If the PM is confident why is the PMO so paranoid?

BY THE HOOT| IN Media Freedom | 15/08/2018
Of late all segments of media have reported evidence of Big Brother watchfulness and attempts to control the narrative on government performance.
A HOOT comment
The PM's speech, August 15, 2018


The prime minister just made a rousing Independence Day speech about a nation  progressing on many fronts and striving to be a global achiever.  If the rhetoric is  genuinely backed by a confident sense of achievement, then he is a man ill-served by a paranoid PMO (Prime Minister’s Office).  

In recent weeks  every major segment of media has reported evidence of either Big Brother watchfulness or an attempt to control the narrative on government performance in a proactive way.

There have been the tenders floated over the last four years to hire private firms to monitor social media users, reportedly at least six  such tenders.   Followed by periodic clarifications from government about wanting to capture public sentiment,  not monitor individuals. What was billed as a plan to create a social media hub was taken to the top court by a Trinamool politician and in July the Supreme Court observed that tapping people's WhatsApp messages would amount to "creating a surveillance state".  NDTV reports that the sixth tender was withdrawn after this observation.   


Monitoring TV news

Then you have TV news monitoring. Earlier this month the resignations of  a top editor and anchor of the news channel ABPNews  triggered reports about self censorship at the channel after the government leaned on the proprietor family.  Punya Prasun Bajpai, the anchor who resigned,  documented the ABP’s  self censorship on The Wire, the instructions it would seem from this report come from either the Information and Broadcasting Ministry or the PMO or both.  And what triggers the communication to channels such as ABP?  A 200-person TV monitoring set up that continuously monitors channels and presumably brings negative reports on government performance to the attention of the I and B ministry.  If channels do not cooperate sufficiently, wrote Bajpai, BJP spokespersons stop appearing on that channel. 

What’s not clear is what exactly is being objected to.  Media stories on how government schemes are performing, and farm distress, which differ from the government’s own centralized narrative?  But if you don’t get unfiltered news of what exactly is happening to people across the country, how will you anticipate  the pitfalls that might trip you up in an election year? 

An electronic media monitoring set up has always existing under previous governments, on a campus on the edge of Delhi.  Now it has been strengthened and moved into a building in the heart of the capital that houses other departments of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. 

 So  TV and social media monitoring have become important to this government as the general elections of 2019 approach. 

Then you get to digital and print news operations. Over the weekend leading up to Independence Day the news agency ANI and the Times of India, the Hindustan Times, and Dainik  Jagran and Daily Thanti among others were given interviews by the PM, or more accurately, by the PMO.  Because the PM couldn’t possibly have found time to dictate those long, statistic-filled answers. 


'Constructed' interviews

For all the scorn and sarcasm generated by these “email interviews” carried by stalwart media outlets where no follow up questions were possible,  a central point is being missed. These were ‘constructed’ interviews, a new innovation in the business of narrative control by this government.  HT mentions responses to questions asked and supplementary questions, but one learns that the  starting point was a sort of ‘frequently asked questions’ exercise drawn up at the PMO.  Pick subjects, provide the data for the answers, select media outlets likely to be receptive and say, we are offering you an exclusive.  

"These were ‘constructed’ interviews, a new innovation in the business of narrative control by this government."


The list of subjects on offer was long, and covered  key challenges facing the economy, jobs and job data, GST, IBC, the financial performance of banks, Labour law amendments, Pakistan, relationship with big powers, China, US foreign policy and Trump, countries in the  neigbourhood, data privacy laws, fake news, higher education, the no-confidence motion and Rahul Gandhi’s hug, cow viglatism and mob lynching, the NRC in Assam, the Mahagathbandan, the Rafale deal, Vijay Mallya,  and women's empowerment. A veritable smorgasbord of subjects for media outlets to choose from.

Either the Indian Express,  and the Hindu, were not offered these “exclusives” or they declined the deal. 

All three interviews picked up on exactly the same subjects but the questions were differently framed. TOI framed a somewhat interrogative question and got exactly the same answer as the Hindustan Timeswhich mostly framed what could be described as enabling questions.  TOI did not use the answer on women’s empowerment, theHindustan Times(HT) did not have the answer on mob lynching, at least in its print edition.  

 If it was indeed an interview based on questions submitted by  the media outlets how come neither ANI nor Times of India nor HT asked the PM any questions on tackling agricultural distress?  The PMO may have chosen this route because it served its purpose , but the news agency and publications which swallowed the bait came across as credulous.  

The first reaction of some news channels to the Prime Minister’s speech on Wednesday morning was the fact that he dealt with many issues including the epidemic of rape but did not mention the incidents of lynching happening around the country.  But a question on lynching had been  prepared by the PMO’s PR men in their constructed interview exercise, and the answer to it scripted and handed out.  Most news outlets picked it up from ANI’s transcript.  The PM therefore dealt with it, it was got out of the way,  and was left free to not mention it in his speech. 


TV manages without interview footage

When ANI and the big newspapers got their anodyne exclusives, it was okay for the latter which gave it acres of space, but not for a video news agency.  The PM had spoken, but they were no pictures.  So ABP News, fresh from a controversy over the censorship of anti-Modi stories on its channel, had an anchor shrieking out the ANI headlines with silent footage of him at some other occasion.  Again TOI’s video had the PM walking briskly around in some stock footage with the anchor shrieking out the headlines. Now we have a new template for PMO interviews on TV and on websites which also carry videos.  Make do with stock footage plus quotes.

 On Independence Day the PM spoke for over 80 minutes about achievements and challenges.  In effect, he kicked off his re-election campaign.  What place will the media play in rendering his government accountable in the run-up to May 2019?

If his managers--operating from the PMO no less—have their way, the country’s enormous pool of media will have their mettle tested like never before.   

If many of them succumb to having their script written for them,  this government will go into an election without enough honest feedback from the ground on the real state of the nation. Will we in the media be the only losers then?


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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

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