Mamata’s media carrots

BY Ajitha Menon| IN Media Practice | 11/06/2010
Front benchers at Trinamul press conferences often shout down other reporters asking ‘unpleasant’ or ‘difficult’ questions to Mamata Banerjee or any of her party leaders.
AJITHA MENON’S colourful tales of compromised reporters in Kolkata.

The dirt now is no longer restricted to the political arena in West Bengal. It has spread its tentacles beyond, rapidly corroding the fourth pillar of democracy. Master-minding this total undermining of media principles, ethics and rules of journalism is the Trinamul Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee.


For example, after sweeping the recently concluded Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections, Ms Banerjee, showing absolutely no faith in the abilities of her newly elected 95 councilors, immediately announced the setting up of a nominated executive committee comprising 100-odd "eminent citizens" of the city to advise the Mayor and his council on how to run the show.


This might be acceptable to many, after all the city belongs to its citizens. But, the catch lies in the fact that nomination to this committee is being seen as a "reward" for services to the Trinamul Congress, a "prize" for massaging the ego of its leader or as "returns" for loyally and blindly supporting the party’s ideology – especially vis-à-vis the Maoists - on various platforms. Unfortunately, not just "intellectuals", but also a great number of journalists are vying to stand up and be counted by the Trinamul Congress in this regard.


With an open agenda to influence or appease the media – take your pick-- Ms Banerjee has not even spared the supposedly objective and neutral news agencies, announcing that representatives from PTI, UNI and ANI would also be part of the committee, along with at least ten other reporters known to be part of her inner coterie. Whether reporters are qualified to advise on urban development is of no concern here!


A large section of the  alleged independent media has sold itself to a political outfit. The ultimately irony apparent in this scenario is that while  media organizations are  polarized drastically along  political lines in the state, the recent clamoring among journalists for political posts, railway committee posts, corporation committee posts and even party tickets, is even cutting across the political commitments of the media organizations they work for.


When one points a finger at someone, four other fingers point back. It is not Mamata Banerjee, but the so-called free media in West Bengal which is wholly and solely responsible for the total loss of its own credibility as corruption spreads. From receiving contracts to run railway canteens – started during Ms Banerjee’s first tenure as railway minister – to allowing party influence in media associations’, accepting  party tickets, compering party/railway programmes, being hangers-on of politicians during official programmes, reporters are doing everything to top the power-money game which unfortunately seems to have become fully acceptable within media circles. 


Just consider how several reporters, both senior and junior have become part of the Mamata coterie. (This will be an eye-opener for newspaper readers and TV news watchers.) Senior journalists – one of them working for a leading regional news channel presently opposed to Mamata brand of politics --  act as doorkeepers at Mamata Banerjee’s residence in South Kolkata. They decide which of their fraternity will have an audience with their leader, which ones will wait like stray dogs outside – and mind you, they do wait. After all, if indications are to be believed, Ms Banerjee is going to be the next Chief Minister of Bengal and some obeisance is acceptable to get into her good books.    


Front benchers at Trinamul press conferences often shout down other reporters asking "unpleasant" or "difficult" questions to Mamata Banerjee or any of her party leaders. Journalists are seen challenging their colleagues making an effort towards unbiased reporting, on the validity of their queries, context and even their experience to ask such questions! A reporter with a 24 hours national English news channel was asked to shut up by some senior colleagues during a press conference by Mukul Roy, MP and Minister of State, Shipping, when she asked a question related to the breaking of the Trinamul-Congress alliance for the civic polls.


"I had asked Ms Banerjee how the party could absolve itself from responsibility on its own  MP Kabir Suman’s defiant and open support of Maoists. But, even before she could reply, several senior journalists started making noises, some started asking softer questions and in the meelee I did not get a reply. It has become a norm at Trinamul press conferences for some reporters to actually bail out party leaders from having to answer hard-hitting queries", says a senior journalist working with a national 24 hours Hindi news channel.


Insults from political leaders are taken lying down by most reporters. A senior reporter of a 24 hour English news channel was asked by Ms Banerjee how much the  Tata’s were paying her to ask hard-hitting questions related to Singur. No one protested. There were "no hurt sentiments" in this case. Recently, Ms Banerjee refused to answer a question from a reporter in Delhi saying "I am not required to answer questions from reporters working for Prakash Karat’s channel".  The media fraternity no longer has the moral fibre to fight such insults on grounds of being "free, independent, objective, unbiased, doing my job of being a watchdog" because the majority is now unashamedly compromised under different contexts.


The situation in Bengal has deteriorated to such an extent that a senior reporter of a leading Bengali Daily writes front page letters to writer and Magsasay award winner Mahesweta Devi, calling her a non-achiever and other sundry names for going against the Mamata line in support of MP and singer Kabir Suman when he rebelled against party policies. (It is another story that Mahesweta Devi had already compromised her own credibility by becoming a part of Trinamul’s coterie of intellectuals!) 


The same reporter also writes another front page letter to Kabir Suman vilifying him for biting the hand which fed him, pointing out the generosity of Ms Banerjee in bringing intellectuals like him to the political limelight. Both pieces written in defence of the Trinamul supremo read almost like a pious homage to the reigning deity in Bengal! The said reporter is also the main defender of Trinamul policies during panel discussions on all regional Bengali Channels. Worst still – the number of severely compromised  reporters like him are drastically going up as the 2011 Assembly polls, promising ‘Parivartan’ (change) in Bengal come closer.


So what are the bribes for the corruptible press corps? Well, firstly at least three regional TV channels in Bengal are being sponsored by the Trinamul Congress. High paid jobs and exposure aside in such channels or newspapers, loyal journos are privy to inside information, given exclusive interviews which tend to be fully biased, get the right to insult other reporters, fix appointments with party ministers – at a premium of course – and get on board of Trinamul-sponsored organizations and committees, including several opportunities to make money from the railways and other ministries!


Add to this artist Shuvaprasanna’s newly launched Trinamul mouthpiece channel ‘Ekhon Somoy’ which has rewarded several journalists with high profile posts. These journalists have been telling colleagues that henceforth Mamata Banerjee’s schedule, all party agenda, announcements of press conferences, rally, interviews with party leaders, etc. will be made known to others only through them. It is this power that is giving them a high!


Then of course there is the matter of appointments when the new government is formed in 2011. If Trinamul comes to power, the posts up for grabs include that of  CM’s confidential assistant and nomination to the state press accreditation committee, which is seen as a powerful appointment. As a reporter who is a Trinamul loyalist claimed recently to some junior cameramen, " wait till I become a press accreditation committee member. You guys will have to come begging to me for accreditation and then I will show you my power". Press accreditation rules, applying to granting of accreditation, will of course fly out of the window in this power game!


 Besides all this, land allocation to journalists, being made directors/chairmen of various state associations, facilities to set up institutes or business, everything is on the anvil for enterprising reporters who are willing to barter ethics and self esteem.


Having said all this, it needs to be reiterated that Ms Banerjee is not the only villain here. All political parties, including the Left have tried to influence, bribe, corrupt media persons time and again. The memory of a Ganashakti reporter traveling in the CM’s car is fresh for many a journo is Kolkata, exclusive access to Left leaders for only selected newspapers and TV channels still happen. The Congress, the BJP, all keep some journalists in their pockets. So what others did in a small way, Mamata Banerjee is doing in a big way, not having to bother about hypocritical connotations related to "bourgeois" media. 


The failure is on the part of media itself. Journalists, it seems have no pride left in their profession any more and have become openly and acceptably corrupt, no longer even hiding behind the excuse of supposedly working for party mouthpieces. Kow-towing to politicians merely to acquire access, accepting bribes to fix appointments with the high and mighty after gaining that access, accepting political/governmental appointments, giving in to political aspirations – all these are increasingly attributes of today’s reporters. The aspirations of journalists have moved from being an ethical watchdog for democracy, in the interest of the common man,  towards  power, position and money. The profession is losing its credibility here, and the fourth pillar of democracy is in danger of crumbling.


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