Media and the message

But just as bazar talk cannot be regulated or sanitised, it is difficult to sanitise the raw emotions of those on Twitter and Facebook

I was a student and not living in India during the horrible days of the Emergency. As such, I can’t speak with any measure of authority of the experiences of those brave souls who had to encounter the red pen of pig-headed censors. However, the 17 months of press censorship, between 1975 and 1977, did have a salutary effect on the Indian media: It made the Fourth Estate fiercely possessive about their democratic rights, enshrined in the Constitution.

The attempt by the Rajiv Gandhi government to enact an insidious law on defamation, for example, was spiritedly opposed by nearly everyone in the media.
Maybe I am exaggerating in suggesting that everyone in the media opposed every attempt by the government to impose restrictions on the media.
During the Emergency, some powerful media owners went out of their way to oblige the authoritarian regime. They were backed by journalists who saw intrusive official control as a career opportunity. In his recently-published autobiography Beyond the Lines, Kuldip Nayar has supplied sketchy details of the back-stabbing that marked journalistic life in those troubled years. A no-holds-barred account of the media during the Emergency could destroy the reputations of many we have come to view as stalwarts.
Not that it always took an Emergency to put in place an informal but equally insidious system of controls. In the final year of Rajiv Gandhi, the government tried its utmost to lean heavily on newspapers and journalists who were critical of the regime and who tried to chase up the Bofors story doggedly. Again, during the years of the Ayodhya agitation, a draconian Left-liberal intellectual establishment threw its weight behind a campaign to ensure that the leading newspapers displayed a “secular” bias. I recall a letter to the editor of a newspaper signed by a clutch of prominent academics of Delhi suggesting that my articles had no place in the newspaper.
In a similar vein, another editor known for his pronounced Left leanings wrote that the writings of Girilal Jain (a former editor) should not be published. The main reason why these outrageous demands were disregarded was not that the editorial classes were committed to pluralism — a small handful were — but because the so-called contrarian views were also echoed in the middle classes.
It is also fair to point out that the publications in the Indian languages didn’t always share the political preferences of their English-language counterparts. The vernacular media invariably had their ears closer to the ground.
In the days when the free media meant free press — TV was then a Doordarshan monopoly and Internet hadn’t been invented — it was relatively easy for a nervous government to get its way, even without imposing censorship. Today, the media has grown exponentially and the electronic media has overtaken the print media in many markets. Regulation, under the circumstances, has become more problematic, although the government’s attempts to exercise control have been unrelenting. Rather than confront the issue with a sledge hammer, intelligent politicians have tried to tame the media with a carrot and stick approach.
Obliging media is often preferred with generous government and public sector advertisements; and public sector banks have been known to shower the friendly media with special accommodation, especially in times of economic downturn.
In recent months, the government has turned its focus on a troublesome social media. Following Anna Hazare’s successful mobilisation in Delhi last year and the exodus of north-eastern people from Bengaluru, Pune and Hyderabad last month, a section of the political class and officialdom has veered to the view that the destabilising potential of the social media is enormous.
Alarmed by reports of the social media’s role in the Tahrir Square mobilisation in Egypt and the London riots of 2010, a shaky political establishment now sees danger in the free flow of information and views on Twitter and Facebook.
The government’s wariness of anything they can’t comprehend or control is understandable. Less wholesome is the endorsement of regulation and control by a section of the established media.
To the extent that irreverent individuals are inclined to shower TV anchors and award-winning editors with mockery and disrespect and question their biases and motives, it is possible to understand the anger of a media that believes it has a monopoly over correctness. That some of the irreverence is raw, unstructured and built on dubious foundations is also true. But just as bazar talk cannot be regulated or sanitised, it is difficult to sanitise the raw emotions of those on Twitter and Facebook. However, just as they are not accountable to anyone, their rantings are inconsequential until they hit the right nerve.
What the state fears is that unfiltered news may percolate outwards and influence wider judgments. What the established media is afraid of is that their spin of events is too readily being called into question, and in real time.
As the Indian media has grown, it has also become less professional and vain. It is this arrogance of believing that it has the monopoly of the public discourse that is propelling many notables into emulating China and endorsing curbs over the free spirit. What they seem to be forgetting is that angry messages of anonymous Indians are having an impact because they seem more authentic than the sophistry of the compromised. Democratic rights, after all, can’t be selectively applied.

The writer is a senior journalist

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