Last month Tavleen Singh wrote an article in India Express where she (in her own words) knowingly broke an unstated principle that the journalists have practiced so far – “a dog never eats another dog”. She adds further “we of the mighty fourth estate almost never attack our comrades.” Like many in journalism, she also had followed the principle but the launch of Republic and fireworks from Arnab compelled her to break that rule; she went for an all-out attack. She believed, she was not at fault as the rule was first broken by Arnab himself.
The point here is not who was right in this case, whether Arnab in handling of the debate or Tavleen in criticizing him; the point that came out was, there is no media consensus anymore. The fourth pillar of democracy is not one voice, but many. Now they don’t hold punches when criticizing one another. It is no longer a choice if they have to exist. They need to compete more fiercely for their own survival.
The most important point here – is this a good thing for democracy that media houses are fighting with each other fiercely? Whether media should really speak in one voice?
History of media consensus
There was certain amount of idealism in a journalist role in India during and even post-independence. A legendry ‘patrakar’ as shown in Indian movie was always a poor man in half torn kurta and a long jhola fighting for the rights of poor. Local landlords and sometimes the state was the oppressor and they will be attacked physically for being the voice of the poor. Since they mostly worked for the public good – there was a need to protect these patrakars – intellectually, financially and morally. The journalistic camaraderie was necessary then.
Fast forward to today in 2017 – the journalism is another profession like doctors, lawyers etc. They are no longer poor, in fact some of them are quite rich. They no longer get beaten by landowner’s goons or oppressive state (in fact some of them beat up other people when needed). They are no longer a vulnerable section fighting for the noble cause. They are professionals and the media profession is not doing badly.
Playing the role of political opposition
Once I was watching a program on NDTV where Ravish Kumar said “our job as media is not to praise government but to question them on each and everything, we have to ask them hard questions keep them on their toes”. Many media houses today in India think, it their exalted role to oppose all moves from government and their policies. Sometimes they don’t mind even bordering anti-nationalism for the sake of criticism.
On a second thought, isn’t the role of media to review public decisions which includes positive as well as negative commentary? Is there anything wrong in supporting the government if they are doing something really good? Many media houses today have taken the role of the opposition political party. A media consensus is a good to be broken in that case.
Diminishing influence on public opinions
Not even 10 years back, mainstream media used to hold tremendous influence in public opinion. They used to set the context, tone and agenda for all of us. Then the social media arrived and upset the whole balance. Today the mainstream media in India is least trusted, as per various surveys. The narratives at times are questionable and the motives, doubtful. For every story there are counter stories, so the MSM media does not control the public discourse any longer.
Role of the government in fractured media discourse
When the media debates get so heated and fractured what should the government do? Many believe that the government should never take sides, never support one narrative against another, otherwise they will be blamed for being vindictive and authoritarian. They should stay away from these debates.
However we should not forget that there are intellectuals like Arundhati Roy and several anti-nationals who become the mainstream voice if not effectively countered. Arun Shourie in a recent interview told NDTV that media situation in India was no better than North Korea. The government should engage through its intellectual think tank to counter narratives that have national and international impact. The government can’t stay away from media discourse for the fear of being blamed selective and vindictive.
To conclude, in the noisy media attack and counter-attack we may not know easily who is right or wrong, but one thing is sure – the media’s liberal consensus is dead and that is not necessarily a bad thing.