Where are the tough questions?

I often meet people who are incredulous at the media’s uncritical attitude to the Modi government. Some call it “capitulation”, others “supine” and many “pusillanimity”. This is something almost everyone has noticed. Yet it’s also a subject on which most journalists are silent. If they at all speak its behind closed doors and in confidence.

Thankfully Rajdeep Sardesai has spoken out loudly, clearly and forcefully in his book 2019: How Modi Won India. “In the Modi-era, the media’s collusion with the political executive has touched such unprecedented heights that the reality checks that the press is supposed to provide on the claims of those in power simply do not exist…rather than speaking the truth to those in power, there is a growing inclination to “follow the leader” with an uncritical, unquestioning gaze.”

Nothing illustrates this better than the way Mr Modi is interviewed on television. It’s done with obvious deference which leaves little opportunity to challenge or, even, cross question. Instead of focusing on a few well-researched subjects which are pursued with diligence, each question changes the issue. There’s no follow up. Consequently, a multitude of subjects is raised without any meaningful achievement. Equally importantly, the Prime Minister is permitted to answer at exorbitant length, often rambling and frequently changing the subject and getting away with it.

Worse, is the character of the questions. Not only are awkward issues avoided but the questions are emolliently phrased and gently asked. Instead of bringing up his lapses or misjudgements, the Prime Minister is usually asked to hold forth on the Opposition’s alleged errors. Rarely is he questioned about things that have gone wrong under his charge. The net result is the interview lacks rigour. It feels like an easy ride.

Even during the recent elections, when there was a moral duty to treat Opposition and government alike, we had, instead, undeniable favouritism. Rajdeep illustrates this with reference to Rajat Sharma’s interview of Mr Modi but he could just as easily have used his own channel’s. What he says of the former applies equally to the latter: “It wasn’t just a news show: This was a theatrical performance being enacted against the backdrop of a decisive election.”

He writes television news created “a ‘mahaul’ (ambience) in which Modi was seemingly invincible and the Opposition cripplingly inept.” I would go further. Instead of watchdogs that should growl at the authorities, even if occasionally mistakenly, most of our television news channel behaved like guard dogs, who seek to protect, or pet dogs, who just wish to be liked.

Compare the way the British media treated Boris Johnson with our treatment of Narendra Modi. When Johnson refused to participate in a Channel 4 debate, it kept an empty chair with a melting ice statue resting on it. When Johnson refused to give BBC’s Andrew Niel an interview the Corporation circulated a WhatsApp meme pointing this out.

In contrast, this is what Rajdeep writes of our media’s behaviour last year: “I have never quite seen an Indian election where the mainstream media narrative, with rare exceptions, was so blatantly and horribly one-sided.”

Now we’ve even reached the point where editors unilaterally edit opinion pieces though they’re published under the authors name with a clear warning they don’t reflect the newspaper’s views. If the adjectives used to criticise the government are stinging, they’re toned down. If a fact is cited that shows the Prime Minister in poor light, it’s deleted. So great is the fear of governmental wrath columns are diluted to make them acceptable. And this is how the media defends freedom of speech!

I agree with Rajdeep’s conclusion though I would have put it more forcefully: “The space for a free and independent media that offers democracy its much-needed oxygen is rapidly shrinking.” Unfortunately, Rajdeep doesn’t ask and, therefore, doesn’t answer the question why has this happened? Is it fear of retribution? Are editors enamoured of Mr Modi? Or are proprietors to blame?

Sadly, 2020 doesn’t hold out the prospect of credible change. The Indian media has forgotten how to thunder and roar. We’ve become pussy cats who prefer to curl up beside a warm fire. So I wonder how many will heed Rajdeep’s warning: “We certainly need to rediscover a spine or else be pushed into growing irrelevance”?

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