You can frame this question as, when did Indian journalism self-destruct, when did it begin its self destruction, or, is it on its way to self-destruction? I am choosing the third, although the first is tempting. But why draw dark delight from having predicted our own institutional and professional demise.
It is, therefore, not an exercise in (Institutional) self-pity but an invitation to introspection and debate. There are other, subtler ways of framing the above questions as well. Since when did we start thinking of ourselves, journalists, to be our government’s spokesmen, keepers of others’ morality, and soldiers of the motherland? Why did we stop asking questions on issues of national security and foreign policy as if this was Brezhnev’s Moscow? How come nobody feels awkward, or raises questions when most journalists–including among us senior or older ones–use “we,” “our” and “us” when talking about our country, and government’s foreign policy? Like, “we know you Americans have a complex relationship with Pakistan which works to our detriment but you can’t expect us to continue to be sensitive to your concerns.” What’s wrong with this turn in our journalism is, that we are comfortable seeing ourselves as part of the collective establishment.
Pakistani journalists and commentators often argue that Indian media is more establishmentarian when it comes to foreign and military policies than theirs. The tough truth is, that some of the Pakistani bylines (albeit mostly in English) have routinely and bravely questioned their establishment’s policies and claims, including finding fault in the Kashmir policy, cultivation of terror groups and civil-military relations. Some have been exiled (Raza Rumi, Husain Haqqani), or even sent to jail (Najam Sethi). Indian journalists had an argument: the civil-military issues, non-transparency of policy, patronising of terror groups were issues peculiar to Pakistan. India, as a much better, for more real democracy, apolitical Army, had no such problems so the comparison was irrelevant. And where need be, we raise questions.
Nobody can accuse Indian media to have blindly supported the government of the day first on its subversion of Sri Lanka by training and arming LTTE (a story India Today let me break in early 1984 at the cost of being called anti-national by an Indira Gandhi at her peak) or its intervention later through Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Use of military (including paramilitary) power, from Operation Bluestar to Bastar to Kashmir Valley has been widely debated, and questioned. Post-Cold War foreign policy has been debated even more threadbare. A great example of that was the Indo-US nuclear deal.
The trend has been shifting and not just post-Uri when the only TV journalist to have the reckless courage to raise the question as to how four, lightly armed non-soldiers managed to breach all security perimeters around a brigade headquarters some two kilometres from the LoC was Karan Thapar on India Today. And the only honourable retired general to make a critical appraisal of this obvious failure was Lt-Gen J S Dhillon. And you can see why. Dhillon commanded one of the five brigades that fought their way into Jaffna exactly during these October days in 1987, and reached there fastest, with the least casualties. An old-fashioned, no-nonsense soldier and such an exception in this era of grey-moustachioed prime-time comedians. I would submit the shift began with Kargil.
The Kargil story, or war, began with about three weeks of universal denial. The Pakistanis denied they were there, our Army denied their ingress so deep and so spread out, South Block didn’t appreciate the implications and journalists got there before generals. It led to a mutually beneficial and unintentional embedding of journalists with the Army units directly involved in operations. A personal and professional bond developed that nobody had plotted. The end result was good for all: India’s credibility rose as it had allowed independent, uncensored press, Army gained from stories of its incredible valour reaching the entire country and journalists glowed in that halo.
Never mind that one key story suffered in the process: how did so many Pakistanis manage to walk and dig in so deep, why it took us so long to find out, why we sent out half-hearted probes (thus using small patrols) or used aircraft vulnerable to shoulder-fired missiles and lost three (two MiGs, one Mi-17 besides a PR Canberra damaged) when better options were available. Who failed to stop the Pakistanis sneaking in over months, who all failed to appreciate the seriousness of the incursion? As a result, no heads rolled. The local brigade commander was the obvious scapegoat but got his reprieve in Armed Forces Tribunal.
We were right to cover the story of the valour of young officers and soldiers. We were wrong to let the political, and military establishment get away with colossal incompetence if not dereliction of soldierly duty. There is no failure more dangerous than that of military commanders and that is why traditional armies lay much emphasis on accountability. There were many deserving gallantry awards given to brave young men in Kargil, but the guilty in higher places mostly got away.
We in Indian media had meanwhile been already hailed as force-multipliers. We soaked in the moment, but also imbibed the wrong lesson: that journalists are an essential part of the country’s war effort, force multipliers of its military. They can be both, but by seeking and speaking the truth, not by screaming at retired Pakistani generals, paid to take abuse, or converting their studios into war-rooms with Chandamama style sand-models, faux flak jackets. No wonder there are no Cyril Almeidas and Ayesha Siddiqas in India, willing to speak the harsh truth, despite the risk of being condemned as “enemy” spokesmen.
The self-destruction of journalism is in large part a story of Indian news TV Stars(by and large) voluntarily diminishing themselves into propagandists and trumpeters. That it works commercially, is not in doubt, at least for the pioneers of this genre. Copycats might struggle, but won’t give up as it is so tempting to suspend all questioning scepticism, or even imagination to confect a formula to challenge warrior TV’s present-day equivalent of old Gabbar’s immortal snarl: Kitney Pakistani thhey? I’d qualify: better count them dead not alive. When journalists accept “force multiplier” as a definition of their KRAs, there is no scope left for questions.
The provocation of this argument is obviously Uri and its aftermath. It’s left the media polarised, but extremely unevenly. On one, greatly dominant side, are those who not only ask no questions but sprint ahead of the government and the army making claims they never made, and frankly, wouldn’t. Mythical “representative” footage of nightly commando exercises is used to buttress these. Nobody, frankly, has been able to say with any authenticity what exactly happened almost three weeks ago. Either our government has become very good at keeping secrets, or we journalists have stopped looking for them. And you can see why.
Because on the other, tiny and shrinking pole are the permanent, holier-than-cow doubters. They believe none of the government’s claims, call them farcical but produce no evidence, no fact, no real scoops. Their demand, most touchingly, is that government give evidence to back its claims. Every young person who goes to journalism school is taught governments hide, journalists find out. Here we have our most liberal, best educated, reputed, famous celebrity-journalists in the doubters’ corner, not bringing scoops, but demanding a press conference. Further, they can’t get the story, but “set” standards others must come up to. One group says, I believe even more than you told me, I don’t need evidence. The other says, I believe nothing of what you say so make a public disclosure of military missions or I will presume you are lying. Now don’t ask why I say Indian journalism is self-destructing.