Why the PM is hopelessly wrong about media

19 February 2011

T.J.S. GEORGE writes: Does the media distort facts? The Prime Minister thinks so. By “focussing excessively” on scam after scam, does the media spoil India’s image? The Prime Minister thinks so. For the leader of a government that is neck-deep in scams, it is natural to think as the Prime Minister does. But that does not make it right. In fact the Prime Minister is hopelessly wrong.

Manmohan Singh was in conversation with television editors. A great deal can be said in criticism of news channels. Generally speaking, they are amateurish, childish in their “me first” claims, irritating in their competitive sensationalism, more irritating in their loudness, superficial, repetitive and often plain unprofessional. But, like newspapers, they are essentially mirrors.

News journalism may have its weaknesses, but functionally it merely reflects the reality around it. It does not generate governmental corruption, it only reports it. If scams demoralise the nation and spoil the image of the country, the blame lies squarely with politicians and officials and fixers who produce the scams and benefit from them. The Prime Minister must attack the scamsters, not the mirrors.

Actually, the media is doing an incomparably valuable national service by bringing corruption to public attention. After all, if the media had resolved not to do anything that would “spoil India’s image,” what would have happened? The shame of India would have spread anyway as the world would have known that India was a country where a roll of toilet paper could be sold for Rs 4000, and where decisions on spectrum allocations were made in Chennai’s Gopalpuram area, and where there were billionaires with more illegal funds in Swiss banks than billionaires in the top five countries put together. It is the people of India who would have remained in the dark about the extent of their rulers’ criminalities.

Worse, India would have sunk deeper and deeper into corruption since the corrupt would have been emboldened by the fact that they would never be exposed. The media, for all its excesses, has put the fear of god into the hearts of the criminally inclined politician, bureaucrat and “crony capitalist”. That even their private conversations may someday become public property is one of the best disincentives we have against corruption. The Prime Minister would have been smart to acknowledge this instead of suggesting that the media was negative in its attitude.

It is true that the media also has developed a taste for corruption. It has a long way to go before it can be called mature and creative. But even in its present three-fourth-baked state, it performs the function of a conscientious opposition. Without the media playing this role, Indian democracy would lose much of its substance especially since the formal opposition in Parliament is playing a petty obstructionist’s role.

Both in Delhi and in the various states, the Opposition’s role is to oppose – oppose for the sake of opposing. If the Government says the sun rises in the West, the Opposition will say: No, it rises in the North. In no other democracy is Parliament’s functioning completely blocked as a form of Opposition politics. Even on urgently needed social and electoral reforms, they never show the unanimity they readily bring out when their salary increase bills come up for passing. When corruption cases come up, different parties take different positions as all are entrenched in corruption in different ways.

In such an environment the media becomes the only reliable forum for actionable information and democratic mobilisation. Even those who get the wrong end of the stick really have no reason to grumble.

As Ram Mohan Roy explained:

“A government conscious of rectitude of intention cannot be afraid of public scrutiny by the Press since this instrument can be equally well employed as a weapon of defence”.

Those who are beyond defence cannot of course use the weapon. But Manmohan Singh should have known that the real scoundrels who spoil India’s image are outside the media.

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9 Responses to “Why the PM is hopelessly wrong about media”

  1. Subir Ghosh Says:

    Clap, clap.

    But then, this Prime Minister is hopelessly wrong about a lot of other things. Well, mostly he is wrong.

  2. Mahesh Vijapurkar Says:

    Media! And TV at that!

  3. Sam Says:

    The prime minister is asking the media, especially the visual media, to be NEUTRAL and FACTUAL.

    Is the media being neutral when it already treats the accused as guilty and conducts a witch-hunt kind of media trail? Is it neutral when it tries to claim all credit for exposing corruption and paints a picture of failing governance (hint: it wasn’t the media that investigated / exposed the 2G scam, it was the CAG)?

    Is the media making an effort to understand the facts and report it accurately?

    Personally, I don’t think so.

    An example – I was talking to somebody about the 2G scam, and this person was convinced that Raja had ‘earned 1,75,000 crore in the scam’. I don’t blame him – the media keeps flashing this figure whenever it mentions the 2G scam. (After all, it adds a nice shock value!)

    Even a non-sensationalist newspaper like The Hindu can’t resist throwing the figure of 2,00,000 crore whenever it mentions the S-Band scam. (Which, again, wasn’t ‘exposed’ by the Hindu – the CAG was investigating it).

    Logically, of course, these figures are meaningless.

    How hard is it to understand that the government is not in the business of making money, but to serve us. The government making a policy decision not to auction spectrum to make mobile telephony cheaper for the general public is not corruption.

    It is corruption if someone was paid to make those specific decision to benefit the telcos. But it is meaningless to judge a policy decision on how much money it makes or loses the government.

    (Does a common citizen have to remind you esteemed journalists that the preamble of our constitution has a word called ‘socialist’ in it?)

    How many media outlets have tried to understand this and explain it whenever they splashed this figure repeatedly?

    How many media reports have been positive about the quick actions the government has taken? And other good things the government has been doing?

    The PM wants the media to keep up pressure. But he was also reminding the journalists how demoralizingly it can be if one focuses on only finding faults while being blind to anything good.


  4. Few years ago, one political leader had very correctly said that during the Emergency the media was asked to bend, but they choose to crawl. The political elite in the country is only satisfied with the crawling types; they can’t tolerate the journalism of the Internet age, when it is impossible to conceal the truth.

    The dream of Mr. Manmohan Singh doing something for the middle class is now completely shattered. Now it is crystal clear that he is firmly on the side of the corrupt establishment. We can’t expect even an iota of reform from his government. He is like every other politician in the country.

  5. balvinder Says:

    ‘me-first’ approach has of late plagued even the print media

    ***

    what about the fool who asked the pm who would win the world cup?

  6. Sam Says:

    I feel very disappointed. Again.

    The government will try to pass around 32 bills during this budget session. One of them is the ‘Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill’.

    But somehow for NDTV / PTI and Indian Express the bill is actually all about teen sex. Both of them report it as the ‘Bill fixing 16 years as consent age for sex’.

    The bill mentioned above might not be the radical-in-your-face-mind-blowing news your marketing guys tell you that readers want today, but do you have to trivialize it …?

    Do you still think the PM was wrong in telling the media to change their perspective just a tad bit?

  7. Bhaskar Says:

    T.J.S. George might be handing out too many bouquets to the news media on the matter of corruption coverage. They are not just childish and amateurish as he concedes. They are easily manipulated, especially by foreign “leaks”. The Bofors case being the case in point. Investigations over a quarter century by a variety of governments has not uncovered anything real in that “scandal”. In the most recent CWG “scam” the original leak came from within theBritish government. The furore it set off almost ruined the Games. Yet not a single reporter looked into who made that “leak” and why.

  8. Dasu Krishnamoorty Says:

    T.J.S.George makes me laugh. I had a feeling that Thomas Jefferson has come alive and is writing again. He says that the real scoundrels who spoil India’s image are outside media. George reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s epigram that vulgarity is the conduct of others. His article is a peerless piece of media narcissism. He refers to scam after scam in the UPA government. True. Are the media different? Is paid news a scam? Are Radia tapes a scam?

    Bureaucrats are corrupt, engineers, doctors, judges, builders, nearly every one is corrupt and the media have exposed their corruption. Are journalists a part of the same corrupt society or are they a unique species of humanity? I do not know if George is familiar with self-explanatory titles like Manufacturing Consent, Inventing Reality, Agents of Power and News At Any Cost. I want to tell him that the media today are a part of that pompous gang called India.Inc. rooted in endless greed.

    George’s outpouring is a collection of nineteenth century cliches.”It doesn’t generate governmental corruption; it only reports it.” (Applause). Sans Seriff recently reported about government’s expenditure on media advertisements. Who is corrupting whom? Both. If the media do not report, George says, “It is the people of India who would have remained in the dark about the extent of their rulers’ criminalities.” Thank you and your media, George. You are talking about a press which had no clue of where Sonia Gandhi had disappeared for three days and what was her health problem. George, have you ever heard of Censored, a report the American media publish every year about stories that failed to appear? Do the Indian media ever turn the spotlight on themselves? Is there any guarantee that the Indian press which has covered itself with shame during the emergency will not repeat it if another Gandhi declares emergency? Mr George, I have been part of Indian journalism for fifty years and haven’t found any reason to be proud about it.

    Krishnamoorty

    • Prof. M. R. Dua Says:

      moortygaroo, it’s strange tha you did not find any reason to be prou of indian media during your last 50-year career as journalist, but what about earlier years when media were hugely instrumental in achieving freedom for india? true there are not many landmarks in media’s working history since 1950 but don’t forget unearthing of so many scams by mediapersons. these disclosures have established new standards in media’s conduct and service to the country.


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