On TV news debates, BJP spokespersons shout and scream, interrupt others all the time, don’t let others speak. If they can’t win on points, they win on noise and sheer bullying, and the anchor lets them win. A top TV anchor once told me why they do this: “Amit Shah has a team that watches every show and decides whether the BJP ‘won’ or ‘lost’.” Losing is obviously not an option.
On channels and shows where the BJP’s ‘victory’ in debates is not guaranteed in advance, where their spokesperson may not be allowed to win through noise, they don’t send their spokesperson.
Similarly, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party have not been sending their spokesperson on TV news debates since 23 May because they feel these debates are not going to achieve anything other than opposition-bashing. It’s taken them long to learn this lesson, and sooner or later, all opposition parties will follow suit. What kind of a person walks into a trap?
Any opposition leader you meet will blame the media for the state of the opposition. The complaint has some merit, though it is also an excuse for the opposition’s own shortcomings. Rarely has there been a politician who hasn’t complained about the media. We live in an age where everyone complains about the media all the time anyway.
There is little doubt that Indian TV news since 2014 has been largely a vehicle to make the BJP and the Modi government look good and the opposition and liberals look bad on a daily basis. It is not agenda journalism, it is not journalism at all, but sheer propaganda. On a day when there’s some big news that demands asking tough questions of the government, these channels will do debates on Hindu-Muslim issues, for instance. Ravish Kumar has aptly called them “Godi” or lapdog media — the government and ruling party being their guardians, or margdarshaks, as the BJP might say.
One step further
Refusing to appear on debates designed for opposition-bashing is a mere survival strategy. Opposition parties must go one step further and actively campaign against ‘Godi’ media. If our democracy thrives on checks and balances, the media should also be asked tough questions.
Media-bashing has time and again proved to be politically rewarding for politicians and parties. Narendra Modi’s rise to power was made possible partly through media-bashing, these Lutyens’ liberals who sit and decide the national agenda, you know. PM Narendra Modi and the BJP still do it. During 2019 the Lok Sabha elections, the Prime Minister lashed out against The Indian Express (and Khan Market liberals) in an interview to The Indian Express itself. Like Modi, Arvind Kejriwal also benefited from generous media coverage, and yet he has often attacked the media and accused it of bias.
Media-bashing is a tried-and-tested formula for political success. It is a bad idea for democracy and journalism alike. But we are already in a deeply polarised political reality where the opposition being nice to the media is not going to be reciprocated.
In an ideal world, all politicians should be engaging with all media, trying to sell them their spin. But if the media has decided it’s not going to be a level playing field, the opposition can’t just sit at home. It will have to go to the other extreme and actively project the media as an establishment it is fighting against, a political opponent, an extension of the ruling party. This is a strategy that has paid rich dividends for Modi and Trump and countless others, and it will work for the opposition too.
The idea is simple. The media creates a narrative. If that narrative doesn’t suit you, shoot the messenger. This might help convince the public, or at least the opposition’s supporters, that the opposition is not wrong, it is the media that is biased. Offence is the best form of defence.
Politicians have the upper hand
In the United States, Donald Trump was hardly the first politician to ‘run against media’. Attack The Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media is a 2006 book by Craig Crawford that reads like a tame description of this phenomenon in a Trumpian world. Crawford says the idea of “running against the media” began in the US in 1988 when George W. Bush, then vice-president, gave a TV interview to a liberal TV anchor at a time when Bush was in serious political trouble. To the interviewer’s surprise, Bush started attacking him, getting personal. The strategy was suggested to him by his adviser Roger Ailes, a man who would go on to become the founding CEO of Fox News in 1996.
Crawford writes that Republican politicians are not the only ones who have used media-bashing as a political strategy for controlling their narrative. He writes: “Since the 1988 presidential campaign, Democrats and Republicans learned to perfect the techniques of media manipulation. Bill Clinton survived a personal scandal by vilifying the messenger-the reporters who uncovered his sexual affair while in office. Bush’s son, George W. Bush, took the nation to war in Iraq with little public debate, thanks in part to a muzzled press.”
When politicians attack the media, Crawford writes, they “undermine the role of a journalist to stand in the shoes of average citizens who cannot get personal interviews with political leaders and ask the questions those leaders prefer not to answer.”
Attacking the media works better for politicians than attacking anyone else because, Crawford writes, “when the news media is attacked, it was the news media itself that relayed the images and words of its own demise.”
The American press dethroned Richard Nixon with the Watergate scandal and made the US change its mind on the Vietnam war. But today, the press in the US, the land of the free where the ruling party can’t get editors fired, is unable to make a dent in Donald Trump’s ratings. This has happened not least because the political class has been winning the war against the media by attacking it. This is true of Trump in the US and of Modi in India.
Questioning the questioner
“The media are under certain constraints. In their heart, they know what is happening. They come to me, saying we can’t do much… hawa badal gayi hai (the situation has changed),” Rahul Gandhi said in 2017. This charitable reading of the media is not working for the opposition.
Rahul Gandhi was, however, on the right track when he shamed Deepak Chaurasia for allegedly doing a scripted interview of PM Modi in which he asked soft-ball questions, before doing an unscripted interview of Rahul Gandhi in which he asked tough questions.
Views are personal.