Modi and the media

IN Media Practice | 26/05/2015
Is a PM who sought to sidestep mainstream media slowly discovering that it does not work?
NUPUR BASU looks at the year gone by. Pix: Ashok Malik~s NDTV piece on 23 October, 2014.
If one were to indulge in the flavour of the season – a post-mortem of the one-year anniversary of the Narendra Modi government – it is interesting to assess how the media fared in this time frame. Because the relationship had an eventful year!
On the one hand, the relationship between the media and the country’s leadership touched new lows.  It began with a clear shunning of the reporting tribe.  The new prime minister demonstrated a desire to go only with Doordarshan and All India Radio. When it came to giving one-to-one interviews, he   picked foreign channels (Fareed Zakaria of CNN at the beginning  and Time magazine at the end of his first year) or foreign newspapers (he wrote a joint piece with President Barack Obama for the Washington Post during his trip to the US). In India he confined himself to papers he could trust  like the exclusive interview spread over four pages to the Hindustan Times on April 9, 2015 and a subsequent one in Dainik Jagran.
On the other hand we had the extraordinary and unprecedented spectacle of senior journalists invited to meet the PM rushing to take selfies with him! Evidently some of the media bought into his superstar status even as he snubbed them. 
While there were only private murmurings of protest at first regarding the government clammng up with the domestic media, they soon became public with the Editors Guild of India issuing a formal statement lamenting the ‘lack of access’.  The president N Ravi, described it as a ‘one way street’. 
Modi’s defenders said that the so-called lack of access was an exaggeration. They pointed out that everything being filmed by the state media on the PM’s official trips and during meetings was being immediately shared with the private channels who were then beaming it with the DD logo. 
Similarly, every episode of Mann Ki Baat by Modi on All India Radio was immediately shared with the private channels who promptly used them. So where was the discrimination, they asked? Allegations that the former Gujarat Chief Minister was deliberately snubbing the media for having attacked him for the  Gujarat riots were also countered.
In a piece titled Why Modi Won't Talk to the Media, Ashok Malik wrote: “Five months after he took charge as India's Prime Minister, how are we to assess Narendra Modi's media and communication strategy? To see it solely in terms of Modi not giving interviews to Indian journalists and having a hostile relationship with the national media since 2002 would be limiting and even self-defeating. A media and communication strategy cannot be born of just an old grudge. Obviously there is something more to it, some method to what Modi is doing.”
It is significant that he concedes two points in this piece—that when the PM uses the state media for a radio chat he is denying the media the “power to pick and choose which parts of his message should be put forward.” Narendra Modi  doesn’t want any media mediation in his communication.  “More than inhibiting physical access, it is this disempowerment that Modi is aiming at.” And then of course for the same reason he chooses to use Twitter.
So here was the challenge for all of us in the past year: we have a prime minister who will not be accountable to the media, and is looking for ways to disempower it  even as he communicates! It suits him that  these feeds are  a one-way, non-interactive, top- down flow of information. They don’t allow journalists to put questions. It is fitting then that there is no press conference at the end of the first year. 
This was also the year when Prasar Bharati became more relevant than before even if it became even less autonomous in the process. Precedents were set: apart from DD News becoming a  daily diary of the prime minister’s every move, it carried a live telecast of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh’s sarsanchalak on Vijaya Dashimi day, it  also carried live telecasts of book releases on Sangh figures! 
In the government, the dismissive attitude towards the media adopted by the top leadership began to filter down. What marked a new low was the Minister of State, (MOS) Defence, V K Singh’s sneering reference to the media as ‘Presstitutes’. It hit the headlines in prime time talk shows and the term was dissected ad nauseum to get to the bottom of what the Minister had actually meant. A little child on the road could have told the great political pundits what he meant. 
In any other democratic country that values the media, the minister would have had to apologise for this unacceptable terminology. Here the PM publicly lauded the minister  for the good job he had done with the Yemen evacuation  and hit back  at the press for being convulsed over Singh’s description of them. “Look at TV channels and newspapers the world over, they are talking about how India has conducted the operation from the forefront. Indian newspapers spoke about it in the end and that too due to some other reason.” 
As for the  Editor of Times Now, Arnab Goswami, believed to be the prime target of Singh’s verbal attack, we did not see him send a legal notice to the good minister for defamation as he has done in the past to the Hoot
But thanks to Rahul Gandhi, something is changing in the government and the PM’s attitude. Disempowering the media is easier attempted than done.  The gung-ho support that the rejuvenated Rahul Gandhi has been receiving from the media and his jibes against Modi’s ‘suit-boot ki government’,  have rattled the government enough to make Arun Jaitley, Information Minister, reach out through interviews and press conferences practically every day, as the year end anniversary approached. 
 Mr Modi figured in some of this, attending informal meetings between handpicked editors and journalists at Jaitley’s home. Those who attended could clearly see that the mainstream media had begun to bug a prime minister who thought he could sidestep it.
In a country where millions have no access to Twitter and Facebook – Mr Modi simply cannot afford to ignore the mainstream media. In the past those who have tried to muzzle it, have perished. Those who ignore it, will simply lose the plot.
Nupur Basu is a film-maker and former television and print journalist. 
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