Behind a smokescreen

The top powerful three in UPA 2 seldom engage with the media. It is hardly surprising then that others like Hazare and Ramdev are harnessing this to their advantage, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

columns Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:49 IST

The 24x7 media is an amoral beast and the camera is Shiva’s third eye. It sees the positive and the negative, and it doesn’t blink: it is indeed a double-edged weapon. Television magnifies sound and images, but it can also be used to completely distort them. An artful government will recognise the power of the media but will harness it to its advantage. An under-confident government will allow the media to dictate the agenda, petrified by the media’s power, and then merely react to it. UPA 2 is a prime example of what happens when TV becomes the Pied Piper and the government desperately plays catch up. Ubiquitous TV images will show up an absentee government in high definition every day.

In recent weeks, as the images of Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare played out across TV screens, the government appeared to panic. Four cabinet ministers rushed to the airport to mollify the yoga guru. In Hazare’s case, a fast at Jantar Mantar was enough to hasten the government into issuing a order appointing a lokpal committee without any consultation process.

In both instances, the government blames the media for forcing it to act in an unwise manner by giving disproportionate coverage to the agitations. Such an accusation stems from a failure to recognise the nature of the media. Twenty-four hour news TV, in particular, is a carnivorous animal that needs to be constantly fed. The likes of Ramdev and Hazare have realised this only too well while staging ‘made for TV’ events in Delhi.

In contrast, the government hides in the shadows of the forbidding walls of power. Occasionally, the PM mumbles a few words, Rahul Gandhi is sometimes seen in well-choreographed meetings while Sonia Gandhi seems to have retreated behind the barricades of 10 Janpath. When the three most-powerful people in the UPA 2 are not available to the media, who will feed the appetite of the 24-hour news cycle? So, every night on prime time TV, hapless Congress spokespersons have to answer for the government’s sins. With no real mandate, the spokespersons have little option but to attempt to filibuster their way out of difficult situations. It could well be argued that news TV, especially English language TV, doesn’t have any impact on political electability. A Mayawati, for example, has been consistently contemptuous of all media, refusing to do any interviews or take any questions from journalists. She is firm in her belief that her Bahujan Samaj voter will not be influenced by media perceptions.

At least, Mayawati is consistent in her disdainful attitude towards the media. The problem with the UPA is that it wants greater media approval at one level, and yet remains suspicious of it at another. You can’t have it both ways. Either the government must embrace the media like a Barack Obama, where the US president misses no opportunity to play the media, be it an intimate chat on an Oprah Winfrey show or a hard talk interview on network TV. Else it should be prepared to allow high-decibel TV to set the agenda for it. Television abhors a vacuum. If the government, for whatever reason, will not fill the black hole of information, then it will be filled by noisy news anchors and equally loud arguments.

Take the debate on corruption. Through his public life, Manmohan Singh’s calling card has been his personal integrity. And yet, how often have we seen Dr Singh take on his critics on corruption? In the two years of UPA 2, he has done just two live press conferences but not a single one-on-one interview. Perhaps, Singh’s image-makers fear that the TV lens will expose his limitations as a public speaker. Since he is a soft-spoken individual, the fear is that his voice will not be heard in the cacophony around him. Once again, this is a misunderstanding of the media. Just as the camera captures the noisy, it also zooms in on sobriety and decency. At a time when the viewer seems to be tiring of the constant barrage of zero-sum debates, the PM has an opportunity to set himself apart as a voice of reason and rationality. Yet, by staying silent, he almost confirms his critics claim of being in office, but not in power.

Sonia Gandhi’s approach to the media is equally mystifying. In the run-up to the 2004 general elections, her roadshows established her as an astute and charismatic campaigner who could use the media to her advantage. Now, by refusing to engage with the media, she gives the impression of a leader who wields power without responsibility, who is unwilling to be held accountable for any of the mistakes of the government. As for Rahul, have we ever heard him express his views on matters of national importance? Or does he too, like a Mayawati, believe that the media is a pestilence best avoided?

Post-script: It is not just the power elite, but also we in the news business who need to introspect. Why is that we cover a Hazare or a Ramdev with such intensity, but barely touch the story of an Irom Sharmila, the Manipuri activist who has been fasting for over 10 years for revoking the Armed Forces Special Powers Act? Or is Imphal simply too distant and complex for the country’s 180-odd news channels to report on?

Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 Network, The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Jun 16, 2011 22:13 IST