Late last year, an editor whose employment was ended under the ‘tatkal’ quota met a media owner whose exit had been similarly fast-tracked a few months earlier.
“Who was making the [phone] calls?” the latter asked. When he heard the names of a couple of Union Ministers, the ‘malik’ snarled: “Oh, wasn’t that glib RSS chap in the BJP amongst them?”
The anecdote might well be apocryphal. What is not is that mainstream media is in deep coma, gasping under pressure not felt even during Emergency’s darkest nights. That was an advertised, in-your-face, executive intervention — the censor sat openly amid journalists in newspaper offices and blacked out stuff they thought Indira Gandhi wouldn’t like.
Co-option and coercion
What is on today is a sly, insidious operation without anybody’s Aadhaar-linked fingerprints. It is aimed not merely at “managing the headlines” in the newsroom but at paving the way for a lethal ideology that has long craved legitimacy, through the boardroom.
In that sense, it is not just the media that is under siege, but the very “Idea of India”.
Influential owners, anchors, editors across the nation resemble the hapless Kashmiri tied to the Army jeep. They are the advance party to quell dissent, manufacture consent, set the agenda, drum up support, and spread fear, venom, hatred and bigotry — sometimes through sheer silence.
The saffronisation of the air waves is staggering.
It would be useful, therefore, to stop deluding ourselves that the siege began with the raid on NDTV’s promoters. Far from it, it is the culmination of a devious, top-down attempt at co-option and cooperation that failed. Hence, the coercion.
So, in the “New India”, it is perfectly normal to hear that the government has a list of journalists who attended a protest meeting in NDTV’s support; perfectly normal for the Foreign Correspondents’ Club to publicly assert it was not involved in it; perfectly normal for a CEO to privately predict no one in the TV industry will stand up because “most will be too scared”.
When Big Brother tracks every channel, watches every tweet, and reads every word, why would anybody want to take a risk when the “caged bird” is a homing pigeon, striking targets with precision?
Putting the same man in charge of the Finance and I&B Ministries in 2014, therefore, was a masterstroke. After all, the government is the biggest advertiser.
“The country is going through an existential crisis. Fear, anger, anxiety and paranoia have become normal. Nobody trusts anyone anymore. Nobody feels secure. People, including journalists, try to prove their loyalty to the government by snitching on colleagues and neighbours.” Turkey’s most famous woman novelist Elif Safak could well be speaking about India.
Who’s to blame?
Much of what is now happening here is happening in countries where nativist nationalists are running riot: the United States, Japan, Turkey, even France.
Defamatory name-calling (using terms such as ‘presstitutes’, ‘journalopes’ and ‘giraegi’); weaponised trolling; arrests, killings, raids, lockdowns. Little wonder, India now stands at 136 on the World Press Freedom index, down from 133.
However, it would be foolish to lay all the blame for Indian media’s current plight at the politician’s door. The siege began long ago with dodgy ownership; mercenary business practices; advertising and circulation revenue meltdowns; emerging technologies. But at least there was “independent journalism” shining the light, showing the way.
Today, as non-state actors throttle India’s foundational values in broad daylight, and much of a besieged media happily plays cheerleader, future historians might wonder if it did not suffer from the Stockholm syndrome.
Krishna Prasad is former Editor-in-Chief of ‘Outlook’ magazine, and a member of the Press Council of India