The foremost role of the media is to provide accurate information to the people to enable them to form rational opinions, a sine qua non in a democracy. But while covering Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement that began last year, certain sections of the Indian media failed to live up to that principle. Instead of being objective, many journalists became a part of the movement. Their conduct reminded me of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi agitation when a section of the media (particularly the Hindi press) became kar sevaks. A journalist must maintain some distance from the event she is covering and behave professionally to maintain accuracy and objectivity; she must never forgo her critical faculties and the ability to rationally analyse a situation.
The Anna Hazare movement cannot end corruption in the country, it was just an emotional outburst. Yet, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Hazare led the gullible people of the country in this dance of stupidity and he was ably assisted by the Indian media. Looking at the spectacle that unfolded across the country, I was reminded of a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
During the first round of the Anna stir, there was no critical analysis by the media of the Jan Lokpal Bill. For example, the Section 2(e) of the Bill states that government employees, who already are covered under the Prevention of Corruption Act, will now come under the purview of the lokpal. There are crores of such employees. Now if the lokpal law is passed, there is bound to be a huge number of complaints against many government employees every year and it will require 2 lakh lokpals to deal with such a huge number of cases. These lokpals and their staff will have to be paid a salary and other benefits and this will be a huge burden on the exchequer.
Apart from the above, there is a second role of the media, which is important in the transitional period (from feudal agricultural to the modern industrial era), through which our country is passing at the moment: giving leadership and guidance to the people in the realm of ideas.
Such transitional periods are always painful for any nation, full of turbulence, social churning and intellectual ferment and India is going through such a period and this may last for another 15 to 20 years. In such a period, the role of ideas, and, therefore, of the media, becomes important. To help society get over such a transition period faster and with less pain, the media should promote scientific ideas and combat backward feudal ideas like casteism, communalism and superstitions. For example, during such a transition period in Europe between the 17th and 19th century, Voltaire attacked religious bigotry, Rousseau the feudal system and Thomas Paine proclaimed the Rights of Man. The Indian media will have to play a similar role.
When Hazare said his movement will now enter politics, the media should have asked what exactly he meant by that. Most of our politics is on the basis of caste and religion. If he forms a party, which caste(s) will it represent? Without such a vote bank, all his candidates will lose their security deposits. Recently, Hazare said that he will not contest elections because each election costs Rs. 15 to Rs. 20 crore, and he does not have money, but he will support honest candidates. Now there is a clear contradiction here. If an election costs a candidate Rs. 15 to Rs. 20 crore, then where will his honest candidates get so much money?
Sometimes I have been misunderstood by a section of the media for criticising it, but I criticise it as a well wisher, not as an enemy. The Indian media has a glorious role to play in the coming days, provided it realises its past mistakes and corrects itself. I am sure the media will do so, and thereby win the respect of the people.
Markandey Katju is chairman, Press Council of India, and former judge, Supreme Court of India
The views expressed by the author are personal