Dead beat: journalists struggle to get scoops from PM's office

The PMO's communication strategy of opting for social media over conventional works well when the times are good, but it may not be the best mechanism in times of crisis.
Hindustan Times | By Danish Raza
UPDATED ON AUG 18, 2014 10:27 AM IST

Reporters on the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) beat are getting attuned to a new culture - one where information is hard to come by. There is no point person in the PMO to confirm, counter or substantiate information. Otherwise accessible 'sources' no longer respond to phone calls and text messages. It would seem that they have been advised not to spend time with press persons.

Journalists are directed to the Prime Minister's speeches, press statements and Twitter feed. The contrast to the previous regime is so stark that even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, often critisised for being silent, appears supremely articulate. "On the sidelines of an event, Singh would quickly respond to some questions, the answers to which would become headlines. Modi does not do even that," says Sachidanand Murthy, Resident Editor (Delhi) of The Week magazine and former secretary general, Editors' Guild of India, who has been on the PMO beat for more than two decades.

In the three months since he has become Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has indicated that he wants to keep conventional media at arm's length and that he prefers to communicate with the electorate directly via social media.

In a departure from previous dispensations, Modi has not appointed a press advisor - a high profile journalist who advises the Prime Minister on media policy. Perhaps the Sanjaya Baru episode has served as an object lesson. Instead, septuagenarian Jagdish Thakkar, who earlier had a similar profile in Gujarat is Modi's public relations officer. Thakkar does not mingle with journalists. The PM has also reportedly asked his ministers revisit the policy of holding daily press briefings.

On his foreign trips, he chose to travel only with reporters from public service broadcasters­- Doordarshan and All India Radio- unlike his predecessors who used to travel with more than 30 correspondents.

Modi's aversion to the fourth estate is puzzling considering the blitzkrieg of positive media coverage contributed greatly to his party's stellar victory in the 2014 general elections. His massive ground campaign - he attended 5,187 events and addressed 477 rallies in 25 states - received incessant TV coverage. A study by the Centre for Media Studies in Delhi shows that Modi received the highest coverage during prime time on five national news channels all through March and April. Sandeep Bhushan, fellow at Jamia Millia Islamia's Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, says, "The persona of Narendra Modi as an agent of change has been, by and large, a construction of TV coverage. In the run- up to the general election, it appeared as if every TV channel was pushing Modi. The coverage was unprecedented. He was omnipresent. It was similar to an ad barrage. People were yearning for better, corruption-free governance and Modi was projected as a huge, happening symbol of change. It was certainly a watershed moment for Indian news media."

While Delhi's news media is new to the idea of a PMO that maintains its distance and the information famine that results, this was Modi's style of functioning even when he was Gujarat chief minister. "His media policy now is a national extension of how he dealt with the media in Gujarat," says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.

Modi's definition of news, Mukhopadhyay adds, is plain information minus analysis and opinion. "He has been escaping dialogue and prefers monologues. He uses media as an amplifier of his achievements. If he had his say, he would not want editorial pages in the newspapers and want them only as a litany of events."

BJP watchers who have observed Modi since he was a party general secretary in Delhi in the late 1990s say he believes most journalists are driven by an agenda. The hostility increased in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. "Modi, for obvious reasons, carries an element of unfounded and unwarranted distrust against formal media and does not miss any chance to denigrate it. His coining of the phrase 'news traders' during his campaign only proves the point," says NK Singh, senior journalist and general secretary, Broadcast Editors' Association. "What he does not understand is that India practises the doctrine of adversar-ial democracy and the role of the media is intrinsically negative when it comes to analysing the powers-that-be," he adds.

Ever since Modi was anointed the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in September last year, his publicists within the party and outside have tried to project him as a figure who is oriented towards governance and development. Social media - Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and blogs - was used aggressively to disseminate the party's agenda, with Modi as its face. "He has been careful about cultivating the image of a person who is growth and governance oriented. For this, you need to make people count your achievements. And new media is a good platform to do that," says Sachidanand Murthy.

According to Robin Jeffrey, media scholar and visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, in attempting to control the news flow, Modi is doing what democratic politicians in other countries have done for a long time. "The Tony Blair media office was notorious [for controlling the press], and American, Australian and Canadian politicians constantly observe each other's techniques and are on the lookout for new ways to get "the news" to spin it their way," he says.

Party members believe Modi is trying to streamline the flow of information and discontinue the practice of different ministries planting stories against each other. "The Prime Minister does not want to continue with the established structure where leaks and scoops had become the order of the day. He is trying to put in place a disciplined regimen for information flow," says BJP spokesperson Sanjay Kaul. "There is no diktat to not talk to the press. The diktat is to stay focused on the job and not discuss unimportant issues unnecessarily," adds Kaul, who maintains that, unlike the UPA regime, the Modi government will be "equal and fair" in the way it engages with the media.

The refrain in certain sections of the media has been that, in recent decades, many journalists had grown too close to the Establishment and had been abusing their access to power. By discouraging such cosy relationships, the argument goes, Modi is rightly deterring a bad practice and that this new equation will subsequently force reporters to move beyond access-based journalism. In an editorial piece in The Telegraph dated August 13, 2014, KP Nayar, who was the newspaper's Washington correspondent for 14 years, wrote, "The loud reproaches in the Indian media that Modi plans to emasculate the fourth estate as a pillar of democracy would never have surfaced if several of his predecessors and their aides had not willfully broken the fine and sacred line between sources and reporters or dragged opinion writers down into a world of make-believe, where some of them at least assumed that their job was to make government policies instead of interpreting or dissecting them."

Robin Jeffrey agrees. "Perhaps, in recent years, it has been too easy to find people close to power who were willing to talk. A former premier of the Australian state of Queensland used to describe his "briefings" to favoured journalists as "feeding the chooks [chickens]," he says.

However, there is a difference between curbing unethical media practices and deliberate efforts to bypass traditional media. In the current scenario, the flow of information is definitely one way. Journalists say it has become a challenge to do stories that require the PMO's version.

HK Dua, former press advisor to HD Deve Gowda and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, says some queries are bound to emanate from policy announcements and that the PMO must address them. "These queries reflect public concerns. On many occasions, their answers are educative and helps the government," he says. "Also, if a reporter gets a lead and cannot confirm it with the concerned department, he or she is left speculating. On many occasions, such unconfirmed reports become news items," he adds.

Others believe governance is too complex an issue to be communicated through social media. "It is simply not possible to give a full perspective of what the government wants to get across. This is done much better through analysis in print publications and debate on television. Besides, social media is limited to a small number of people who access information through computers or mobiles, " says political commentator Ajoy Bose.

The number of social media users in India was estimated to be 91 million (as per December 2013), by Internet and Mobile Association of India and IMRB International. That's around 8 per cent of the total population.

NK Singh points out other flaws in overtly relying on new media. "During a crisis, the state will have no mechanism to fall back on if it continues to neglect formal media. In those situations, the state cannot rely on capricious modes of communications such as social media," he says. "Despite all its shortcomings, formal media is governed by constitutional restrictions under article 19(2) and the content is subject to scrutiny by an array of professionals up to the editors."

It will be interesting to see whether Prime Minister Modi, after the wariness of his initial months in office, changes his media policy to make it easier for journalists to get the government's perspective on contentious issues or reporters in the capital will have to grow accustomed to their transformed relationship with the PMO.

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