The Lakhimpur Kheri incident is one more nail in the coffin of Indian mainstream media’s credibility. Not the proverbial last nail. Not a nail that might hit its circulation or TRPs yet. Not a nail that might hit the faithful audience of Republic TV or News18. But a nail nevertheless in popular perception of the media’s claims to truth-speaking. With the farmers’ movement, the assumption that the media can make or mar reputation now stands on its head: Instead of the media undermining the credibility of the farmers’ movement, the movement is undermining the credibility of the media.
And for good reason. Just look at how the mainstream media responded to this horrific incident. First, it dawdled away. The incident happened around 3 pm in the presence of local media. Credible reports started coming within minutes; by 3:30 pm the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) had alerted the media, identifying the perpetrator. Yet the first ANI report did not land before 5 pm, not before the ruling dispensation had time to spin a narrative. Then came deception: A cock-and-bull story of a stone-pelting crowd was circulated for the first few hours to obfuscate the story, despite an emergency press conference by SKM to dispel such lies. This was accompanied by a grand distraction: The story of a star-son on a cruise ship with drugs was used to divert eyeballs away from this crime. And finally, there was dissimulation with the help of fake headlines. Dainik Jagaran, the largest selling newspaper in the country, must take the cake with its headline: “Uttar Pradesh me arajak kisano ka upadrav, 6 ki jaan gayi” [Unruly farmers on rampage in Uttar Pradesh, 6 lost lives]. Darbari channels played along the same lines.
There were, of course, the dissenting voices, mostly from the usual suspects, including internet portals and social media. Some mainstream media channels tried valiantly to keep the focus on the real culprit. But that can hardly shore up the image of the media as a whole. It will be a long time before the mainstream media can wash away the stains of blood on its image. As Faiz Ahmad Faiz asked in a different context: “Khoon ke dhabbe dhulenge kitni barsaton ke baad”.
Capturing the media narrative
Why is the media behaving the way it does, in a country that still claims to be a democracy, where the media is still predominantly private and independent, where there is no censorship? I am no media theorist. And I see a lot of merit in the theory of ‘manufacturing consent’ by the media. But such general theories do not tell us enough how exactly the media is being controlled in today’s India. Allow me to name four ways in which the government, the ruling party and its associates manage to capture the media narrative, without formal censorship: Dealership, partisanship, relationship, and ‘sensor-ship’. This new form of information control is informal (phone calls, meetings, no written orders) and, therefore, invisible; it comes from multiple directions (government, party and its corporate friends) and is, therefore, all-pervasive; and it attacks the media at multiple levels (owner, editor, reporter, stringer) and is, therefore, more effective. This is worse than censorship.
Dealership involves wheeling and dealing, mostly with the proprietors. There is a lot at stake here: Advertisements, regulatory favours, manipulation of share prices, investment and favours in the non-media business interests of the owners. The other side of the coin is the Enforcement Directorate (ED) or Income Tax (IT) raids, choking of finances, disruption in telecast signal and even arrests on cooked-up charges. What happened to Dainik Bhaskar, The Quint and NewsClick is an example for everyone. To be fair, this carrot and stick approach did not start with the Narendra Modi government. You can find umpteen examples during the Congress rule. Nor is it confined to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress. I am told the Janata Dal (United) government in Bihar and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi are no different. With the Modi government, stick has overtaken carrot and vindictiveness has become an art form.
Partisanship is ideological and there is nothing new about it. Just as there were journalists leaning to the Left-secular-liberal positions, there would be those whose conviction lies to the Right. It would also stand to reason that the share of BJP sympathisers in the media would rise, to catch up with the shift in the spectrum of public opinion. You would expect the ruling government-party apparatus to systematically promote its favourites, which it does. You would expect many chameleons who change their ideological colours. The outcome is not just saffronisation, but degeneration of media, since the Right-wing is yet to generate a pool of half-decent journalists.
Relationship, or courting the media, is as old a game as the media itself. What is special under this government is the system of micro-screening of each editor, reporter, columnist or even stringer of each media entity, from big houses to small portals. Appointments, promotions, demotions and pink slips in privately owned media broadly follow this unofficial screening. Dog-whistling leads to troll attacks. This has had a chilling impact on the entire media industry.
The most insidious is ‘sensor-ship’, as opposed to censorship. The cumulative impact of this climate of fear is that it implants a sensor inside us, a thought control chip that alerts us whenever we cross an invisible boundary. Will this get me into trouble? Will I face avoidable nuisance on this count? Should I modulate this expression? How do I appear to be non-partisan, while being so? This self-censorship bends the best of our media persons and writers.
A dangerous disconnect
Ordinary farmers and farmer activists don’t dissect all this, but they can sense the end product. ‘Godi-media’ is not just an accusation in a niche circle. It is one of the most frequently used expressions by the farmers in this movement. This defines the commonsense of a wide section of farmers and non-farmers in rural India. This may not extend to the urban middle class in this instance. But they reached similar conclusions during the second wave of Covid. It is building up sector by sector, but could soon become a legitimacy crisis of the media as a whole.
My andolanjeevi colleagues celebrate this. I understand their reaction. If you can’t get the media to tell the truth, the second option is to delegitimise it. But I also worry about this on several counts. One, this culture of distrust often targets honest journalists and media houses as well. Two, the science and art of controlling ‘independent’ media may not remain limited to this government; the next government is unlikely to forget these lessons in a hurry. Above all, disconnect between mass media and public opinion is bad news for democracy.
The author is a member of Swaraj India and co-founder of Jai Kisan Andolan. Views are personal.