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Pressing on the PM

‘Do you agree with the Prime Minister?’ This sounded like one of Pertie’s deceptively innocent questions and it put me instantly on my guard. His smile convinced me this was a trap. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Jul 09, 2011 21:38 IST

‘Do you agree with the Prime Minister?’ This sounded like one of Pertie’s deceptively innocent questions and it put me instantly on my guard. His smile convinced me this was a trap.

“About what?” I replied, curiosity getting the better of my sense of caution.

“The PM says the media behave like the accuser, the prosecutor and the judge all rolled into one. I agree with him. In fact, I’m sure most people do. What’s your defence?” Having thrown down this challenge, Pertie settled back in his chair to await my response, his smile intact.

“It all depends on what you think the role of the media is. On what you think they are meant to do”, I tentatively began. “Perhaps the PM’s concept of journalism is very different to that of newspaper readers?”

“Don’t try and wriggle out of answering by posing a question of your own. You’re just muddying the water. I’ve asked a simple question, give me a straightforward reply.” He seemed a little irritated.

“The point I’m making is that one of the functions of the media is to analyse and expose the flaws or weaknesses in what people in authority do. This is something they won’t themselves reveal and, often, hide. And this applies not just to governments but to industrialists, celebrities, even actors and sportsmen. In fact, anyone in the public gaze.”

“We know all that” Pertie snorted, his contempt almost visible. “But how does that justify becoming judge, jury and executioner?”

“What it means is that the media are often, almost by definition, adversarial. They’re sceptical of what people state or claim, they look for deeper, hidden motives, and they dig behind given appearances to see if they’re a convenient cover. As a result the media expose, embarrass, push people off their pedestals and will not keep quiet or accept glib responses. They relentlessly question rather than acquiesce and stay silent.”

“But that can’t be an excuse for being unfair and for picking on the government and the prime minister in particular?” Pertie’s voice was rising.

“Hang on,” I shot back, “that depends on who’s judging the media. No doubt the PM thinks he’s being treated unfairly. But his critics wouldn’t agree. And do you remember who first built up this PM? Who dubbed him ‘Mr Clean’ and called him the economic ‘Miracle Man’? It was the same media.”

“That was perhaps as wrong as this.” Pertie wasn’t going to be easily fobbed off. “When they built up Dr Manmohan Singh, the media refused to see his shyness or lack of political experience as weakness. In fact, some of you thought his gentle manner was a strength. Now, today, when you’re tearing him apart, you can’t see his obvious good qualities. Why can’t you be more balanced? Isn’t that the real point the PM was making?”

“The point the good doctor needs to learn,” I butted in, “is how a responsive prime minister should behave when the media are seething. Just look at David Cameron’s behaviour on Friday over the phone-hacking scandal in Britain. He put himself at the forefront of the government’s response, accepted his role, didn’t deny the failure of politicians and was honest about the failings of the press.”

“So are you saying Manmohan Singh should behave like Cameron?” Pertie meant to be snide. His voice was dripping with sarcasm. But that’s exactly what I meant.

In fact, I would recommend all our politicians watch Cameron’s press statement and conference and ask themselves why he was so impressive.

The views expressed by the author are personal