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No party, no clique: why media can't be muzzled

Attacking the media is ruinous for a vibrant democracy. Politicians seem to expect the media to say nothing negative about them and always be beholden to them, writes Lalitha Panicker.

india Updated: Mar 18, 2014 08:44 IST
Lalitha Panicker
Lalitha Panicker
Hindustan Times
media,arvind kejriwal,AAP

Nothing that home minister Sushilkumar Shinde says or does really surprises people anymore. He never really had a way with words. But you have to admit that in his own crude way, he tells the truth. Politicians like the media only as long as they cover positives.

The minute the media shows them up, the political class turns on them like a wounded tiger. So, Shinde really meant what he said not so long ago. He really did want to crush the electronic media. But faced with an onslaught, he had to recant, fumbling on about social media and then saying, quite inexplicably, that social media should not be crushed. Not that he did not say it, please note.

What is really annoying is that the very same politicians who rubbish the media are the first to seek space on prime time and in the columns of papers. But only if the media agrees to roll over and play dead. Of course, there are times when the media targets people unfairly. But by and large, competition ensures that no one goes far too off tangent.

If you find something hard to believe on one channel or in one newspaper or magazine, you are likely to find a more plausible version elsewhere. The very same politicians who say that almost everything in the media is a lie seem inordinately concerned when they are mentioned. The media reports of scams are invariably dismissed as part of a larger conspiracy. In the old days, the foreign hand would be discerned in unflattering reports.

When all else fails, the media vehicle or journalist will be accused of being on the take. Take the case of that arch democrat Arvind Kejriwal. First we hear disquieting stories of him asking a television journalist to play up certain bits of an interview. The next thing you know, he is talking about putting journalists behind bars when he comes to power.

AAP top cat Kejriwal is a person who has benefited immensely from the media’s relentless interest in him. Something he ensured through his antics, his appearances on prime time shows. The media faithfully covered his journey from Anna Hazare’s shadow to chief minister of Delhi to challenger of the status quo now. The media lovingly covered him sleeping on the pavement swathed in his floral quilt.

It dwelt lingeringly on his speeches, focusing on his muffler-draped visage. But now he feels that the media is corrupt. In which case, should we understand that pure as the driven snow Kejriwal was consorting with corrupt elements earlier.

The same goes for Bollywood. From time to time even two bit stars give out statements, to the press mind you, that they are off the press. When the oblivion becomes too much to bear, they ensure a “rapprochement” and bounce back onto the screens and pages with carefully calibrated statements.

Some of the stars are entirely media creations, having no body of work to speak of. Any link-up of a star with someone, any hint of money trouble or suggestion of bad behaviour is attributed to misreporting by the media.

Politicians routinely invite the media on their political campaigns. But they seem to expect the media to say nothing negative and be grateful for the access to the esteemed personage. Now there are some in the media who revel in their proximity to politicians. They are quite proud to be in one camp or the other.

But the truly independent always run the risk of being labelled a dodgy journalist or a person with a sinister motive. In the mofussil towns, the concept of dedicated journalists is very much alive. Politicians hand out sops like housing and access to free railway tickets and so on, ensuring some sort of loyalty.

But, as Shinde said, crushing an independent media is the dream of many a politician. They would prefer if the journalists were to take dictation and not ask any uncomfortable questions.

The minute anyone does that, he or she is accused of acting at the behest of some mythical enemy or rival. Honestly, a free and vigorous media is a great protection for Indian society. Given half the chance, the politician’s instinct is don’t ask, don’t tell.

Mercifully, for all concerned, the Indian media is still nowhere near as intrusive as the western paparazzi. The personal lives of our politicians are left alone by and large. Of course, now and again, a scandal like that of the paternity case against ND Tiwari will surface, but here too the reporting is not salacious and nor does the media hound the dramatis personae.

Attacking the media is ruinous for a vibrant democracy. Our political lads and ladies will work out behind the scenes political alliances and when a vigilant media comes out with it, they are accused of being liars or having been bought up. Now Shinde may be salivating at the prospect of crushing the media, but he must know that it is not that easily crushable. The social media is all over the place and before the words fall from Shinde’s lips they are out there for all to see. Too late for afterthoughts and retractions.

It is funny how the media is praised by parties when it exposes a rival’s shortcomings. Then the media’s work is quoted as the gospel truth. In fact, we have seen our worthies bringing copies of newspapers to Parliament to buttress their arguments. Or quoting news channels. But all that vanishes like the morning mist when the media tries to be impartial.

Maybe the media should leave poor injured Shinde well alone. We are not suggesting a blackout or any such undemocratic thing, but a hands-off policy for a while, maybe until the elections are over. We’ll bet you our bottom dollar that Shinde’s crushing instincts will be crushed out quick as a flash.

First Published: Mar 18, 2014 08:33 IST