December 21, 2007

GUJARAT ELECTION : When bias is passé , exposing dirty Indian Media

Daily Pioneer

Jaya Jaitly

Issues before the common man were ignored by the national 'liberal' media in Gujarat in shameless pursuit of an agenda that divided the State far more than what a fundamentalist group could achieve

Five years ago, during the last Assembly election, I was in a small town in Gujarat and visited an old socialist, the editor of the local newspaper. The Election Commission of India had tightened spending by candidates. I learned from the saddened editor that to circumvent the old method of paying for published schedules of public meetings of leaders of parties, money was now being accepted 'under the table' so that the expenditure did not have to be disclosed as election expenses.



Money was given to newspaper owners, who, in turn, had meetings 'covered' by their reporter and published as news. It is a well-known fact that some regional newspapers in Gujarat enter into deals with major Opposition parties during election, charging Rs 2 crore for not writing against it, and an additional matching amount for writing about it in positive terms. A Chief Minister lost his throne for not going through with one such agreement. During the current Assembly election in Gujarat, local cameramen of some television channels were offering 10-second slots for Rs 30,000.


Apart from localised incidents in Gujarat, there is a marked disconnect between what the observer of the political scene saw first-hand in the recent Assembly election and the matter that readers were offered in national newspapers.


An 'atmosphere of fear' was a phrase bandied about by secular badge-wearers well before the election. The Election Commission rightly responded by offering to put up booths exclusively for Muslims to vote in areas where they were supposed to be terrorised. The Muslim population at large was courageous enough to reject the offer and declared that they would stand in line along with everyone else. However, the media told exactly the opposite story. When Congress president Sonia Gandhi screamed "fear and death stalk the State", the media obliged with large headlines.


A full report appeared about secret voting by Muslims because of "underlying fear", yet while campaigning for a Muslim candidate in Jamnagar on behalf of the Samata Party, I asked a 2,000-strong audience of largely Muslims that had gathered spontaneously whether there was an atmosphere of fear around them. They laughed out loud and unitedly responded "nahin" ("no"). I was led to this meeting place in a musical procession with women supporters (both Hindu and Muslim) dancing on the streets as if at a wedding. Fear? Purdah? Hostility? Communalism? Hatred of Mr Narendra Modi or Muslims? I saw nothing of these. However, none of the media present wanted any of it.


The entire drama about the "merchant of death" was not a subject of discourse at hundreds of meetings everywhere. It was Ms Sonia Gandhi's grandstanding for headlines outside Gujarat and to frighten the majority of Muslims who have been leading normal lives and had localised views and allegiances just like everyone else. Neither Mr Modi nor Ms Gandhi loomed on the horizon. The petition by Mr Javed Akhtar before the Supreme Court or Ms Teesta Setalvad's complaints to the Election Commission were complete waste of time for the real voters and only entertained an elite readership.


The election in Gujarat was fought on a completely different plane from what was conjured up for the readership outside Gujarat by the media who had become a dice-thrower at the chequer board of the election, betraying their own professional tenets, not to mention their readers. Whoever wins or loses there, communalism will not have been the issue.


Embedded journalism has come to stay since scores of media are flown in helicopters to selected election meetings or to accompany the feudal-style outings of the crown prince, ludicrously termed "road shows". Full-paged advertisements are placed in most newspapers throughout the year by a host of Congress-ruled States, prominently propagating dynastic images and the UPA chairperson who has no constitutional authority to justify such expense from the public exchequer.


Soon this becomes the norm for every party, and the media is effectively co-opted while editorialising about the freedom of the Press. Honourable exceptions only show the others more starkly. Readers struggle to find some meaningful news between pages of semi-clad starlets, six-pack hunks, and front pages taken up with the current cricket match or BCCI battle, the Bachchan family's latest trip to a temple, or Shilpa Shetty's take on world harmony. Many media watchers, including from within the media, have already admitted to the steady encroachment of froth into what should be a serious and noble domain. But they do not allude to the real causes. Some of it may be understandable in the era of the market and eyeball grabbing commercialism. But it becomes another matter when it enters the political spaces.


A recent Delhi High Court judgement made headlines for attempting to define the parameters of investigative journalism, specifically sting operations. The sad fact is that the state of journalism today is far worse than demonstrated by the black brushes of stings alone. The Editor's Guild and the National Broadcaster's Association have expressed dismay over the judgement.


Self-regulation seems to be taking a long time coming and it is not clear whether the entire Press would agree to commit itself to the commonly laid-down guidelines or whether each would want to push its own envelope to the edges to explore grey areas, as was famously declared by the Kings of Stings at the Commission of Inquiry set up to explore, among other things, the methodology of the sting operation itself after the so-called defence expose of 2001. With injured innocence they squealed that investigating their methodology for accuracy and ethics was like shooting the messenger. No one has yet convinced the public that the all such messengers have indeed done anything other than create sensational entertainment.


We engage with our newspaper like a trusted friend that is expected to be faithful in its reporting, meticulous in its quest for truth and accuracy, and be of unswerving integrity so that its credibility is not compromised. If the Press Council and the Editor's Guild did a thorough self-appraisal (maybe even some internal sting operations), they would be surprised at how corrupted and biased the system has become.

-- The writer is a columnist and former President of Samata Party



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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, exactly describes the rot in journalism and Congress's desperation to win elections by hook or by crook.

Reminds me of the days when Pakistan's cricket tem use to play with 13 players, including two umpires.

In this match, the Election Commission and media have been part of Congress Team.