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Updated: October 24, 2011 15:49 IST

Media Matters - Who will blink first?

Sevanti Ninan
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A way with the Press... Photo: Sandeep Saxena
A way with the Press... Photo: Sandeep Saxena

A fascinating face-off is brewing between the media and the government but only one side has more to lose in the long run…

Between the media and the government, sparring increasingly with each other, who has the capacity to be the bigger headache for the other?  On the face of it, it seems like a no contest. The side which has the easier job to do also has the upper hand, bolstered by instant heckle power on television. For an entire year, starting with the Commonwealth Games period, the media managed to put the government of the day on the back foot as successive corruption cases came to light. 

But over the last three months, we are seeing a fascinating ding-dong battle between the two estates.  If in August the United Progressive Alliance Government was being battered by the Anna storm blowing through the media, in September it seemed to be trying to turn the tables on its tormentor. So a Group of Ministers on paid news, which had not found it necessary to meet since January, was suddenly convened. The paid news problem had never gone away, but what price the sudden commitment to it from a government which for more than a year had done nothing about the Press Council burying a report it commissioned?  Seeing that the Council is a regulatory body it finances?

Wrong timing

Secondly, a government that has never used the powers given to it by the Cable Act then decided, in October, to produce some shortcut regulation based on ongoing consultations with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. When you do the right thing at an inopportune time, it sets off alarmed barking in the self-appointed watchdogs. One part of the guidelines, which said that a news channel guilty of five violations would not get a renewal of licence, set off vocal protests from the broadcasters. Then  Information  and Broadcasting  Minister Ambika Soni did what she has become very good at: she called the offenders to a meeting, and  made soothing noises, telling them that she was on their side but that  she was under pressure. 

The right thing in this case was those parts of the Uplinking/Downlinking guidelines that the broadcasters said nothing about in their vocal protests. It was a couple of stipulations which try and eliminate those players in the news business who are there for the wrong reasons. The guidelines do this by raising the monetary stakes for starting a news channel.

No sooner had this hoo-haa died down than the Government announced a new chairman for the Press Council, a former Supreme Court judge who had pronounced strictures against the media in the Arushi murder case. Mr Markandey Katju, whom Fali Nariman  has called a ‘liberal lion of the bench’,  has since been making some not-so-liberal pronouncements about what he intends to do about  the media. If he examines the powers the Press Council has, he will find he cannot do much of what he talks about. But the rhetoric adds to the sense of confrontation between the two estates.

The State in which there has been the most fascinating see-sawing on this front in recent weeks is Kashmir. Here you have the Chief Minister fighting back in an inquisition by the national media, the media in the State facing bald intimidation by the Central Government,  and the Kashmir media self-censoring in a serious matter involving the head of the State police.

The Chief Minister of Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, faced a media onslaught over the last couple of months on two counts. One was an intrusion into his personal life  that he had to issue a statement to put a halt to; the second resulted from the death of a party worker after a meeting with the CM, amid  allegations of  the worker having taken a bribe to ensure a ministerial post for someone from the party. It became a prime time scoop by Times Now, playing out over other channels in due course. And was then followed by an inquisition in Times Now's court which did not quite follow the script we have become used to. The Chief Minister did some memorable excoriating of his chief tormentor Arnab Goswami, reminding him that he was not the judicial commission of enquiry.

(Giving chummy access to prime time anchors, as Abdullah has done over the years, only makes you more vulnerable. Neither Arnab Goswami nor Barkha Dutt nor Rajdeep Sardesai are on first name terms on television with either Chief Minister Jayalalithaa or Chief Minister Mayawati. The latter gives them no time of day, the former only when she chooses to, producing a fascinating recent instance of how tame Mr. Goswami can become.)

Separately, within the State, you had in the month of September a story surfacing about J&K's current police chief being implicated in an encounter case that has reached the High Court. It received only the most cursory coverage in the Kashmir media, suggesting that they could be bowing to state power.  

Pressure tactics

When the Central Government intimidates the press in Kashmir with withdrawal of advertising, it demonstrates the use of that classic tool of pressure and persuasion for both the public and private sector.  The Home Ministry sent in August a circular to 30-odd Union Ministries and agencies, including public sector units, asking them to snap all advertisement and financial support to the five newspapers in the State — Kashmir Times, Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and Urdu newspapers Buland Kashmir and Ethlaat.  Again, the response of the media as an estate has been  as selective as it was to the Uplinking/Downlinking guidelines. While the Delhi paper Mail Today went to town with the story, nobody else in the media, including professional bodies, has thought fit to take up the issue.

The reason for this pressure?  A Home Ministry spokesperson is quoted as saying that the Ministry has decided that newspapers with an anti-national agenda will not be given any government support. Earlier, in September, the Mumbai newspaper DNA had claimed that government advertising to it had been stopped and then restored after an intervention with the I and B Minister.

What all of this boils down to is this. The media are both powerful and vulnerable. So is the government. It has real brute power, but it is up against public opinion, which keeps an elected government in check. So while neither estate remains a winner or loser for long, the government has more to lose in the long run if there is a face off.

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