Research paper asks government to engage with media

While emphasising that the media’s role in shaping Indian foreign policy remains ‘short-term, episodic and symbolic,’ a monograph published by a government-supported think-tank, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), has advised the government to open up and engage with the media instead of being secretive.

It has also asked the electronic media to introspect, invest in expertise on issues related to external affairs, and post foreign correspondents who would bring in quality field reports.

The paper, written by former television journalist, Shruti Pandalai, has investigated the nature of the media’s impact on foreign policy issues by studying key diplomatic and security events in the past few years. These include the nuclear deal, India-Pakistan relations after 26/11, ‘attacks’ on Indian students in Australia, India-China border dispute, and humanitarian crises. It has confined itself to coverage by three private English-language channels — CNN-IBN, NDTV and Times Now.

Pressure group

The paper has highlighted the media’s ‘versatile agency.’ Depending on circumstances, and the clarity or lack thereof in government policy, TV media has variously played the role of a ‘pressure group’ prodding directions of negotiations, a ‘feedback mechanism’ for policy decisions, an ‘aggressive participant’ as a creator of public opinion, a ‘critical observer’ questioning the government’s every move, and an ‘accelerant’ pushing decision-making. But it has had ‘little impact on long-term policy formulation,’ with its perceived image of lacking political maturity acting as baggage.

The paper quotes National Security Adviser Shiv Shanker Menon saying that the relationship between the media and policymaking is a “manipulative one which is unfortunate.” Mr. Menon also said that unlike the U.S., the media was not an integrated part of the ‘foreign policy mechanism’ in India yet. He noted that the ‘breaking news model’ of 24-hour news networks lent itself to the game of highest TRPs, “sacrificing accuracy and credibility in the bargain.”

At a discussion, participants reflected on the crisis in the media even as there was a convergence in views that the government needed to improve its “information management.”

A practising journalist said TV channels wanted to be an ‘involved participant’ rather than a detached observer, and therefore the line between “news and views” had blurred, and even the mainstream media did not know how to cope with the new ‘ecology’ brought in by the social media.

There was a view that the electronic media in particular only wanted to confirm ‘preconceived notions’ in its reporting and did not invest in understanding the ‘complexities and nuances’ of an issue. This resulted in a tendency to whip up passions and engage in jingoism. Others suggested that the belligerent posture taken by certain channels, at times, helped strengthen the government’s hand in negotiations with its external interlocutors.

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