The controversy surrounding Rahul Gandhi’s recent remarks against a reporter has not just pointed to a sense of distrust within the Congress against the media, but also a beat reporter bearing the brunt of the editorial slant of a section of the press.
The media fraternity, meanwhile, has been left divided after the Mumbai Press Club termed the disqualified Wayanad MP’s remarks as “unfortunate”, with the allegation that the press association was a BJP stooge—the latest testament to a hyper-polarised political climate.
It all began with the Congress leader’s first press conference following his disqualification last week, after a Gujarat court sentenced him to two years in prison for defamation over his remarks asking why all “thieves” have Modi as surname.
Hours after the conviction, the BJP pitched his remarks as a sign of an “anti-OBC” sentiment. And the Congress began facing repeated press queries pointing to the political weight of the BJP’s charge.
Media queries on BJP’s anti-OBC charge
At the press conference hosted by Congress leaders Abhishek Singhvi and Jairam Ramesh on the day Gandhi was disqualified, Singhvi had seemed a bit surprised at a media query asking how the Congress will tackle this anti-OBC charge in public perception. Singhvi said this charge was unheard of in court and the party was doing its best to clarify its position to the public – pointing to the number of press conferences held.
When Ravi Sisodia, a beat reporter at News18 India, asked the same question at Gandhi’s press conference, the Congress leader snapped at him, claiming that it was the third time that the same question was being asked at the gathering.
“Why are you working for the BJP so directly? Do it with little discretion and beat around the bush while asking it,” Gandhi said. “If you want to work for the BJP, then bring a BJP symbol and put it on your chest. Then I’ll answer you the same way I answer them. Don’t pretend to be a pressman. Hawa nikal gayi,” Gandhi said with a smirk.
This triggered a backlash, with several leaders and journalists criticising Gandhi for targeting the reporter. The Mumbai Press Club called for an apology.
Sisodia, who has been covering the party for years and has interacted with the Congress leader in the past, tweeted that “his mic was his badge”. He also put out a tweet thanking the media fraternity for its support. He later received calls from Congress leaders expressing regret over the incident, Newslaundry has learnt.
However, journalists covering the beat said that while Gandhi’s remarks were unprecedented, there has been a growing distrust in the Congress against the media.
Gandhi’s growing frustration with the media
Over the years, the Congress leader has alleged that a large section of the media has not taken him seriously. During the Bharat Jodo Yatra too, he routinely hit out at ‘godi’ media, and credited it for being a major reason to launch the yatra. Gandhi, and Congress, claimed that the media loves bashing the opposition party and, in contrast, treats the Narendra Modi government with kid gloves. The party denied interviews during the yatra to traditional media houses and most alternative media outlets too.
“Congress feels that they aren't being covered at all and this sentiment was visible in the Bharat Jodo Yatra, where Rahul Gandhi gave interviews mostly to digital platforms as they believe the mainstream media isn't giving the party space,” said a journalist covering politics for the last five years. “But Congress usually speaks to reporters as they know that it is the anchors that give the twist, this is the first time Rahul Gandhi is directly targeting a reporter like this.”
The journalist said the question was not offensive. “If we look at the media fraternity, we’ve bajaoed theirs (Congress) for years. And this outlash happened at a time when Rahul is at his lowest – being disqualified as an MP, facing potential ban on standing for elections for eight years. He was upset, but I don’t think the question was offensive. Even if Rahul Gandhi had to object, he could have said it in a better way. On one hand he is speaking about press freedom, on the other hand he does this.”
A reporter covering the party pointed out that politicians generally don’t hold grudges against journalists for being part of a media outfit critical of them. “Politicians are mature and understand how things work…but if Congress has an issue with the media, that isn’t wrong either. Trust in the media is low and, and it’s worth reflecting whether the media asks questions to the governing party.”
Another political journalist said that while this was the first time Gandhi had spoken to a reporter at a press conference like this, the Congress had been routinely making remarks on the media to the same media that covers it. “It is wrong of him to direct his frustration at a reporter. He’s a big leader and can directly call up the industrialists he speaks about. He can’t use a reporter as a tool,” said the journalist. “Congress is trying to take a high ground just because they are doing a press conference.”
The journalist said that it was likely that the Congress was taking up an aggressive approach inspired by the BJP’s hold on the media, but they need to be diplomatic as an aggressive approach could backfire.
Gandhi became part of bulletins aired on News18 India. On his primetime show Aar Paar, anchor Amish Devgan hit out at the Congress leader, asking whether his “bol” was the party’s “self-goal”.
During the press conference, Gandhi, meanwhile, had also directed a jibe at India Today editor Rajdeep Sardesai. When the editor interrupted him while he was speaking, Gandhi said, “Let me finish Rajdeep. Unless you want to answer it for me…you do that sometimes.”
However, a reporter who was present at the press conference, noted that Gandhi’s taunt for Sardesai deployed a tone different from the one used for the reporter.
“He won’t antagonise the big editors. His tone towards the reporter was meant to humiliate him. I was fuming upon hearing it. Rahul Gandhi’s attitude towards the media is very aggressive; despite his talks on press freedom, he isn't open to the press at all. You won’t find senior party leaders like Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh react like this in press conferences, because they know it is their job to keep their cool.”
The reporter said that senior journalists’ response on social media – linking Gandhi’s outburst to “godi media” being shown “its place” – left this reporter disappointed.
“This is very harmful. Modi has set a precedent and it’s our job to fight this precedent. If you say one party is doing it is okay and what the other is doing isn’t, that’s not right,” said the journalist, saying that Ravi Sisodia was not a “godi” journalist and had been on the beat for years. “At least see the profile of the journalist. He doesn’t even know about the media ecosystem in his own party? It’s on the party to identify who is a ‘godi’ reporter and who isn’t.”
Mumbai Press Club
In a statement issued on Saturday, which has now received 1.1 million views, the Mumbai Press Club said that it was unfortunate that the leader of one of the oldest political parties of the country had failed to respect the dignity of the fourth estate.
“The job of a journalist is to ask questions and it is the duty of political leaders who call press conferences and engage with journalists to answer these questions with dignity and decorum,” read the statement. “At a broader level, it is a matter of concern that political parties of all hues have been attempting to browbeat journalists using derogatory language and threats as a response to news reporting they find unpalatable. We once again appeal to all political actors to uphold the freedom of the press to report and provide critical comments. They must remember the fundamental right to freedom of the press to report and provide critical comments.”
The statement received considerable flak online, with journalists and activists calling it “BJP Press Club”, asking whether it had condemned action on journalists such as Siddique Kappan and the “Islamophobia” on television.
Gurbir Singh, chairman of the press club, said, “We have taken a balanced view. Politicians should know how to take questions; humiliating a journalist is not called for. Our statement is limited to that.”