Modi, Mevani, judge Loya, Padmaavat: The failure of Indian journalism

Nadim Asrar
Nadim AsrarJan 24, 2018 | 15:24

Modi, Mevani, judge Loya, Padmaavat: The failure of Indian journalism

Recently, Dalit leader and now a member of the Gujarat Assembly, Jignesh Mevani, was criticised for refusing to talk to a particular news channel - co-founded by a pro-BJP MP and a right-wing TV anchor - during a press interaction in Chennai.

There are conflicting versions of what happened there. Mevani claims he walked out after the reporters, "in solidarity", refused to part with one of their comrades. But journalists say they decided to boycott the meeting altogether. What followed was a spirited display of solidarity, not only among reporters in Chennai, but also among the so-called "national media" as they outraged on Twitter and Facebook over Mevani calling out one of their own, and refusing to talk to them.


Jignesh Mevani at a press conference in Chennai from where he walked out as reporters 'boycotted' him after he asked the Republic TV journalist to leave. (Screengrab)

That Mevani, given his anti-BJP politics in Gujarat and elsewhere, his close association with JNU's so-called "Tukde Tukde Gang", as well as a larger Dalit alliance that he has been able to build across various states, was an easy target for the media is a detail not missed by the political observers.

Media solidarity today, as the institution itself becomes a story as big as the stories it is "covering", is more a byword for a gang, or a syndicate, if you will. Never has media come more under the scanner than in the past few years, as senior editors and reporters capitulated to the rise of Narendra Modi - by extension, Hindutva - and became his willing cheerleaders and "selfie" buddies.

Last weekend, Modi, who has refused to address a single press conference in nearly four years of his rule and getting away with it in the absence of visible demand by journalists, made a rare appearance on our television screens as he "agreed" to be interviewed by not one, but two TV channels, known for their pro-BJP slant.


PM Modi with Times Now's Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar. (Screengrab)

No one was surprised by how the two interviews went. The hour-long sessions on both the channels were emblematic of the deep crisis that Indian media is faced with: its refusal to question the power. In the worldview of primetime TV anchors, the opposition is the government while the government faces no resistance or even questions. 

Now, will the journalists who stood by the TV reporter in Chennai extend the same solidarity to the two channels who performed a sham in the name of the interview of India's most powerful, yet elusive leader?

Will the media fraternity put its weight behind the farce in the name of journalism that was carried out last weekend?

How is this media solidarity being taken for granted by these editors and journalists, and being used selectively only to outrage against an "enemy" of the state?

'Presstitutes' we are not, they said

Not too long ago, in the summer of 2015, general VK Singh had called journalists "presstitutes", kickstarting a controversy that saw senior editors and media outlets up in arms against the retired army chief-turned-politician, and forcing the BJP to distance itself from the remark.


For a community that identifies itself in idealist and ambitious terms like the "fourth estate" of a democracy, and asserts itself as a "free and responsible" entity, Singh's address to it was not only crude, but also seemed to breach the walls that separate the different "estates".

More than two years since that controversy, where does Indian journalism stand today? Why has it ironically become, at least for me, a bigger story right now than even the spectre of fascism looming over this democracy?

PM Modi with Zee News’ Sudhir Chaudhary. (Screengrab)

Journalists often pride themselves as being the authors of the first draft of history; chroniclers on their feet, if you will. But if we imagine a history of contemporary Indian journalism as it would be written in not-so-distant future, it's not difficult to imagine how unflattering that draft is going to be.

Let's just take the last National Press Day that journalists in India celebrated two months ago on November 16. The Press Council of India had called the day "symbolic of a free and responsible press" which acts as a "moral watchdog" to ensure that it was not "fettered by the influence or threats of any extraneous factors".

Read "extraneous factors" as the government or the dominant ideology. Now let's see how those factors played out on our televisions or the newspapers.

The Padmaavat test

On the National Press Day itself, "fringe" caste group Karni Sena threatened to chop off actor Deepika Padukone's nose for playing the title role in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati (now Padmaavat), the controversy over which has become more a statement on the character (or the lack of it) of the Indian media more than a row over alleged distortion of history by the filmmaker.

That the film is not based on historical facts, but on a 16th century epic which is more allegorical than true, is a crucial detail deliberately ignored by the media.

As the massive Padmaavat story unfolded, we saw one of the most shameless capitulation by Indian journalism to a narrative, which falls into the larger majoritarian politics being pursued by the ruling BJP and its Hindutva allies.

A free hand was given to Karni Sena goons as they trumped each other in issuing threats of murder and mayhem - on camera. So much so that a leading news channel, which prides itself at always being seen on the "right" side of a story, allowed a Karni Sena man to bring out his sword inside its studio. As the steel blades of the sword reflected the bright studio lights and flashed on the screen, the anchor continued with his pretension of asking "tough" questions to the goon. The abysmal display of whose side the anchor lied was not lost on the viewers.

Today, as Karni Sena goons burn vehicles and vandalise theatres across India, we have TV reporters still calling it a "fringe group", completely oblivious of the fact that at least six BJP-ruled states called for a ban on the film, with two even moving the Supreme Court. Has the BJP been cornered enough for its open defiance of the laws of the land? Which chief minister has been hounded by reporters over the Padmaavat mayhem? 

The silence over judge Loya

Lost - or again deliberately buried - in the violent din over Padmaavat was what could (or should) have been the most explosive story the media could have picked up, if it had the spine to stand up to power (which, by the way, is its cardinal rule).

In one of the most stunning masterclasses on what a journalist ought to do, news magazine Caravan's Niranjan Takle, through a meticulous investigation, told us that there is more to the mysterious death of CBI judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya three years ago than what is known.

When Loya died (or was apparently killed), he was presiding over the special CBI court in Mumbai that was hearing the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. The then Gujarat home minister and current chief of the BJP, Amit Shah, was the prime accused - later discharged - in Sohrabuddin's staged encounter in 2005.

But it took four Supreme Court judges, not the reporters, to resort to an unprecedented and "extraordinary" press conference to flag the Loya case or other such subversions in India's judiciary, now headed by a chief justice whose impeachment is being planned by the Opposition.

But the silence in media has been deafening, either by design or fear. What's worse than silence is a willing capitulation to state power, as it threatens India's minorities and its social fabric.

There have been the times in this country - and a tradition in journalism - that held the governments responsible when it failed in its duties. Burdened by an ideal of truth that must emerge, journalists would be angry and skeptical.

They would stand to power and demand answers, as was required by their profession, often at the cost of their careers, and even lives.

Today, it appears as if general VK Singh had a point. 

Last updated: January 25, 2018 | 09:51
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