Prime Minister Narendra Modi routinely complains that journalists are biased against him and his party. He also says they are soft on the opposition, especially the Congress and the Gandhi family. He has now used a media interview, one in the continuing series in the slog-over phase of these elections, to articulate his view in some detail.
In the very detailed interview to The Indian Express last week, Modi made the following main points about journalists:
– They might pretend to be neutral, but they aren’t.
– Good and fair journalists must be neutral.
– In the past, editors/journalists could conceal their predilections. Editors always used to be anonymous, speaking rarely, if at all, at seminars. Now they speak all the time. Today, with most of them chattering away on social media (mainly Twitter) they are exposed.
– They are complicit in collectively maligning his image, a part of the ‘Khan Market Gang’.
As someone who’s been around in journalism for more than a bit, I am happy to join this argument with him. I break down my response in seven short points.
Journalistic neutrality is an impossibility. It is also an uncalled-for demand. Living beings, whether human, or dogs and cats, will always have a view on any situation or issue. What journalists can, and should do, while having their opinions, is to employ professional tools and tests to make their reporting objective and fair.
Social media, especially Twitter, is a great new medium for journalists to multiply their reach and impact. It can also be a trap and PM Modi is right to say that when journalists make their preferences, likes and dislikes so public, how do you trust them with their editorial fairness. It’s a problem and newsrooms are learning to deal with. In the US, legacy giants such as The New York Times and Washington Post have greatly strengthened their social media policies, placing limitations on their journalists publishing their personal views if they reveal their bias. ThePrint’s Code of Ethics allows its full-time journalists to write on social media anything that would also be publishable on the edited platform. For example, you cannot call somebody a mass-murderer or thief on social media or in public speeches if you don’t have the facts to say so in a story.
It is incorrect to say editors’ views were not known until the arrival of social media. This varies between individuals and eras. Even in the past, many eminent editors such as Frank Moraes, B.G. Verghese, Girilal Jain, Arun Shourie, Prabhash Joshi and Rajendra Mathur (I am limiting myself to languages I read) have shared their views generously and without hypocrisy or pretence of anodyne neutrality with the readers.
The PM is unfair to the vast majority of Indian media which dotingly supports him today by insinuating that journalists are mostly opposed to him. If you watch your TV channels at prime time, all, except the odd exception, mostly sing his praises and keep tough questions only for the opposition. He has the biggest media fan club for a leader I have seen since 1977. Again, barring a couple of exceptions, the big dailies in most languages do not give him any discomfort.
Some media still questions and criticises him. But he is not the only leader in power to face this. Every leader does, as did Dr Manmohan Singh, particularly in his second term. The same Time magazine, which has now caused consternation by calling Modi India’s ‘Divider-in-Chief’, had featured Singh on the cover with the headline: ‘The Underachiever’. The PM mentioned two specific issues from the UPA period, the formation of the National Advisory Council (NAC) which could overrule the Cabinet and Rahul Gandhi tearing that ordinance. Both had drawn criticism. You might want to Google me with “NAC, extra-constitutional” and “UPA’s auto-immune self-destruction”. The lesson is, when you are in power, be prepared to face the heat. Or at least some heat.
His characterisation of his critics, where we presume he combines journalists and liberal intellectuals, as “Khan Market Gang” is the most interesting highlight. It is as if that tiny old market is to ‘devious’ Lutyens’ Delhi what Balakot is to ‘terrorist’ Pakistan, a hideout of malcontents. My submission is, irritating though he may find this pesky lot, he greatly exaggerates their power and influence. He does indeed flatter them. It also shows he is reading too much Twitter. He talked about reading a collection of 50 tweets by a journalist/intellectual and figuring out his reality. That, prime minister, is too much time spent on Twitter. You must have more important stuff to read.
And finally, where does it leave us journalists? I started working in early 1977 with a tiny Delhi-based weekly called Democratic World. We had created a home-ad for the magazine that read: “The Left thinks we are Right, the Right thinks we are Left, so we must be doing something right.” I’d say, follow the same view. Keep your opinions and predilections close, no problem. Just be professional enough that you can convince your audiences of your objectivity. We are mere journalists. We aren’t political scientists. And definitely not political philosophers. What we wish for, can’t be a part of our journalism.
So, don’t worry about your audience’s minds getting prejudiced by the abuse you face on social media. Because it won’t happen. Your audiences are smart. And if you so wish, you can update that old ad copy for modern times: “The Left thinks we are Right, the Right thinks we are Left, so we get trolled by both.”
A thick skin is as much a professional necessity in journalism now as a clean nose and that erect spine.