Spat between Nirmala Sitharaman, scribes over North Block 'gag' undermines credibility of media, govt

Tonight, many of the two hundred odd journalists invited by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to her post-Budget dinner will chose not to take their places at the very convivial Taj Mansingh hotel, and instead curl up in front of their television sets with plates of greasy pakodas.

This is no ordinary sulk, of the kind sparked off by loutish security guards or a party functionary’s verbal affronts: the kind of cold rage that leads hacks to pass up on free drinks should never be misunderestimated.

 Spat between Nirmala Sitharaman, scribes over North Block gag undermines credibility of media, govt

File image of Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. PTI

This week, Sitharaman infuriated the media by barring even government-accredited journalists access to the finance ministry’s North Block offices without prior appointments. The Editors Guild of India decried Sitharaman’s decision, calling it a “gag on media freedoms”.

It is improbable tonight’s boycott will rattle Sitharaman, whose iron fist, famously, smashed a glass-topped table at her first press conference in 2015. But the debate isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about media access to ministry buildings.

It is about information, power and what the free press means in a democracy.

First, the facts: Many key ministries have long disallowed journalists from wandering the corridors of power. Lalit Mansingh, foreign secretary in 1999-2000, ended the pleasant practice of journalists wandering around South Block, possibly concerned about the upside-down reading skills some had acquired, letting them peruse files placed on bureaucrats’ tables. Shivshankar Menon, foreign secretary from 2006–2009, tightened restrictions further.

The defence ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, and other premises connected to national security have always been off-limits for entry without appointment, even to journalists security-cleared by the government’s Press Information Bureau.

In principle, this is unexceptionable; in fact, it’s the norm in most countries. Even so-called hard-passes — the credentials issued to journalists covering the United States’ department of state, or White House — do not give automatic access to officials. The United Kingdom’s press accreditation system doesn’t give access to government offices, either.

Like so many in-principle-unexceptionable things, though, that isn’t how the system works in India. Few Indian government information officers, as any frustrated journalist will testify, have either the access or initiative to provide responses rapidly.

For beat journalists, whose job it is to report events as they unfold, this is a real problem: Especially in the face of a government quick to complain when it thinks it isn’t getting fair press.

Being present in a ministry building means it’s possible to get a quick comment from a minister or senior official, or an unscheduled briefing should time open up. Financial journalists, in particular, report on information that has almost minute-by-minute impact on the equity or bond markets.

For certain kinds of Right-wing activists, who live on social media and have never been subjected to the home ministry’s brewed-in-horsepiss tea, hanging around the very-mouldy corridors of powers is exactly the kind of Lutyens Delhi privilege which needs dismantling.

They’re wrong, but journalists need to ask themselves some unpleasant questions, too.

Like every government before it, this one profoundly fears damaging leaks of information. Like others have done from time to time, it has responded by cracking down on conversations between political leaders, bureaucrats and the press.

Pressures, often unsubtle, have been mounted on editors and managements to publish, or not publish, certain kinds of news. This is, of course, entirely predictable: Politicians do not care to participate in the dismantling of their images.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s relationship with the press, though, runs to a new, global pattern. Earlier this year, US president Donald Trump conducted a mass purge of White House press-pass holders. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban has simply got his friends to buy out independent media groups.

Now able to reach out to their audiences through social media, this new cohort of politicians have come to question the idea that the media ought to be respected as an institution: If it cannot be bought, or coerced, it can be simply bypassed.

Ever since 1763, when the radical John Wilkes began an historic showdown with the British Crown, press freedoms have been fought for as a necessary check on power. Public criticism of government is an essential check against abuses; the free press, as an institution, fundamentally exists to shape and articulate intelligent critique.

Leaders who dislike the media they get, though, should at least be cognisant of its role as a watchdog against hubris. Parading before Rome in triumph, the ancient writer Tertullian tells us, generals were “reminded that he is a man even when he is triumphing, in that most exalted chariot, for at his back he is given the warning: ‘Look behind you. Remember you are a man.’ ”

There’s no doubt though, that the crisis in the media’s relationship with government is also of its own making. For decades, the price of news — the cost of a newspaper, for example, or television and web subscriptions — declined to nothing. It now costs ₹20 -₹25 to produce a newspaper, for example, but a tenth of that to buy one.

Low prices meant a sharp rise in readership — and more advertising — but a terrible price was paid. News organisations became increasingly dependent on government patronage, both through advertising and by ministers’ presence at sponsored events.

Inexorably, less-than-edifying relationships between media and politicians grew. Building on a tradition that dated back to former prime minister Indira Gandhi, former home minister P Chidambaram, for example, routinely texted edicts to television stations and newsrooms.

Few proprietors, cognisant of the costs, saw reason to defy such pressure.

Even worse, news organisations spent ever-less on their job. Pressure on costs have meant reporting staff have been downsized, expenditure on news-gathering slashed, and investments in expertise and knowledge squeezed.

Together, these contributed to the media’s growing lack of credibility among the public. The utter failure of journalists to read this year’s Lok Sabha elections is a case in point, but far from the only example.

For many on India’s political Right, the media has been a tool to sustain the intellectual hegemony of a small, Liberal élite; an enemy of the new Bharat they seek to create. This isn’t, in fact, true: many in the media are Left-wing, many others, Liberals, but the Right, ever since 1947, has also had significant representation in India’s media landscape.

The uglier truth is that that media, battered by unsustainable business practices of its own making, has become ever-more servile since its heydays in the mid-1980s.

In the minds of the Right’s social-media enthusiasts, this isn’t a problem. Information, they claim, has been democratised, rendering the organised media irrelevant. But this claim corresponds poorly to reality. Finding credible information requires time, money and skills: Resources individual citizens do not always have.

For example, when the government says things in Kashmir are improving, it needs journalists put the claim in context: To remind readers that the government also thought Kashmir was “under control” in 2014-2015, “remained normal” in 2015-2016, “continued to show improvement” in 2016-2017, and demonstrated “significant improvement” in 2017-2018.

In a sensible world, Finance Minister Sitharaman and the journalists who cover her ministry would be having a conversation to address their problems. There are, obviously, many solutions: Starting with making information more easily available to both the public and the press. The media, in turn, needs to be talking about institutional measures and investments it needs to make to ensure accuracy and fairness in reporting.

That conversation, though, won’t be happening. Both the media and the government will walk away from this time in our history with their credibility eroded: Profoundly damaging our polity.​

Updated Date: Jul 13, 2019 09:51:15 IST