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The rising tensions between India and Pakistan leading to attacks in military basis and counter attacks by India across the border had led to unprecedented media discourse in the country. For last several weeks, the Indian media, especially private news channels have been holding out the border tensions. However, these discourses have been side largely one sided with no attempt to raise any questions. On the other hand any attempt to raise any questions has been dubbed as anti-national, demoralising to Indian defence forces and also government. The nature of discourse has forced many media veterans too express serious concerns over the way the media and especially the TV channels are handing the tensions between India and Pakistan.
Type of media
The media discourse, especially on TV, has turned shrill
It seemed that all the private channels wanted to please the government for their own profit.
They wanted to raise the TRPs. The more the jingoism, the more viewership it gets.
The electronic media, particularly the private channels are ‘event based’ media. If there is an event, they will edge onto it as there is a competition among themselves for the sake of TRPs. In this process, they all go in one way because if somebody is criticising a particular event, the other will try to out-manoeuvre it. There is some kind of herd mentality which makes the television channels follow each other without bothering about the balance.
If a situation like India-Pakistan tension is occurring, and of one is showing its nationalist side, the other one will try to score over it and become more national. Though in such situation it cannot be called a herd mentality as India’s national security issue is important and hence needs to be discussed. But in this process, they lose the sight of bringing out the truth in front of people and balance the picture. Hence, amidst this, the truth is getting pressed under the hype.
The problem is to understand the compulsion of electronic media where TRP is their main compulsion and competition among themselves is another reason. As they thrive on events, the event is focused in such a way as if nothing is happening elsewhere in the world. Hence, the electronic medium, particularly the private channel is not a balanced media.
The editors and senior journalists have bought into the dominant discourse of the day on national security. There are two beats- defence and internal security where the correspondents are working virtually as the stenographers to the government. Whatever the government says they do and sometimes more than that. This was seen in official briefing of DGMO about surgical strike where the statement said nothing but the media with its unofficial briefings and sources and other statements built upon the news suiting their ideologies.
Thus, ultra-nationalism can be the most dangerous ideology in India as it prevents debate, which asks for accountability, evidence, questions to the government. This is not good for Indian democracy.
It is true that in a war situation, certain journalistic rules don’t apply as one is carried away by the national sentiment. And to do anything less than it is very difficult for any organisation. But India is not at war and yet there are leading news channels creating such atmosphere and emoting strong nationalistic feeling.
It doesn’t have much compulsions than the TV. In the print media, there is marginally less prevalence of following the dominant discourse. And even less is present in digital media. It has more scrutiny of government actions over there. The dominant discourse has been created by the government even when there is no war. So to say anything or ask any question is somehow considered to be unpatriotic which dents the fundamentals of democracy. To confuse the government with country is a dangerous kind of trend and as a journalist, one has to scrutinise the actions of every government.
Criticising the army
Even the Indian defence forces have been made insulated to any scrutiny. Very little criticism of the army has been made in the ongoing settlements. But the army’s actions can be questioned but not on issue like this. Army in country like India which is a democracy cannot really take big actions without the permission of government of the day asking it to do so. But the individual actions of the army personnel can definitely be scrutinised.
Every state institution in a democratic country must be under control. They have public accountability as it is under the civilian control. Though the civilian control doesn’t mean that army can be used for political purposes by party in power. Also, every army operation need not be surgically examined. But there must be transparency and accountability so that political party in power is not able to use the army to please a certain domestic constituency and is not able to project self as the sole arbitral of Indian national interest. Accountability is only to people and parliament.
Media behaviour and responsibility
There was lot of hate spread by media in the times of tension. The private channels were insensitive to the situations they handled because for them it was an event.
The private channels have become a medium of infotainment, it’s a performance art, drama that is being sold. What is being lost is self-awareness by the sections of media about the responsibility of media in such times.
It is a situation of asymmetric information when the people, media and other institutions do not know enough about what is going on. The task of media should be to fill that gap and ask questions and to also carry out its own investigations and not be stenographers.
Media has to take larger responsibility in such situations and not abdicate from its own responsibility in this moment.
These problems are structural in the sense that present day owners of media when compared to past be different. Editors face pressures no matter whatever the publication they are with.
Yet, TV cannot be excused for what they show. If they are presenting a news, it is their responsibility to present news in a fair manner. But they can’t report news in a biased way.
The fundamental duty of the media to pose questions to hold mirror to the government is being abandoned somehow. The structural changes have led to this. Earlier, the reporters became editors and thus they had idea of how to question the truth that is presented to them. Today, most of the editors come from sub-editing stream where packaging has become more important. Editors have become brand ambassadors for their product where they tell the ruling the classes that they have nothing to fear from them. And they just want to get nominated to the upper house or receive benefits. But the fundamental of journalism states that it is immoral for journalists to expect any privileges.
Where does the problem lie?
The government has made a normal conversation between government and media a very difficult thing to do because it restricts access, it does not answer questions, it has deep suspicion for mainstream media, it prefers to go over the head of mainstream media and have one sided conversation with people. So what happens is that there is a problem of access. Due to this, there is reduced questioning of certain sections of media because they are desperate for access for basic information for which they trade bit of their freedom and objectivity.
Hence, formal access in the present government is much less than previous governments. The former PMs of India used to hold press conferences. They were accessible and were cross questionable. The present PM is less accessible and that too only to friendly journalist.
But it is not that government is not giving information. Spin doctors are extremely active with varied kind of information being coming out.
In the end, it can be said that the jingoism visible in print media should be reduced so that sane discussions happen in studios which give out balanced account of issues.
Connecting the dots:
Media is considered eyes and ears to public about the government decisions and actions. Critically analyse the role of excess executive hold over media.