Rough & Tumble

- Patricia Mukhim

If I am not in support of the ruling government because of its acts of omission and commission, am I inadvertently in support of the Opposition parties? That is the perception of most people today when you launch an attack against the government. It’s become like a binary – if you don’t support Party A then you must be supporting Party B! But that’s hardly the case.

There is an all pervasive weariness and an overwhelming drudgery when one thinks of the state of the media in 21st century India, more explicitly post 2014. Night after night prime time is about demonizing all who are anti-government as if being that is equivalent to being anti-national. It’s almost like saying that government can do no wrong. And those few souls that are hell bent on putting all government action through the sieve of accountability are made to believe they are guilty of high treason. Why are those anchors representing the high flying channels with big ticket sponsors not even taking time off to introspect if they are in the business of journalism or propaganda? One noble exception is Ravish Kumar of NDTV who plods along religiously calling out the misdemeanours of the Modi Government and doing so without any fear of the consequences. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to be Ravish Kumar. Of course the pressure he undergoes is enormous and the audience can see what standing up for truth has extracted from this respected anchor who tries desperately to nurse an ailing democracy. He has aged and his brows are perpetually furrowed.

There was a time when we could read the local newspapers and watch prime time news and be reasonably sure that we are kept abreast of what’s happening in the country. There was no force-feeding of government propaganda and no overt or covert attempt to influence the television audience in a certain direction and ideology. That era is gone. We are now in the post-truth period and most of the television channels are corporate funded and hence have to go with the flow. Resistance means no government or corporate sponsorship and since government and corporates have now become seamlessly interwoven, the two are now one and the same entity. You offend one and you automatically offend the other.

Thankfully, for news junkies there are today several news outlets that are far more reliable than television media. But not everyone is tech-savvy. For the elderly the television is the ‘go to’ place for their daily dose of news and when they are tired of the high decibel cacophony (led by, we all know who), they just switch off completely and as a result are uninformed or less informed about news that affects them. Sadly, in India today there is a lack of discernment as far as news consumption is concerned. Fake news and alternative facts packaged as doses of truth are dished out to us daily and young minds that don’t spend even a minute to think and analyse if what they have read is true and also take the time to fact-check, are quick to forward the news to ten other people. That’s how fake news spreads and can cause harm especially in a country like ours where communal biases and prejudices are barely hidden.

The problem with journalists today is that most have passed out of journalism schools before the post-truth era and have therefore not learnt how to sieve fact from fiction. Or else the fiction is so overpowering that it seems like an eyeball grabbing piece of breaking news to bolster up the news portal. There is so much competition between web-based news portals that waiting to fact-check a piece of news might result in the competitor making it to the internet first. This must have been the reason why even seasoned journalists got the events of the Republic Day storming of the Red Fort wrong. A young farmer driving a tractor died not because of a police bullet but because his tractor turned turtle and he sustained serious injuries. The senior journalist and other gentry tweeted that the farmer died of bullet injuries on his head. That was tantamount to a sacrilege as far as television media was concerned. The journalist later retracted his tweet but at a time when battles of perception are constantly fought, the damage done was irreparable.

Social media is both a boon and a bane. It requires that the user be held accountable for the content. But again when we actually have a political party that has an IT cell with a contingent of people employed to check all tweets especially from some who are regular government baiters and are therefore marked as enemies and are mercilessly trolled, then it is hard even for Twitter to keep track of online abuse. The troll armies term anyone who is critical of the present government as ‘liberals’, ‘tukre-tukre’, anti-national, etc. But that’s not all. Some activists and journalists have received death threats too while female journalists are threatened with rape. Sometimes one wonders what has happened to the upbringing of our youth, for it is the youth that have the time and energy to spew hatred on those they have been brainwashed to believe are against theirs and the nation’s interests.

But the news media did not suddenly become what it is today. It is our perception that we have entered the dungeons of fake news only now. In 1807, Thomas Jefferson, the father of American democracy, wrote in a letter to John Nervell, “To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, ‘by restraining it to facts and sound principles only’. Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put in that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge, with the lies of the day.”

It is amazing that two hundred years down the line, we would be battling the same demons that Jefferson spoke of in his time and we are still grappling for answers. As a media person one cogitates daily on one’s public stance. If I am not in support of the ruling government because of its acts of omission and commission, am I inadvertently in support of the Opposition parties? That is the perception of most people today when you launch an attack against the government. It’s become like a binary – if you don’t support Party A then you must be supporting Party B! But that’s hardly the case. One realizes that in this country today, the Opposition is pulverized. It seems to have no locus standi. The views of its members are mocked and taunted and virtually shot down inside television studios. Talk of views being killed! Television studio debates are designed to verbally shoot down dissenters. Even TV anchors openly take sides. Sometimes one wonders why panellists even agree to participate in such debates only to be harangued and told to shut up after putting up with blistering attacks launched by the anchors themselves and made to feel like they are the enemy who has been cornered.

I wonder if Pakistan television news channels mention India as often as their Indian counterparts mention Pakistan. Even at the height of the India-China confrontation at Galwan, our television news channels never went hammer and tongs at China as they do with Pakistan. You are often left to wonder if jingoism and not news dissemination is the new mantra of journalism or the so-called free press today.

With this I rest my case.

([email protected])