Big Media as a public watchdog: No bark, no bite

Very few accept this as their fundamental role, choosing instead to act as cheerleader for the government of the day.

ByKalpana Sharma
Big Media as a public watchdog: No bark, no bite
Shambhavi Thakur
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The media in India has much to celebrate this week with the Supreme Court ruling on October 27 in the Pegasus case. Of particular interest to us in the media is what the court has underlined about the importance of the freedom of the press. To quote:

"It is undeniable that surveillance and the knowledge that one is under threat of being spied upon can affect the way an individual decides to exercise his or her rights. Such a scenario might result in self-censorship. This is of particular concern when it relates to the freedom of the press...Such a chilling effect on the freedom of speech is an assault on the vital public-watchdog role of the press, which may undermine the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information.”

The key phrase in the quote above is “public-watchdog role of the press”. The question we must ask is how much of the mainstream Indian media truly accepts this as its fundamental role, and how much of it has decided that its primary role is to be a cheerleader for the government or party in power.

Look at the editions of newspapers across languages of October 22. Across the board, in newspapers in many different languages, the lead on the edit page had identical pieces, all written by the same person: India's prime minister.

Narendra Modi was accorded pride of place for an article that spoke of the tremendous achievement of “team India” in crossing the one billion mark of Covid-19 vaccinations. The front pages of all these papers also carried reports on this singular achievement with some embellishing it with their own reportage about the difficulties frontline workers faced in reaching people who needed to be vaccinated. These reports also quoted the prime minister expressing sentiments that were similar to those that appeared in the article purportedly written by him.

What's wrong with that, you might ask? Surely one billion jabs is a great achievement? And if the prime minister of a country sends an article to a newspaper, how can any self-respecting editor refuse?

Except that most newspapers insist that what you send to them for their edit pages has to be exclusive to them. If you are sending out a statement to all media, it is a press release. Normally, that would be used as a part of a report, with relevant quotes from it. But rarely, if ever, have all leading newspapers carried the identical article as their lead on their edit page.

Articles on the edit page are also vetted for accuracy, and mistakes are edited out with the consent of the writer. No such thing was done with this piece. Hence, the prime minister claimed that India was the first country to achieve this milestone. However, that is not true. China hit this target a while back without making a song and dance about it and currently stands at 2.2 billion doses.

The prime minister also claimed that this target had been achieved through "Made in India" vaccines, calling this a paradigm shift. This too is not accurate. Previous vaccination campaigns, such as that of the polio vaccine, were also "Made in India". In the case of the Covid-19 vaccine, the most widely used one was manufactured in India by the Serum Institute of India, but is based on the research done in Oxford University and patented by Astra-Zeneca. The fully Indian-made vaccine, Covaxin by Bharat Biotech, has yet to be cleared by the World Health Organisation.

Perhaps all this is nit-picking, details that should not take away from the glory. Yet, should the mainstream media have added to the hype on that day without questioning why it was necessary given that in terms of the percentage of our population that is fully vaccinated it is only around 30 percent? Was it not obvious that the celebrations were planned to make people forget the ugly reality of the gross mismanagement of the second wave of the pandemic, illustrated by those haunting images of the half buried bodies on the banks of the Ganga?

As Churumuri, the pseudonym used by senior journalist Krishna Prasad, wrote sarcastically on Twitter: "One nation, one edit piece: 453,076 Indians have died due to COVID in the last 19 months; thousands more have been deemed too inconvenient to be counted. The opinion pages of today’s newspapers pay a united tribute to them through a prolific leader-writer."

I asked someone senior in one of the newspapers that I had expected might have held back from following the herd why they did not resist. The answer was two words: "government advertising".

This year, there has been a noticeable increase in government advertising in print media. On any day of the week, newspaper readers are deprived of a traditional front page. Page one is now page three, or even five. The majority of government ads are either of the central government, always with the prime minister's face on them, or from the Uttar Pradesh government bearing large photographs of both the prime minister and UP chief minister Adityanath.

Clearly, this spurt of government advertising is not motivated by lack of coverage of government achievements. Far from it. Most mainstream media uncritically cover statements and occasions marking the "achievements" of most governments. Some years ago, Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi government in New Delhi felt compelled to release ads about the work they had done to upgrade government schools and medical facilities because the media gave them very little coverage.

That is not the case now.

With the downturn in the economy, no newspaper can afford to lose any advertising, leave alone this abundance of government advertising. It follows, then, that even newspapers that have asserted their independence from the government narrative by writing critically, and exposing shortcomings in government policy implementation, would not be in a position to turn down a mass-produced edit page article that lands in the editor's mailbox from the prime minister's office. The possibility of advertising being cut off is not a theoretical construct; it has happened repeatedly as a way for the government to express its disapproval.

A few newspapers did attempt some kind of balancing act by writing mildly critical editorials. The Indian Express also devoted a full page with stories about "the foot soldiers" who ensured that vaccinations reached the areas that are hard to reach. The Hindu ran an edit page article a few days later by Congress president Sonia Gandhi countering some of what Modi had stated in his piece.

However, what was missed out in all the celebratory fluff, even that commending these frontline workers and describing their efforts, was that these stories actually illustrated a more basic situation, one that is ongoing irrespective of the pandemic and that has not been addressed. Millions of Indians still live out of reach of healthcare facilities. If teams can go to such lengths to administer the Covid-19 vaccine, why can't the government ensure that these communities have basic healthcare within their reach at all times?

Within days of the prime minister's multiple op-ed pieces being published, this report appeared in a Mumbai paper, Mid-day, describing the reality facing communities living just 60 km away from India's financial capital. The report describes how a 36-year-old woman from Kayri village in Jawahar taluka of Palghar district in Maharashtra died in the process of being shunted from the primary health centre, to the sub-district hospital and finally to Nashik civil hospital, 150 km away. She was nine months pregnant and she literally bled to death. Vivek Pandit, the chairperson of the tribal development review committee of Maharashtra government, is quoted saying, “At least 5-6 pregnant tribal women have died due to complications related to pregnancy in the past one month."

There is little that is new in this story. It recounts a reality that is known to anyone who cares to follow the real trajectory of India's health care. The dazzle of five-star private hospitals in our cities cannot hide this continuing and ugly reality of poor people who are deprived of their right to basic health care. In the India of 2021, women should not die from a pregnancy-related complication.

Yet so many do. And their stories are rarely told.

These are the stories we in the media should be reporting rather than just echoing a government's celebratory rhetoric. Only then can we call ourselves "a public-watchdog".

Also Read :
India’s celebration of 1 billion doses: Dubious claims, mixed messaging, definitely premature
‘State cannot get free pass by raising national security concerns’: SC forms committee to probe Pegasus
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