It wasn’t very long ago that media (or press, as it was better known as) enjoyed near universal public trust and respect as the fourth pillar of democracy (the legislature, executive and judiciary being the first three). This because of its onerous role of keeping the other three pillars honest. It was rightfully considered as people’s watchdog, representing their voice against corruption, injustice, malpractices and all other forms of exploitation that the people were otherwise hapless to raise.
Not that there wasn’t cynicism against this even back then. Worries of big newspapers being in bed with politicians and bureaucrats have always existed. The classic Kundan Shah movie ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron’ was a tongue in cheek satire on this very relationship. The slapstick sequences including the hilarious Mahabharata scene apart, the movie portrayed mutual back scratching relationship between a newspaper editor and corrupt officials working towards the interests of some builders. Notwithstanding the huge success of the movie, the media continued to enjoy its high pedestal.
Possibly the reason was that before the era of social media, they had a monopoly on dissemination of information. So, as a common citizen if I wanted to express my disagreement with their point of view, the best option I had was to write a letter to the editor of a leading daily, and hope like hell that it would be published. Even in the off chance that such a letter, criticizing the very people deciding whether to publish it or not, was published, I had no way of knowing how others reacted to it. Of finding out how many people out there shared my opinion, connecting with such like-minded people and joining my voice to theirs to make a chorus loud enough for it to be heard over the raucous decibel levels of the mainstream media.
With the advent of social media on ubiquitous smart phones and other devices, powered by ever rising internet penetration, all this has changed. The stranglehold that newspapers and TV channels had long maintained on information has broken. And how. Today, a single tweet of some of the big influencers on twitter (many of whom are ordinary citizens) often has more views / impressions that the viewership of large TV channels. And this visibility is available at the low cost of a smartphone and internet connection.
This has resulted in a situation where the word of a media doyen is no longer above scrutiny, questioning and rebuttal. Somewhere along the way, scandals like the Nira Radia tapes affair and the Essar phone tapping scandal exposed the cosy, incestuous relations that the journalist – politician – corporate triad shared. Where favours, inside information and favourable reporting is fully convertible currency. This caused a major dent in the people’s confidence and belief in the word of all journalists. With information tools now available, it was much easier for Mr Average Singh to start questioning the duplicity of some journalists, who were seen as partisan, building their stories around a particular narrative they wanted to push to the public. Such as the narrative of 2002 Gujarat riots, Narendra Modi’s complicity in the same and the whole fear psychosis around the hell that would break loose if he became the Prime Minister.
And then their worst fears came true. Not only did Narendra Modi become the Prime Minister, he also got a majority in parliament on his own. The cabal that had so doggedly fought to keep this from happening slowly came to realize why this was even worse than they had feared. Because suddenly the gravy train came to a grinding halt. Government patronage in the form of junkets abroad and exclusive access to corridors of powers, allowing wheeling and dealing journalists to play power brokers, suddenly dried up.
The resulting backlash was in form of a concerted malicious media campaign to show the government in a bad light in any which way. So a stone thrown by a drunk miscreant became a communal attack on a religious institution. Stray, stupid utterances by unknown nobodies became indicators of the government and ruling party’s evil designs. The narrative of rising ‘Intolerance’ in the country was actively promoted. Deprivation made some so depraved that they were even willing to go along with the narrative of Pakistan against that of their own country, possibly forgetting the difference between opposing the government and opposing the nation. Some of them continued in the mistaken belief that their role was not reporting information but ‘shaping public opinion’.
The backlash to the backlash was on social media, particularly on Twitter. The same people who had reposed their faith in the leadership of the prime minister questioned started posing counter questions to the journalists, tearing holes into the narrative they sought to build. These journalists reacted by dismissing those questioning them variously as ‘Sanghis’, ‘Internet Hindus’, ‘Bhakts’ and ‘trolls’. Instead of engaging in a dialogue and justifying their argument, they even threatened those who questioned them and their narrative. Possibly because the narrative itself was indefensible, being built on half-truths, conjectures and heresy. The tone, tenor, and even the language used by some of these so called journalists would give even the most abusive of trolls a run for their money.
There has even been an underhand attempt to try and stifle the freedom of expression on social media, ironically by the very people who are supposed to be the guardians of free speech.
The outcome of all this is that today, media has fallen below politicians, bureaucrats, police and judiciary as a profession in the eyes of the people. The following two polls are an illustration of this.
Mainstream media is already facing a crisis of survival because of the shift in the way people consume news and information, relying more and more on crowd-sourcing online rather than conventional sources. While most media players are adapting to this change in form, they also need to take into account the threat to the credibility of the profession as a whole primarily because of the actions of a few desperate individuals who’re unable to stomach their own fall from the pedestal they had placed themselves on. Though unfair, it’s common for the whole herd being labelled because of a few black sheep. It’s time for the rest of the herd – those who continue to do their job honestly and in an unbiased manner – to disown the black sheep and cast them aside.
Jaane mat do yaaron – change or perish.
A former Army officer, now a Learning and Development consultant, Author of ‘Delhi Durbar 1911 – The Complete Story’, ‘Riding the Raisina Tiger’, ‘Brave Men of War – Tales of Valour 1965’, ‘In the Line of Fire’ and ‘Academy – Bonded for Life’. He was also part of the panel engaged by Ministry of Defence for writing official history of India’s participation in First World War. Follow Rohit on Twitter @ragarwal