The Prime Minister’s decision to dispense with the large Press parties that were part of the PM’s entourage in the days when his predecessors travelled abroad has been attacked within the journalistic community on the grounds that it demonstrates his unwillingness to be transparent. Equally, it has been welcomed by many of his supporters on social media on the grounds that the taxpayer should not be funding free-loading journalists.
Both views seem to me to be entirely misconceived. But, on balance, I think the PM has made the right decision.
Let’s dispense with the freeloader argument first. Most people don’t realise that the journalists who accompany the PM do not get treated as State guests. They do not stay with the official delegation or receive hospitality from the host country. Instead, they stay in cheaper hotels which are often quite far from the delegation’s luxurious lodgings and they pay their own hotel bills.
Yes, it is true that they are not charged airfares on the grounds that the plane would make the same journey anyway, regardless of whether journalists were on board or not. But I doubt very much if most media organisations would object to paying the equivalent of the commercial airfare, given that they are already spending thousands of dollars on hotels, meals, international roaming, satellite links and the like for their representatives.
If you really want to look for freeloaders, then check out the official entourages. Vast numbers of ministers, bureaucrats, MPs, etc, have traditionally made up part of the official delegation without serving any visible purpose. And the taxpayer does pick up the tab for all of them.
On the other hand, the lack of transparency argument also makes no sense. Readers and viewers are encouraged to imagine that when a journalist is ushered on board the PM’s plane, he or she sits next to the foreign minister, leans across the aisle to share a joke with the PM and watches global diplomacy in action from up close.
The reality is vastly different. The media don’t just stay in separate hotels, they also occupy a separate section of the aircraft. If they do get to see the PM it is only during the traditional on-board press conference at which no PM ever says anything that he would not say back in Delhi.
I was first invited to join the PM’s Press party in 1986 and turned down the invitation on the grounds that I would learn nothing special on the trip. I stuck to this resolve for 13 years and six PMs till I finally changed my mind during the AB Vajpayee era. And there was a good reason for that.
AB Vajpayee was the only PM I know of who would regularly invite journalists into his cabin on the plane for informal chats. Often he would take groups of journalists out to restaurants for dinner. And though I suspect that the wily old charmer got more out of us — in terms of the mood of the media — than we ever managed to get out of him, at least we had the opportunity to see the PM outside an official setting.
Vajpayee’s openness extended to his Cabinet and staff. Journalists had free access to the First Class cabin where the delegation sat, ministers came back to chat to us and principal secretary Brajesh Mishra would stand at the bar and cheerfully entertain questions from eager journalists.
When Manmohan Singh succeeded Vajpayee, I kept going on the plane because, at first, he seemed to favour a similar approach. For instance, he called three journalists into his cabin when he was on his way to his first meeting with General Pervez Musharraf and told us that just as India had resolved the separatist issue in Nagaland, he would do the same with Kashmir. (He was very put out when we said that the two situations were completely different.) Some of his senior colleagues also came back to banter with journalists.
But around half-way through his first term, Singh suddenly stopped communicating. He would not talk on the record. And nor would he meet journalists informally. His PMO, unmatched both in its ineptitude and its arrogance, followed a similar attitude to the media.
Eventually, I came around to the view that the Vajpayee period had been an aberration. It only took Manmohan Singh a few years to resume the prime ministerial tradition of keeping the media at bay. He would take journalists on the plane. And then he would ignore them. So, I stopped going. And many other editors came to the same conclusion and also dropped out.
Somebody once asked me if, during my trips on the PM’s plane, I ever saw the Press party get special access to a scoop that justified the trip. I can think of only two — both ephemeral. Once we got Brajesh Mishra to tell us that the PM would meet Naga separatist leaders in Japan. And once, after a disastrous dinner between Manmohan Singh and Musharraf, some of us got a blow-by-blow account. (The HT got it from Natwar Singh; NDTV from the Pakistani delegation.) And that’s about it.
So, when journalists tell me that Narendra Modi’s unwillingness to take along a large Press party is a symbol of his hostility to a free Press, I laugh in their faces. Getting on to the PM’s plane was never about scoops or transparency. At most you got the opportunity — but only in the Vajpayee era — to develop sources who could be useful in the future.
It is nobody’s loss if the media do not travel on the PM’s plane: not the PM’s and not the media’s. And it certainly makes no difference to the Indian reader or viewer whether journalists clamber on to Air India One.
The views expressed by the author are personal