‘Without free flow of information, there can be no serious democracy’

Updated - June 04, 2016 01:04 pm IST

Published - July 10, 2013 02:01 am IST - CHENNAI:

POINT-BLANK: Writer, film maker and journalist Tariq Ali delivers a lecture in Chennai on Tuesday. Photo: V. Ganesan

POINT-BLANK: Writer, film maker and journalist Tariq Ali delivers a lecture in Chennai on Tuesday. Photo: V. Ganesan

The Western media has become the central pillar of the prevailing order in a unipolar world, where there is virtually no or limited opposition, Tariq Ali, Left intellectual, filmmaker and Editor of New Left Review , said on Tuesday.

Delivering the inaugural lecture hosted by the Media Development Foundation (MDF) for the Class of 2014 of the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Mr. Ali said that “when political pressures are put on journalism, as is increasingly the case in the Western world, then we have to see it as a dangerous development that threatens and hollows out democracy itself.”

“Without a free flow of information, there can be no serious democracy or democratic functioning in a country,” he said while talking on ‘The state of journalism in the 21 century: Celebrities, Trivia and Whistleblowers’.

Mr. Ali pointed to the media response to the Snowden exposes to show how quickly the media in the U.S., Britain and parts of Europe began to refer to him not as a whistle-blower but a fugitive, “as if he is already a criminal.”

It was a tragedy that India did not even think twice before rejecting Mr. Edward Snowden’s plea for asylum. “India did not even show the courtesy of a polite refusal; just an instant reflex that we must not antagonise the new political masters,” he said.

According to Mr. Ali, the notion of a free press in the Western media in the 20 century evolved as a counterpoint to the monopolistic State-owned model of erstwhile Soviet Union with the aim of showing its superiority by accommodating diversity of voices. In terms of what it published and what it showed, the Western media gained its peak during the Cold War era, he said.

Holding that the political situation or conjuncture of global crises influences the media in particular times, he noted that the infiltration of celebrity trivia into mainstream media was a phenomenon that began at the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent decline that set in was very sharp. The media became relaters of reports of what other people or governments had to say. Investigative journalism disappeared as the media engaged more and more in human stories and celebrity trivia; in fact, the gusts of change did not even spare a serious and respected newspaper like The Guardian .

In fact, Mr. Ali advanced his view that the astonishing hysteria in the mass media that raised the death of Princess Diana into a catastrophe would in later years get transferred isn a strange way when the media reported about a faraway country that was being targeted by the West would reach saturation point, “one could say, a rather expensive way to teach Americans geography.”

Pointing out that television or radio news even from two decades ago may be unrecognisable today, he cautioned young journalists that times may change again. “It is important [for young journalists] not to forget the history of journalism and its development.”

As much as his broadside on capitalism and how it was far from being a conjoined twin of democracy, a few asides too seemed to go down well with the largely youthful audience. For instance, cheers and applause greeted his remark about Montek Singh Ahluwalia when the latter was his junior at an Oxford college. “I haven’t changed since then; neither has he ... still the same deeply conservative person.”

N. Ram, Director, Kasturi & Sons Ltd and former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu , who is an MDF Trustee, MDF chairman Sashi Kumar and ACJ faculty participated.

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