Regional media and state governments

BY UTTAM SENGUPTA| IN Regional Media | 13/02/2009
Only an authority like the Comptroller and Auditor General of India can possibly carry out an audit in all states and expose the incestuous relationship once and for all.
UTTAM SENGUPTA responds to" Beware Friendly Media" by Soroor Ahmed, on the Hoot.

After going through the piece, " Beware Friendly Media" by Soroor Ahmed, a former colleague in The Times of India, I am convinced more than ever about the need to put the relationship between chief ministers ( government ?) and the regional media under the scanner. An overly fawning and friendly media vis-à-vis an irrationally hostile media need to be studied at greater depth than what has been attempted by Soroor so far.


There is of course a contradiction when he writes that Lalu Yadav survived as chief minister of Bihar for 15 years because of a hostile media while Nitish Kumar appears to be in trouble due to media which fawn over him and cushion him from criticism. All chief ministers, and I have watched some of them in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand, invariably seem to have a poor understanding of  the working of the media. Nor do they seem aware of the role the media can play in making governance and development more effective. And all of them take a friendly media as a matter of right.


When Lalu Yadav went abroad for the first time, he insisted on taking a friendly journalist with him. Nobody questioned the criteria used for selecting the journalist concerned. And it is worth reminding Soroor that contrary to his belief, the regional media fawned over Lalu as well. Yes, some fangs were bared in course of time and even Nitish Kumar will face them some time or the other, but even the fodder-scam, in which Lalu Prasad went to jail thrice or more, was pursued by only a section of the media.


Release of advertisement by state governments, appointment by state governments to important commissions, boards etc., grants to NGOs, nominating journalists for junkets and to committees, allotment of  land and houses, commercial plots and even appointments are some of  the many ways by which chief ministers seek to cultivate a friendly media. Only an authority like the Comptroller and Auditor General ( CAG) of India can possibly carry out an audit in all states and expose the incestuous relationship , once and for all. This , I believe, is necessary to establish a more healthy democratic tradition and to ensure a more healthy media in the country.


But having said that, I am mildly surprised at the vehemence with which Soroor appears to suggest that compliments paid in the media to Nitish Kumar are misplaced. I am surprised not merely because scholars like Ram Guha appear to have been bowled over by Nitish Kumar and consider him as one of the best chief ministers in the country today—but also because my numerous Bihari friends tell me of  the changes they see on their visits to the state. They all claim to be pleasantly surprised to find roads where none existed, municipalities which seem to have woken up, schools which have begun holding classes, teachers leaving for school in the morning and doctors actually in attendance at primary health centers. They could well be exceptions and isolated examples but accounts from half a dozen people visiting different districts and returning with similar impressions are difficult to discount.


There is little doubt, however, that media and civil society have let down the states and the people. Not just the media but even academics, activists and government employees are equally to be blamed for the states which have failed. I remember a member of a World Bank team asking me how the media in Lucknow kept a check on the government¿s expenses. " You are, after all, a watchdog,"  he had said when I  made the candid confession that we did not have a clue. We neither had the skill nor the inclination to do any such thing. It was, similarly, the media¿s failure to take state budget documents seriously that led to the fodder-scam and siphoning of  Rs. 1,200 crore of  public money from the exchequer. Therefore, when Soroor writes of  a Patna newspaper carrying a banner headline screaming that the state has achieved 16% growth-rate, I am not surprised. Ignorance and illiteracy in the media are hardly a state secret.


The fact that Nitish Kumar had nasty surprises sprung at him during his Vikas Yatra  is again indicative of  media¿s failures. Had the media been alert and active, they could have raised the issues and questions that people finally raised and caught the chief minister by surprise.


Most serious journalists in Bihar, and there are many that I know of,  have read and appreciated P. Sainath¿s book " Everyone loves a good drought". But I am not aware of any attempt having been made to revisit the places and the people Sainath wrote about. Fifteen years after the book, it might be time for someone to undertake that journey and look poverty and poor governance in the face.



The writer is Consulting Editor ( East), Dainik Bhaskar, based at Kolkata.

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