, a level playing field for political parties, and an independent media is a must for the survival of democracy. The widespread allegations of misuse of central agencies and police to harass political opponents and critics also give credence to the perceptions of diminishing democracy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly said at global platforms that India is the mother of democracy but hollow platitudes mean nothing unless noble intentions are implemented on the ground. Even the media, particularly the television channels, need to seriously introspect about its falling credibility. The crisis has acquired much wider dimensions; it is no more a question of being pro- or anti-Government. Certain television anchors behave like ferocious machines of retributive punishment, hounding political opponents of the ruling establishment and critics day and night. Not only the intelligentsia, even the masses disapprovingly see the media as the government’s partner and concede that TV channels have reduced themselves to petty propaganda machinery.
Some television anchors have so wantonly butchered media ethics that recognising them as part of the fourth estate is impossible. Even state organs would feel ashamed to replicate their despicable behaviour. They don’t even pretend to be neutral or objective. India is too big and great a democracy to muddle along like this. A course correction is immediately called for. The political leadership should also ponder over the disturbing situation and decide if they need free media. The media has been traditionally averse to external monitoring and control, least of all Governmental oversight. But has it taken note of the degeneration within and made any genuine initiative to stem the rot? Obviously not. The Editors' Guild issuing mild statements once in a while looks like a joke. The National Broadcasters & Digital Association is a toothless body incapable of any meaningful intervention. It is foolish to expect that the media will alter its character following the concerns raised by the Chief Justice. But at least it can start an internal debate. The editors, columnists and anchors should recognise this crisis instead of brazening it out. After all, it is as much about the media’s own existence, as it is democracy’s survival. Wake up before it is too late.