Covering Cover-ups

If media coverage determines the importance of an issue, will its non-coverage determine its unimportance?

So at last things have boiled down to coverage. Media coverage.

First, the curious case of Shahid Siddiqui.

After his interview with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi last week, Siddiqui, the editor of Urdu newspaper Nai Duniya, was unceremoniously thrown out of the Samajwadi Party (SP). Perhaps, this was a case study of what happens when a journalist belongs or aligns oneself too closely to a political party. There are certain expectations and when these expectations are not met, you’re deemed guilty of treason.

In his interview to Siddiqui, Modi had said that he “should be hanged” if he is found guilty of orchestrating the 2002 Gujarat riots. Here, a journalist had asked a controversial political figure pertinent questions and come back with answers. That Nai Duniya got the scoop is as praiseworthy as it would have been if People’s Democracy, the official CPI (M) publication, had managed to get Modi to say the same things on record. But somehow, the SP leadership thought otherwise.

Would Siddiqui, a Muslim politician who has driven through the circuitous route of the Congress, then the SP, then the Bahujan Samaj Party, then making a pit-stop with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, and then again the SP, have been considered a traitor if he was just a plain old editor of an Urdu paper with an overwhelming anti-Modi readership? In a media universe that increasingly works along self-imposed loyalty lines, probably yes.

Amira Hass, the Israeli journalist with Ha’aretz who has covered the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories over the years, once said that the journalist’s job is “to monitor the centres of power”. If there’s one thing we were curious to know 12 years after the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat, it was how Narendra Modi views it. And Siddiqui last week brought to the fore the position, repeated though it may be, from that centre of power.

It’s understandable (although unfortunate) that Siddiqui himself has stated that the purpose of his interview of Modi was to “expose him”, and “not to befriend him”. The great British war correspondent, Robert Fisk has questioned the standard journalistic rule of being neutral and unbiased and of giving equal space in a news report to each side. “If we were present at the liberation of a Nazi extermination camp”, Fisk states, “does anyone think for a moment we would give equal time to the Nazis or the spokesman for the SS?”

This is a strong line of argument. And coming as it does in a world where the media is dictated by allegiances of power rather than of justice, Fisk makes a compelling case. But without the advantage of hindsight, would it not be worth a reader’s while to know possible motivations or causes for an extermination camp to be run? I certainly have been interested in noting journalistic records of what an SS officer had to say about murder as State policy. To jump eras and contexts, would it not be worth a reader’s while to know what a protagonist, a chief minister, during the 2002 Gujarat riots has to say about his role in the horrific event today?

Siddiqui, for all his squirming after being purged from his party, is right when he said, “I asked questions to Narendra Modi that no one ever has”. His problem wasn’t that he managed to get Modi to speak about uncomfortable facts. His problem was that he managed to gain access to the person whom the SP would like to perpetuate – as a matter of faith – as a mass murderer of Muslims. And in the SP’s not totally incorrect reckoning, one can’t get access to personages in India’s political universe such as Modi (or, for that matter, any other big-ticket political leader in this country) without being a “friend” or “sympathizer”. Thus, the booting out of Siddiqui from the “Muslim-protecting” SP.

The second, and more fanciful, case of a snap judgment being made over media coverage pertains to Anna Hazare’s campaign for the Lokpal Bill. In the latest episode of the saga which is now a year old, we have the intriguing case of the media expressing that the campaign has lost its steam because the media has lost interest in it. That’s like stating that a film is not good because the cinemas haven’t screened it.

Anti-Hazare folks point to the sparse support the campaign is now drawing. Pro-Hazare folks point to the return of the crowds at Jantar Mantar. When crowd numbers to back their thesis don’t suit them – and here, quantity really does take on a quality of its own – both parties decide to reject these numbers and base their arguments on first principles, politics and plain old biases. That somewhere the passage of the Lokpal Bill in Parliament is supposed to be at the centre of things, gets too easily forgotten. British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher had famously used the media as State policy to counter the IRA when she said, “We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend”. In the context of coverage of the Hazare movement, the media itself (quietly goaded by their friends in government and the establishment) has decided to tighten the knob of oxygen flow to the campaign’s publicity in the name of things getting stale and non-newsy on that front.

So in the end, both in the case of Siddiqui’s Modi interview and the news coverage of Anna Hazare’s campaign, what has become the centre of attention is not what is being recorded, or how it’s being recorded, but whether or not it should be recorded. If it’s disconcerting that a political party has sent out a message about what is journalistic haraam, then how much more disturbing is it to find a media that has started to believe that whatever it decides to play down or mock is unimportant?

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  • Kr0n

    You are raising questions that the mainstream media is too cozy with the establishment to ask…. I appreciate your work. Lets hope you continue your good work!

  • Armaan Nayar

    There is no argument or line of thought left to support the credibility of mainstream media in india.

  • Anupam

    Do you seriously think that persons like siddiqui can be named as “journalist” A bottomless politician who owns a news daily can be called journalist?