Is PR the media's role?

From the moment Mr Modi was anointed as the"prime ministerial candidate," the media has fallen over itself to be there at every turn, broadcasting his every phrase.
NILOVA ROY CHAUDHURY examines the coverage of the “nautanki”

The drama surrounding the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate’s face-off with the constitutionally guaranteed authority of the Election Commission of India is yet another example of the long series of craftily-engineered disputes to guarantee that the man and his party remains centre-stage in the public discourse.

The reason this phenomenally long run-up to and process of the general elections this time has witnessed this endless series of what in Hindi is aptly termed “nautanki” is because of Mr Narendra Modi and the BJP’s extremely well crafted PR strategy, to ensure that his image is perpetually at centre-stage.

And the media completely played along, becoming the medium for his message. It was like they were completely awestruck with this new, narcissistic phenomenon that appeared on the political firmament. Even Mr Modi acknowledged this fact recently when, in a back-handed compliment after filing his nomination, he “thanked” the media for making him a household name.

Right from the period during which Mr Modi was anointed as the “prime ministerial candidate,” the media has fallen over itself to be there at every turn, broadcasting his every phrase. Even six months ago, well before elections were announced, several television channels, CNN-IBN in particular, would broadcast his speeches only live on a daily basis, making the average viewer wonder if there was no other news in India.

What was the newsworthiness of such broadcasts and commentary? Barring certain new elements, it is difficult to gauge the need for the media to turn the spotlight completely on campaign speeches which are largely non-events, except to the voters whom it is being addressed to.

It displays extremely lazy journalism, because it involves little hard work beyond picking some phrases and spinning them into a controversy. It requires no research and is merely reduced to a “he said, she said, so what do you have to say” phenomenon.

With each passing day, Mr Modi has found new ways to give the breathless media fodder. Witness the extremely imaginative take on the phrase “neech rajneeti” or low (level) politics. To equate that with references to his supposedly “low” birth caste is a masterstroke, bringing politics of caste into the picture. It was the media, picking up from a tweet, which sent traditional political discourse into a twirl.

A few days earlier, it was the image of the Ram temple and invoking ‘Ram Rajya’ to make sure the religious message is not lost. Times Now spent almost an entire voting day focusing on the fact that Mr Modi's mother and other family members arrived by auto to vote. That was the news of the day?

A survey by the CMS, referred to in a story in The Hindu on Thursday only confirms the culpability of the media in catapulting Mr Modi to the centre-stage of the Indian political space. According to this survey of television coverage, of the space provided to all the political leaders in this country, Mr Modi was way ahead, having garnered 33% of the available space. AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal came a distant second with 10% while the significant others were less than half of that figure.

As for the rest of the world, does it exist?

Barring the death of the iconic Nelson Mandela in December and, a couple of months ago, the shocking and as yet unexplained disappearance of the Malaysian airways plane MH370, the rest of the world took a back seat to the BJP’s PM-in-waiting.

To be fair, NDTV also did report on presidential elections in Afghanistan in some depth and, even on domestic coverage, have not appeared so awestruck in their coverage of the principals during these elections.

Until the AAP phenomenon hit the Indian capital. Wall-to-wall coverage of the fledgling party assumed centre-stage with their amazing performance in Delhi state polls. Certainly, television, and even the print media could not get enough of the ‘Davids’ who knocked the ‘Goliaths’ of Indian politics off their perch.

All these diversions were a setback to the BJP’s very high profile campaign which lost its sheen when removed from the centre-stage of television screens.

They were handed their opportunity to re-occupy centre stage the moment the AAP government decided to demit office in Delhi and pursue more national ambitions.

Has the media collectively lost its objectivity? In this age of television, is there no need to question what people say, particularly in the course of electioneering? Does the need to be in your face have to fly in the face of facts, the truth, and common decencies?

The latest Index of Press Freedom has already shown that India’s media is not free, suffering primarily from excessive owner interference. That appears so blatant in the 2014 poll coverage. It is almost as though they are waiting to be patted on the head and offered a biscuit for a job well done. A leading newspaper, for example, has overturned its traditional pro-Congress image to become a leading apologist for the PM-in-waiting.

As for the two page interview spread in the Times of India, it essentially gave Mr Modi a platform. He got away with saying exactly the kinds of things he wanted to and they either couldn't or didn't pin him down. At least its TV counterpart, Times Now did much better, probably the only interview in which the interviewer was not awestruck by the interviewee.

The need to be ingratiating, with whoever the interviewee is, whether the PM-in-waiting or the Congress Vice-President or the UP Chief Minister, and refrain from any tough questioning of the political leaders is another facet of this election. It is almost as if journalists are grateful to have got the interview.

Is there generally a great deal to be gained? Will the change of guard at Race Course Road usher in some Utopia? Are they so enamoured by the hype that they have come to believe in it?

There is something so crass not merely in the content, but in even the tenor of speeches being made. Is it so important to reduce discourse to lower than the lowest common denominator of decency? Terms like “AK 49” and “Pakistani agents” and “namuna” are not normal in this country’s many decades of political discourse.

The BJP’s tallest leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was never offensive. He would taunt his opponents but it was done jestingly and with great finesse. He was never crude in his public utterances.

To threaten opponents with exile in Pakistan, and to bring Pakistan (in J&K) and Bangladesh (migrants in West Bengal and Assam) into the electoral discourse in a negative way does not help India gain in stature with its neighbours. In fact, India was not a part of the political heat of the Pakistani polls last year, nor of the Bangladesh elections earlier this year. The need to be “muscular” with smaller neighbours is another of the needless utterances which the media would have done well to ignore.

It is unclear if this is a fallout of the electoral utterances against Pakistan, highlighted in the media here, but reports from Islamabad on Friday said that two Indian journalists stationed there, Snehesh Alex Philip of PTI and Meena Menon of The Hindu have been asked to leave the Pakistani capital immediately. The Indian High Commission is trying to intercede in the matter.

Why is it that the media has allowed itself to become part of the overall lowering of standards that have permeated political discourse, particularly in this election’s coverage? Is it the media’s primary role to act as a mouthpiece for political entities? Must they necessarily function as cheerleaders?

With the final lap of the voting process remaining, every major TV channel’s top editors are camping in Varanasi. By amplifying and broadcasting nationally the “nautanki” of strident attacks on the Election Commission, acknowledged universally as one of THE most respected of India’s institutions, is the media merely playing ball?

With Parliament and the legislature having been reduced to a sad apology and the executive rendered non-functional, and even chunks of the judiciary under scrutiny, does the media want all institutions, including itself, to be reduced to partisan barking dogs? 

All governments have lots to hide. And certainly, after 10 years of a particular government, it is time for a change.

But does that change have to be so awesome that the media perforce chooses to overlook all that is uncomfortable and reduce itself to “he said; he said……”

Whatever may be the outcome of these elections, thankfully just days away now, the Indian media, particularly the electronic media, needs to sit back and seriously figure out its role and next course of action.

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