Readers' Editor

Print media do better than TV: coverage of Hazare fast

S. Viswanathan  

The second fortnight of August 2011 saw one of the largest mobilisations of people in recent years against corruption in India. The struggle led by Anna Hazare dominated the media all through the fortnight.

A new feature was the participation of the social media, which helped mobilise people in different corners of the country in support of the Team Anna. Twitter, Facebook, other social media sites, and blogs played a significant part in bringing people together in peaceful demonstrations, candle protests and so on. Team Anna may have been the first major beneficiary of the technology.

As for the performance of news television channels, public opinion seems divided. Those who supported or sympathised with Team Anna were naturally happy with the round-the-clock saturation coverage, which was overwhelmingly favourable to the movement. However, veteran journalist B.G. Verghese was quoted as saying: “The media has magnified the event beyond its worth. It has not at all been objective in its coverage.” This only speaks to the low political stock of the government and its lack of credibility in the wake of a series of corruption cases and scams.

Print media coverage of this second phase of the Anna-led, fortnight-long agitation against corruption at various levels was clearly more balanced and insightful, reflecting various points of view, at least in the case of major mainstream newspapers with a long tradition. The editorial coverage critically addressed the core issues, including legal and constitutional issues and flawed notions such as the “supremacy of Parliament.” To engage the more discerning readers, a few newspapers published articles explaining the legal, political, and social aspects of corruption.

The Hindu, which gave extensive coverage to the Team Anna's crusade against corruption and its initiatives to get legislation for a strong and effective Lokpal authority expedited, wrote four insightful and hard-hitting editorials between August 17 and 28.

The first leader (“Corrupt, repressive and stupid,” August 17) was bold and strongly worded. It said: “A corrupt government devoid of moral authority is ill equipped to deal reasonably with legitimate public anger.” The scathing editorial commented that through the illegitimate detention of Anna Hazare even before he began his fast and the arrest of peaceful protesters in Delhi, the central government “revealed its ugly, repressive face.” It noted that the government missed several opportunities to arrive at a consensus with Team Anna on setting up an empowered Lokpal and instead attempted to push through a farce of a Lokpal Bill.

The next editorial (“Anna is not India nor India Anna”) was published three days later, when Mr. Hazare won the first round, with the government yielding to his demand that he be allowed to go on an indefinite fast in Delhi to achieve legislation for a strong and effective Lokpal. “The wise course for the government,” the newspaper advised, “is to withdraw the Bill, immediately, without standing on false prestige.” The editorial took issue with the Prime Minister's contention that it was the “sole prerogative” of Parliament to make a law. This was true only in the most literal, superficial, banal sense, the editorial pointed out. It affirmed that in India, unlike the United Kingdom, Parliament was not supreme; it was the Constitution that was supreme. But the editorial criticised a prominent member of Team Anna for getting carried away and proclaiming, in a way that recalled an authoritarian era, that “Anna is India and India is Anna.”

The third editorial, a single leader (“The way out,” August 22), analysed the relative merits of key sections of the two Bills, the Lokpal Bill of the Central Government now before the Standing Committee and Team Anna's Jan Lokpal Bill. The fourth editorial, a single leader analysing the specifics agreed upon and the issues that needed to be settled (“Significant victory,” August, 28), hailed Parliament's unanimous adoption of a resolution agreeing “in principle” with Team Anna's position on a few controversial points as a triumph for the anti-corruption moods in the country.

Besides these editorials, The Hindu carried four substantial editorial page articles during this period, when the fast by Mr. Hazare was entering a crucial stage. The articles, written by an acclaimed writer, two academics, and a political leader, were enlightening, each looking at the dramatic developments from different angles.

The essay “I'd rather not be Anna” ( The Hindu, August 22, 2011) by Arundhati Roy was highly critical of the Anna Hazare phenomenon and what it represented. In the writer's view, corruption in the society could not be seen in isolation from many other factors in the country. The article, which was widely circulated and won national as well as international attention, received a huge number of responses, especially at the newspaper's website.

The second article (“Ambedkar's way and Anna Hazare's methods,” August 23) by Sukhadeo Thorat, economist and educationist, argued that Team Anna should use constitutional methods and enhance people's faith in them. “Otherwise,” Dr. Thorat noted, “it will convey the message that only coercive and unconstitutional methods work.” He recalled how coercive means forced Dr. B.R. Ambedkar to give up his demand for a separate electorate when Mahatma Gandhi was on a “fast-unto-death.”

The third article (“Messianism versus democracy,” August 24) by the economist Prabhat Patnaik contended that the substitution of one man for the people, and the reduction of the people's role merely to being supporters and cheerleaders for one man's actions, was antithetical to democracy. “Messianism substitutes the collective subject, the people by an individual subject, the messiah. The people may participate … in the activities of the people, as they are doing reportedly at Anna Hazare's fast… but they do so as spectators.”

The fourth of the articles (“For a strong and effective Lokpal,” The Hindu, August 25) by Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), observed that the attitude of the UPA Government and its failure to tackle corruption had fuelled public anger. He said that the government was seen as being complicit in corruption and this had been seen as the most corrupt government in the history of independent India. Since Hazare's first hunger strike in April, Mr. Karat noted, anti-corruption movement had gained momentum.

Together with the editorials, these assessments helped readers gain a critical perspective on the Anna Hazare phenomenon, the anti-corruption mood in the country, and the major issues at stake. On the whole, the coverage of the fortnight's drama not just by The Hindu but by several other dailies, including The Times of India, The New Indian Express, The Indian Express, and magazines, notably Outlook and India Today, reminded and reassured observers that for credible information, analysis, and diverse comment, it was the mainstream Indian press that still held the field.

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