There is a lot of money floating about in India for what passes off as “research.” From think tanks and NGOs to academic institutions — not to mention institutions based overseas — a whole gamut of researchers are involved in preparing reports, some extremely valuable and others equally tendentious and very suspect. Predictably, in a made-in-media age, a chunk of that research is devoted to media studies.
If I may be presumptuous enough to advise research bodies, I would suggest a piece of research on the political inclinations of journalists — the entire range from editors to rookie sub-editors and backroom research assistants. At one time this would have involved meeting journalists individually, getting them to answer questions and hoping that they were speaking the truth. Mercifully, this is no longer necessary. The exponential growth of social media has meant that journalists are pretty forthright in sharing their views on everything to the world at large — which, in most cases, actually means fellow members of Press Clubs. A casual perusal of Twitter posts, for example, is very revealing for what they tell us of the political likes and dislikes of individuals. I am not talking here of celebrity editors and anchors who are often careful about concealing their political preferences. I refer to the mid-ranking reporters and those on the newsdesks who are more forthright with their views because they have less at stake. They
Research on the political inclinations of journalists have been done in the United States and the United Kingdom. What they have shown is that the media is dominated by those who tend to be pro-Democratic Party in the US and inclined towards the Labour Party in the UK. In any case, they reveal a strong anti-Right bias — and this predates the election of President Trump. In the UK, anecdotal evidence reveals a strong antipathy to Brexit. It is not always necessary that these inclinations translate into institutional preferences. However, many media analysts have indicated the existence of journalistic echo chambers whereby the biases of individual journalists feed on each other to establish a tilted consensus. In any case, like in the social sciences and liberal arts departments in the universities, the reception towards those with conservative and right-wing preferences isn’t warm. At times it veers towards outright hostility and ostracism.
My own unscientific perusal of twitter posts over the past fortnight clearly indicated that as far as the English language media is concerned, there was widespread elation that the BJP had suffered a series of defeats in the three Assembly elections. There may have been pent up anger against the Narendra Modi Government since its election in 2014 but they were often kept under wraps because the BJP seemed to be on a roll. At the indication that not everything is going the way Amit Shah wanted, the real feelings have started emerging, and often quite uninhibitedly. Since the Lutyens’ echo chamber has decided that Modi will be out at the end of May 2019 — there is less clarity or preference over what hydra-headed monster will replace it – we can now look forward to journalistic artillery fire and lots of sniper attacks on the Modi Government.
In itself this is all tittle-tattle. The preferences of the media doesn’t shape electoral outcomes. People vote on the strength of their experiences which may or may not corresponds with the media’s depiction of the world around them. In any case, the charm of democracy is that there isn’t only one narrative at play. I have found it interesting that those opposed to the Modi regime genuinely believe that the media has sold its soul to the present rulers. I guess this perception stems from the fact that at least two English language channels and two Hindi channels tend to be broadly supportive of the government. Moreover, those without a deep sense of liberal angst don’t really believe that media freedom has been endangered after 2014.
Yet, the fact remains that the media consensus is weighed against the present government. The reasons for this aren’t located only in ideological preferences. Nor does it lie in the fact that Modi doesn’t host press conferences whereas Rahul Gandhi does.
Ever since it came to power, the Modi Government has acted quite decisively to plug the unauthorised flow of information — what is popularly called leaks. The reason is not because it has something awkward to hide but because there is a legitimate belief that motivated leaks jeopardise decision-making and end up paralysing governments. This is certainly what happened under the two UPA governments and the consequences were disastrous.
Plugging leaks may jeopardise “exclusive” news stories but they also have another unintended consequence: they put an end to what may be called the “private practice” of individual journalists, not least those at the helm of the profession. There always was a very lucrative business involving the trading of information and even determining transfers and postings of officials. Many journalists were at the centre of this business because of their easy access to the corridors of power. The Modi Government has more or less cut off this lifeline, thereby reducing the charms of a profession where noble endeavour has coexisted with ethical laxity.
I may be extremely harsh on the profession but it seems to me that the elation over the Congress’ victory in three states is based on an expectation that there will be a return to happier times when politicians took decisions but the media moulded them. In the past, the media didn’t merely report; it was a player. Modi stopped this and now the guns are targeted at him.
Sunday, 23 December 2018 | Swapan Dasgupta | in Usual Suspects–
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