Scroll.in, which for some mysterious reason my phone keeps auto-correcting to Troll.in, recently had an article written by Mr. Rahul Pandita in which he exhorts Modi-supporters to stop calling “us” , and by “us” he means the august members of the media community, presstitutes.
I apologize for any nuance lost in my synopsis, but what he says is roughly this. A number of his friends of the author were once “reasonable” people. However they have recently been transformed into the “Walking Hindu” (a mythical tribe of the undead who bleed saffron and bite into anyone who they believe has not been Modified yet) who have, as a result, taken to calling Mr. Pandita and his band of truth-juice-dispensers as “presstitutes”, and he wants to tell them it is his job, and of warriors like him, to hold up an impartial, PR-free mirror to society, and if what they see is not to their liking, then why spit on the mirror?
There is also a quotation from Camus.
The problem with Mr. Pandita’s article is that it is based on a fundamentally erroneous premise. Namely that the only people who believe that the media is compromised are those that are Modi-supporters and the pejorative “presstitute” is being thrown around by that group only. If one goes through the tweets of Mr. Kejriwal and filters out the movie reviews, and then goes through the tweets of Ashutosh and filters out the exclamation marks and other war-crimes against the English language, what comes out is a coherent narrative of media-bias-accusations. Putting it simply, AAP finds media conspiracies against them every day, either they are being covered too much or too little, and this we are told are being done at the behest of forces aligned with the “Walking Hindu”s. What makes this particularly, and I use the word “poignant” instead of “ironic”, is that much finger-pointing originate from two ex-journalists who should know what goes on:1) Numero 83b, once a prominent member of a major media house who ultimately got sick of pretending to be impartial and joined a political party, and 2) Numero Uno an independent media-maverick famous for his targeting of one particular party throughout his career as an independent journalist till he too got sick of the ruse and put on his cap, and who, and this where I use the word “ironic”, has been accused of being in the tank for a major industrial house, by a disgruntled ex-member of said party. The Trinamool Congress, yet another party with impeccably secular credentials, regularly accuses a major media house of hatching conspiracies against them, along with sinister forces in North Korea, Venezuela and Hungary. I could go on but you do get the point. Allegations of media bias, media compromise, and media conspiracies are made by everyone against everyone else, and while the word “presstitute” may have originated from someone who is now a BJP minister, the thought behind it has been around for quite some time, in many many minds, not all of whom have been rendered brain-dead through Modi-fication, as the article claims.
By focusing his ire on only one color in the political spectrum, and Mr. Pandita is not alone in this, many of our media mavens only end up validating accusations of bias against a particular ideology. It’s as if they are nose-blind to the other accusations, made often by media-insiders (who should know) belonging to more “secular” strains of thought, and one can only assume that to be the case because one becomes inured to the scent of one’s own biases. The same words, depending on whether they come from the Modified or those that are not, become tagged “vitriolic zombie-breath’ or the “gentle rain of truth” and this egregious display of bias undermines their premise of being not-biased, which, is kind of self-defeating.
Now I am an outsider, a consumer of media. My take on media-compromise is roughly this.
Media-compromise in India has three inter-dependent and yet distinct facets.
The first one can be characterized as “managerial”. Corporate media is a multi-multi crore behemoth, financed by individuals and groups, whose holdings extend beyond media. Their media ownerships are, as much as about profits, as it is about owning instruments of strategic manipulation of public opinion. In this respect, media organizations are not, as naively thought, pro-BJP or anti-Congress. They work at much higher and smarter resolutions, being “pro-minister-so-and-so-at-certain-point-of-time-before-this-legislation-passes” and “let’s-take-this-angle-because-we-need-to-bury-this-guy-for-this-totally-different-reason”. Stringed along by extremely powerful puppet-masters (shameless plug: My forthcoming novel “Sultan of Delhi: Ascension” from Hachette, coming out this summer, is about one such fictitious character), news becomes a quiver of honey and poison-tipped arrows, to be used as a part of a larger game, much of which we never understand because we don’t even know the context.
The second is pay-to-play. Also called “Paid News“, where the space between advertising and opinion is blurred, where PR and news-desks and opinion-pieces and features all getting together to form a happy cash-soup, where “promotion packages” guarantee you, not just advertisement space, but legitimate coverage in the main pages, favorable reviews, and appropriately adulatory references, It works the other way too, no pay and you get badly reviewed and mentioned, and perhaps the easiest and the most damning, ignored.
The third, and this typically raises the most heckles, are the media celebrities, the blue-ticks, the opinion-makers, the pundits, of varying follower-count, influence, and troll attention. Following the model of personality-driven punditry of the US market, TV channels in India have built up a cabal of “talking heads”, who have, over the years, built personal brands that transcend the channel that they are on. They suffer from the problem that people suffer from: they are people. They bring their own biases, their own personalities, their Zeus-like arrogance, their own interests, and their own politics. It is again, a gross over-simplification, to call them pro-BJP or pro-Congress or pro-AAP. While individual crushes remain for particular people and ideologies, because hey they are people, their collective bias remains towards “the circle”, a cabal of power-brokers in the rarefied social circle of Lutyens Delhi, also referred to as “the establishment” or “people who appreciate fine wine and Sufi gazals and the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil”, who collectively form an oligarchy of influence. That is why they close ranks against outsiders and philistines and “the natives”, till they are appropriately absorbed or appropriated, their hold on the national conversation maintained through an intricate give-and-take of favors and privileges, softball interviews exchanged for leaks and gossip, a system that can be summarized in one excellent sentence.
Krantikari, bahoot ki krantikaari.
Of the three headed hydra, the media celebrities are the ones that get the most attention and the most #presstitute abuse on social media, though on the stage of malignancy, they are the least harmful. With a minimum of common sense, one can identify their biases and calibrate the trust one should place in their reporting, and while they perhaps may not be ignored if they are shaking you by the collar in Times Square, their pronouncements can be observed in the way one would WWE or the fifteenth viewing of Gunda, with detachment and an appreciation of the “so bad it’s good”. Not so easy to parse are disembodied narratives, that do not come from individuals but from systems. They drive our biases, our prejudices, and our political behavior and our consumption patterns, while it is easy to get into conspiracy theory mode and find whispers behind everything, a healthy amount of skepticism and multiple samples of the media-stream (so that narrative balances counter-narrative or in other words, read Scroll as well as Op-India, follow English, as well as Hindi news) our only compasses through the darkness.
However in all this storm of social media opprobrium and RTs of praise and blocking of trolls , what is often forgotten is that the “press” are not just the faces on TV or the serial-RT-ers of praise on Twitter. There are hundreds of men and women working with courage, conviction and belief, doing original reporting and producing compelling content everyday. They are men and women in small cities and villages, endeavoring to uncover truth at great physical peril, an universe apart from the entitled bunch of pundits with their VIP all-access-passes and their tedious lives of wining and dining in luxury. People like Jagendra Singh, burnt to death in Uttar Pradesh, and if you think that is heart-breaking, you haven’t read this.
Soon afterwards, a video appeared on the internet which a badly burned Singh lying on his hospital bed talking to the camera. He could be heard saying, “Why did they have to burn me? If the ministers and his goondas had a grudge, they could have beaten me instead of pouring kerosene and burning me.”
And this is precisely I find labels like pressstitute useless. Not only do such labels vitiate healthy discourse, (I mean do you seriously expect a member of the media community to engage with you if you call him a presstitute), they plaster over nuance, in the same way that labels like Internet Hindu and Bhakts do, dumbing down public conversation, to Rediff message board level.