My first hand experience on how the Indian media reports imaginary things

Recently, I was lucky to be a part of a gathering of interesting people from various walks of life, who were invited for a two day conference by India Foundation, rather embarrassingly titled ‘Young Thinkers Meet’. India Foundation is a self-described ‘independent research center focused on the issues, challenges and opportunities of the Indian polity’.

The foundation’s board of directors comprises of many prominent figures, some of them union ministers in the current government, based on which one could make a fair assessment of their ideological and political leanings. This diverse bunch of participants from all over the country, consisting of students, entrepreneurs, scholars, professors and artists many of whom met each other for the first time, exchanged ideas around the general theme laid out by the conveners.

Most of the sessions were focused on the government’s policy initiatives and the unique challenges in implementation of the same. Interestingly, media discourse was another prominent theme and how to prevent distortion in the flow of information from the government to the public was also debated, without great success, I must confess.

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Now, this conference, in which I participated for the first time, is an annual affair whose venue changes every year. This year, it happened to be held at Patnitop, Jammu and Kashmir and the choice of venue was the only thing about the conference that had anything to do with the word ‘Kashmir’.

I received the invitation on May 3, 2016, long before there was any inkling of Burhan Wani related trouble in the valley. So, the only way that the organizers could’ve included the present crisis in Kashmir in the program would be through an act of clairvoyance or by actually instigating the cycle of violence themselves so that it could eventually be discussed.

However, minor things such as facts cannot be allowed to discourage the media from influencing public opinion in a way they think appropriate.

Ram Madhav, one of the board members at India Foundation, who was also present at the conclave, tweeted at the end of the conference:

Ram Madhav's tweet
Ram Madhav’s tweet

As is their wont, the media did precisely what they were warned against and while “flying their kites” also showed off the various techniques employed in the sport. Here are eight of them:

1. Conclave of pro-BJP think-tank discusses Kashmir, other issues [The Indian Express | India Today]

According to this account by PTI, there were many issues discussed and one of them was Kashmir. It says, “The sources said the role of security forces in dealing with the situation and how the ongoing unrest was being instigated and backed by Pakistan also figured during the deliberations”. If my memory serves me right, the only time that there was a mention of security was when the security of the complex was tightened just before the arrival of Mrs. Smriti Irani for her brief session on “Challenges in the education sector” based on her two year stint as HRD Minister.

2. Kashmir discussed at pro-BJP think tank meet? Ram Madhav says no [Hindustan Times]

Again, you have an important politician unambiguously denying any link of the conference with the Kashmir issue. But obviously for the reporters concerned (Toufiq Rashid and Ravi Krishnan Khajuria), the word of a politician must be always proved wrong, even if it is by inventing facts, which in this case is the claim that Union Minister MJ Akbar attended the function. It looks like I was so mesmerized by Patnitop’s ethereal beauty that Mr Akbar had arrived, delivered his lecture and gone back, without me even noticing.

3. Kashmir unrest: At Patnitop conclave, BJP-RSS leaders mull option of including Hurriyat in peace process [India.com]

Mohammed Uzair Shaikh informs us that “the agenda was to restore normalcy in Kashmir valley, and integrate the Muslim dominated region with the rest of India” and that “the right-leaning politicians did not show aversive attitude towards the suggestion of including secessionist forces in the talks.” As clarified earlier, there was simply no discussion on Kashmir, which is a good thing because if the government were to frame its policy on Kashmir based on the views of participants in this conference, many of whom had just discovered that Jammu is 12 hours away from Srinagar, it would be very bad news for the country.

4. BJP’s Ram Madhav in search for J&K ‘solution’ [The Asian Age]

This statement, written on August 8, after the conference was over, refers to it in the future tense for some inexplicable reason. It also says that “The national security adviser is also likely to take part in the deliberations at some stage.” Now, although it is reasonable for a father to keep a tab on the activities of an adolescent son, Doval junior is not exactly a teenager. Mr Ajit Doval, just because he is the NSA of India, has no business to gatecrash into a professional event organized by an organization his son is part of and thankfully, good sense did prevail over him. What sounds more probable is that he never planned on coming.

5. Ram Madhav holds meet in Kashmir; intellectuals, civil society attend [Deccan Chronicle]

According to this report, “a special conclave, led by Mr Madhav, has brought together around 80 intellectuals, members of the civil society and some senior ministers – in what is seen as an unofficial, new outreach by the government to the Kashmiri people.” It beats me as to how 80 people sitting in a room talking about random things helps the government reach out to Kashmiris. If that were the case, the near full house in parliament debating the GST bill would be far more of an outreach to the people of the valley. In any case, this story by Deccan Chronicle is based on a report by NDTV. Enough said.

6. Meeting at Patnitop ‘maps out’ troubled areas of state [The Tribune] (again!)

This one is really good because the correspondent goes beyond the call of duty by not just speculating on the agenda but also the outcome. Dinesh Manhotra informs us, “Although consensus eluded the meet on how to reach out to different groups of the turbulent Valley, the troubled areas of the state were mapped out, both geographically and demographically, during deliberations so as to devise a comprehensive strategy to set agenda for the future course of action.” What does mapping out the troubled areas actually mean? If Indians are still figuring out on the map where the valley is located, then we surely deserve the hatred of the people inhabiting it.

7. Pro-BJP think tank ‘India Foundation’ meets in hill resort amid Kashmir unrest [DNA]

Right next to the suggestive headline, the DNA correspondent artfully places Ram Madhav’s denial, demonstrating how politicians can lie with a straight face, except that in this case the politician is only telling the truth and thoroughly enjoying the ensuing media circus, I presume. The rest of the report follows the same pattern as others.

8. New Kashmir Outreach? Ram Madhav, Ministers Brainstorm with Civil Society [NDTV]

When it comes to Kashmir, the red dot of NDTV is where the buck always stops. Barkha Dutt, the author of this report, deserves a compliment for setting the ball rolling on Patnitop by indulging in “speculation of an unofficial track-two initiative” after “the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani.”  Having been a part of many such multi track initiatives in the past, it is a pity that she fails to inform her readers that Wani is not just a terrorist but also the son of a school headmaster. So much for switching tracks!

Those of us who use social media as a source of news and views would be aware of the nose-diving credibility of the mainstream news media (MSM) in this age of the internet. It cannot be said enough that to depend exclusively on MSM for informing one’s political views would be akin to chopping off the umbilical chord that connects us with reality, a travesty of objectivity. On TV debates, we often find a carefully chosen panel of ‘experts’ waxing eloquent on issues that millions of people are invested in, emotionally and materially, and which they themselves have only a quasi-intellectual grasp of.

One can still cut some slack for the media for giving a certain slant to the reportage if the issue is overly sensitive, say a rape or an act of racism. But it is alarming that even a trivial, largely inconsequential affair like the above-mentioned conference is made to fit a narrative that the media is desperately trying to spin.

To me personally, the reporting on the Patnitop event has been an eye-opener and it has gravely undermined whatever semblance of credibility the mainstream media had in my assessment. I mean, if the reporters and their editors can resort to such blatant forgery in reporting a harmless brainstorming session, what do we make of their broadcasts on complex matters as foreign policy or internal security?

In my view, journalism has ceased to be investigative and journalists are now always seen to be “flying kites”. The question is how long before the thread of the kite starts inflicting cuts on the hand that holds it.

Ashish Dhar, a Mechanical Engineer and an entrepreneur, lives in New Delhi. He is the co-founder of Pragyata, an e-learning portal dedicated to Indic knowledge systems.

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