Response to Journalism in Mamata land

BY Biswajit Roy| IN Media Practice | 04/07/2011
If Bengal media is now singing paeans to Mamata, it’s a replay of what happened after Bhattacharjee had taken over from Jyoti Basu.
BISWAJIT ROY says that in a self-serving world media ethics have fallen by the wayside
Ajitha Menon’s write up, ‘Journalism in Mamata Land’ (The Hoot, June 8, 2011) presented, at best, half-truths and at worst, a partisan picture of the media-ruling party relationship in Bengal, particularly since Singur and Nandigram. I beg to differ with her that the ‘culture’ of media sycophancy, obeisance and ruling regime’s favouritism to a coterie of pliant journalists ‘is new to Bengal’.
My experience as a Calcutta-based journalist for over two and half decades compels me to conclude that Mamata Banerjee has virtually followed her predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in dealing with the media.
Not surprisingly, the piece was translated and published in the CPM’s Bengali mouthpiece, Ganashakti. The ensuing war of articles between the CPM organ and a pro-Mamata Bengali daily which also runs a news channel (mentioned by Ajitha as one of the favourites of the new regime) only revealed the selective amnesia, self-righteous holier-than-thou claims of both the camp followers.
Neither Ajitha nor the pro-Mamata columnists tried to address the larger crises of credibility in public eyes as well as professional integrity that the politically polarized media in Bengal is facing. There is no soul-searching about what brought us down to our knees – now, and then.
Ajitha mentioned that one pro-Mamata news channel ‘scooped’ the higher secondary results, courtesy the benevolence of the new rulers. A CPM-controlled Bengali news channel enjoyed the same privilege during the LF rule. She rightly mentioned Mamata’s displeasure at politically incorrect questions during Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha leader Bimal Gurung’s visit to Writers’ Building and the role of some self-appointed gatekeepers among journalists.
But Ajitha needs to recall our experience with Bhattacharjee on many such occasions. One was when some of us had asked unpleasant questions to Beni Santossa, the head of Indonesian Salim group, during the Nandigram flare-up.
Like some members of Mamata’s charmed circle, a coterie close to Bhattacharjee used to rebuke their not-so-pragmatic colleagues for asking unflattering questions when the campaign to sell ‘brand Buddha’ was at its height in 2006.
If Bengal media is now singing paeans to Mamata, it’s a replay of what happened after Bhattacharjee had taken over from Jyoti Basu. She has further endeared herself to the media by expanding and refurbishing the press corner, a room for journalists covering the state secretariat. The LF government in early nineties had demolished the original press corner after accusing media of instigating Mamata’s dharna in front of Jyoti Basu’s chamber.
Nevertheless, Mamata and her minions’ intolerance of the CPM-controlled news channel and their angry outbursts against its journalists as well as some other media-persons on several occasions must not be condoned by those who still care for professional unity and freedom of expression.
But the CPM apologists should revive memories of public threats, humiliation and abuses heaped on journalists who represented anti-CPM newspapers and channels by Bhattacharjee and many other CPM leaders. The erstwhile rulers did not even spare journalists from ‘friendly’ media if the enquiries were unsuitable.
As Singur and Nandigram issues peaked, journalists faced intimidation from CPM and Trinamul as the rival camps tried to limit access to media houses which supported their causes. It was, however, the shared experience of journalists that the CPM’s apparatchiks had mastered the art of organised intimidation with the help of armed cadres, hired goons and a pliant administration.
Mamata has hardly changed the rules of the game in dealing with media and its practitioners. In an imitation of earlier Left front government’s practices, the new government has recently constituted the press accreditation committee of the state government, mostly by journalists known to be close to Mamata or who used to cover her regularly. Since there is no system of elected representation from the community or nomination by media houses to the said committee, it continues to be seen as a body of favourites of the government of the day.
True to the prevailing political culture in the state and rest of the country, now all kinds of time-servers, self-seekers and turncoats from different walks of life are trying to join the Mamata bandwagon. Many have begun flexing their muscles and showing off their proximity to ministers. They seek to control access to the government for lesser mortals. No self-respecting journalist can accept it despite the reality that it was almost the same under the CPM. Media houses close to the government got a larger share of government advertisements while loyal and friendly journalists were rewarded in many ways including allotment of plots of land or flats.
Apart from pointing out similarities in the manner in which the CMP and Mamata approach the media, this piece is aimed at showing that the current CM too likes submissive media and does not take kindly to unpalatable questions. It reveals a feudal streak in our political class. If we are loyal and submissive, our leaders will be benevolent to us both at professional and personal level, even forgive some of our occasional ‘excesses’.
Jyoti Basu who used to criticize a ‘Bourgeoisie media’ at public rallies routinely was occasionally helpful to journalists who had taken his refuge. Buddhababu was also warm to members of his charmed circle. Mamata too is sisterly and caring to those who are unquestioning and submissive.
However, there is difference between politics of hegemony of the CPM, a regimented party and the Trinamul, a charismatic leader-centric party. While the former rulers tried to ensure total control over governmental and political space as well as civil society by imposing party diktats through a carrot and stick policy, submission and loyalty to the supremo is the paramount virtue in the new political scenario in Bengal despite assurances of non-partisan civil space.
Post Singur-Nandigram, there were possibilities of evolving a non-partisan civil space which could have hosted voices independent of government and political parties. Journalists, being part of the civil society could have been promoters as well as beneficiaries of such independence. But those possibilities have largely been ruined by the leaders of the civil society most of whom have aligned with the new regime. Given the scenario, journalists who still cherish the dream of independent journalism have a difficult choice.
It’s natural for journalists to become close to politicians, bureaucrats and, in the age of market economy, to business houses and cultivate them as sources. After all, journalists are competitors. In exchange these sources want pliant journalists to serve their personal, factional or institutional interests. No journalist can afford to miss stories. But for a conscientious and responsible one, it’s always a tightrope walk involving lot of skill and risks, as the job requires them to be resourceful as well as truthful.
Accusations of being a Congress or BJP hireling have always been traded during media bitching sessions. These have included charges of currying favour for as little as a colour TV or a camera in the 1980s to the present i-pads.
As the middle class becomes upwardly mobile more of us have become overambitious and thrown away the time-tested professional thumb rules to serve personal interest, and sometimes, the interests of the media houses which we serve.
As the Nira Radia tapes revealed, a number of top-notch journalists now aspire to be king or queen-makers with their clout in the corridors of power increasing both at the state and Centre. Media power has indeed increased but it has its flip side too. Media moguls now represent various political and economic interests and many of them become powerful or wish to be so to shape policies in which they have stakes.
A section of self-serving journalists who have narrowed down the paradigms of professionalism to unquestioning conformity to the house policy of partisan propaganda, at the expense of fair and balanced journalism, goad their peers and subordinates to follow in their footsteps or perish. It’s often found that they are more loyal than the king and become instrumental in shaping the house policy, which they claim to be following willy-nilly.
Neither the CPM brand of journalism, which denied space for dissent and doubt within the party, nor the self-promoting apostles of regime-changers in media should be the standard bearers for the community. But the painful truth is that the alternative voices are still few.
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