City City Bang Bang, Columns

A media moment of truth

The government’s action against NDTV is like many other elements in the BJP government’s conduct post their stunning UP victory, puzzling. Why act against the channel now, and why do so with such little substance? The charge itself is difficult to take seriously -the reduction by a private bank of interest on a loan that has been settled to its satisfaction. For the CBI to get involved in this makes little sense and it opens up the wholly problematic possibility of such action being taken in other cases where banks have adjusted their terms in order to aid recovery of loans. It is true that the source of funding of many media channels and of NDTV in particular have been the object of scrutiny , both official and journalistic, but this specific charge is not connected to any of the alleged irregularities that critics have been pointing to and smacks of little more than inept harassment. The desire seems to be to send out a message and do so crudely.

The mystifying part is that the government has already more or less brought the media to heel. Its pronouncements are covered with embarrassing fulsomeness, and it is able to frame debates to its liking. Routinely, pressure points faced by the government are framed as opposition conspiracies. Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Mandsaur – in all these cases, the government escapes scrutiny and an otherwise comatose opposition or a marginal set of dissenters is identified as the culprit and pilloried.

On television, in the case of most channels, the situation has gone beyond any rational mode of comprehension and resides in the uncharted area between abject surrender and raving lunacy. The nightly flagellations have become too unhinged to be discussed with even an iota of seriousness. On print too, a few exceptions notwithstanding, the situation is largely under the government’s control.

Had the case been stronger and based on more substantive charges, it would have been difficult to argue against the government’s move even if its intentions were suspect. Had the media been specially problematic for the government, the action could have been easier to understand, even if it were seen to be illegitimate. Instead, this move seems entirely proactive and appears to be located in a desire to assert absolute supremacy. This is revenge, rubbed in.

And the NDTV action is by no means the only sign of this desire. The aggressive push against cattle trading for slaughter is a clear case of pushing down an agenda, and doing so without significant electoral benefits. This has been the big change -if earlier the balance between development and Hindutva was determined on the basis of perceived electoral advantage, today it seems as if the party’s cultural agenda is being pursued for its own sake. Even more significantly, it is using its position of strength not to push through policy reforms, but to find an outlet for its repressed anger. It seems to have the confidence that nothing that it will do will change the 2019 script.

For the media, this is a decisive moment. It has arguably put itself in a position from where it could progressively render itself politically irrelevant. The power that the media derives comes from its ability to hold power to account. Once it gets defanged of this ability, it becomes little more than the PR department of the government. It might be a very loud and angry PR department, but that is all that it is. Already, by becoming hostage to the government in its eagerness to host `summits’ of world-shattering importance, where journalists can dress up and strut about, it has allowed the state leverage that compromises its independence. The almost total surrender to market forces has severely affected the institutional integrity of the media; most of the distortions that affect the media have come voluntarily, from within. By treating facts as malleable products that can be packaged in any way deemed profitable, it is the media that has hollowed out belief in the idea of truthful reportage. As a result, from a time when it evoked awed respect, today it is likelier to elicit disdain and suspicion.

With the government in an unusually assertive mood, the role of the media as an institutional force is at stake. The media cannot lose the power it has to ask questions that the truly powerful wish to avoid. It is not that the media must necessarily oppose the state, but it cannot allow itself to become its instrument. In the short term, it might even be a market-friendly move, but in the long run, becoming the mouthpiece of the state destroys the very thing that gives the media teeth. Short term viewership can lead to long term irrelevance.

In fact, media integrity is of use to the government in the long run. When it has the power to frame events in a way that makes it look good, there is a serious danger of institutionalising self-delusion -something we are beginning to see when it comes to issues of the farmer, or in questions around dietary preferences of different regions. In the Indian context, seeking total dominance can often be a mistake, for small amounts of dissent and noise are factors that lend stability to a system. Seeking absolute power in politics can be risky -ask Theresa May .

What the BJP government is attempting is not new nor is it of a scale that is by itself worrying; previous regimes have done worse on occasion. But read along with its other actions, and given the formidably abusive support base that it nurtures, the danger is that this sentiment will spill over into real life with a speed and ferocity that is unanticipated. The media has already lost credibility; it is now in the danger of losing self-respect and along with it, its core reason for being. The state of media has been in precipitous decline over the years; if nothing else, the current situation should give it some reason to act decisively.