The role of the 'official spokesperson' is no longer about disseminating truth and there's little media can do about it

The media is that solitary institution of democracies across the world that has just one, and one single, function and that is to tell the truth as best it can

Praveen Swami July 02, 2020 12:38:14 IST
The role of the 'official spokesperson' is no longer about disseminating truth and there's little media can do about it

Political speech, George Orwell observed, "is largely the defence of the indefensible". "Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness".

Even as the armies of two nuclear States have sought, these past weeks, to stare each other down across the Line of Actual Control, the institutions of these nation-states have been engaged in a virtuoso performance designed to ensure we understand as little as possible about what is going on.

Is the People's Liberation Army in Indian territory, and where? We do not have an authoritative statement. How, if so, did it succeed in evading India's defences? No-one has bothered explaining How did Indian troops stationed along the Galwan river end up being ambushed?

That most critical institution of nation-states, the official spokesperson has engaged a virtuoso performance to silence these lines of inquiry. The weapons used to impede efforts to determine the truth — legal, financial, plain-vanilla patriotic demagoguery — are neither new, nor uniquely Indian: Every war in human history has, among other things, involved an assault on truth.

But in democracies — unlike Orwellian dystopias — there is one institution whose raison d’être is truth-telling. The silence should make us ask serious questions whether it can be said to still, meaningfully, exist.

***

Last week, the official spokesperson's gloves came off.  In a letter to the Press Trust of India, the Prasar Bharati Corporation — custodian of broadcasting in the public interest — charged that the wire service's recent coverage "was detrimental to national interest while undermining India’s territorial integrity".  There is, notably, not a single specific PTI story cited in support of this claim. From this claim, however, the letter proceeds to conclude that "PTI has conducted itself in a manner contrary to the values that the public broadcaster has been mandated to uphold".

The official spokesperson is, of course, guilty of a particularly crude form of that most glaring of logical fallacies, petitio principii, or circular reasoning, for which students since at least the times of Aristotle have been roundly chastised.

For the official spokesperson, though, petitio principii is no vice: It is, instead, a critical discursive stock in trade. Like the inquisitors of Pope Urban VIII, the unhappy task of the official spokesperson is to insist, in the face of all evidence, that the sun revolves around the earth.

Media accounts tell us that Prasar Bharati was angered by PTI's decision to publish an interview with China's Ambassador to India Sun Weidong. In the absence of a denial by the official spokesperson, we must conclude that this claim is in fact correct. PTI, by some accounts, compounded this crime by interviewing India's Ambassador to China, who appeared to refute Prime Minister Narendra Modi's claims that there were no PLA troops on Indian soil.

To state this argument in cold text would set the official spokesperson up to be mocked. After all, if interviewing Beijing's ambassador to New Delhi is an act detrimental to India's national interests, then publishing the statements of his masters, China's foreign ministry, must also be so. Publishing the speeches of the ministry's master, President Xi Jinping, would also qualify as treasonous.

For obvious reasons — most important being that Prasar Bharati has itself done these things — this argument cannot be made. PTI must, however, have committed a crime against the people, or chastisement cannot be threatened. Private-sector firms are accountable only to their proprietors, or shareholders, for what they choose to spend money on. Public-sector entities do not have that luxury.

And, thus, the threat is made: "PTI is substantially supported by the public broadcaster through huge annual fees towards subscriptions," the official spokesperson's letter reads, "Prasar Bharati is reviewing the need for continued relationship with PTI".

***

"The appropriate noises," Orwell wrote of the official spokesperson, "are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself." Orwell proceeds to add, "If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity."

Every word Orwell wrote is also true of the media, whose conduct during the LAC crisis shows a dramatically diminished ability to ask questions, let alone seek answers. Though there has been pushback—notably, through the publication of satellite images which show inconvenient truths about the locations of PLA troops — but little pressure has been mounted on the government in terms of more substantial questions of how this crisis emerged, and where it is headed.

Instead of official briefings, where questions can be asked — and answered — we have a culture of official WhatsApp groups, where information of dubious provenance is routinely disseminated, and published, without so much as a demand that the assertion be at least be attributable to the official spokesperson.

Even in the Kargil war in 1999, where a great tide of mindless patriotism led the media to collude in errors that sent hundreds of soldiers to their death, honourable reportage did surface, questioning official incompetence and venality. Newspaper reporters were even issued notices under the Official Secrets Act — mea culpa, I was one of them — but editors and managements  defended their employees.

Leaders of the media, of course, share more than a small part of the blame. In the 1990s, as newspapers searched for greater readership, they became essentially free: Pages that cost between Rs 13 and Rs 17 to publish were sold, in some cases, for as little as a solitary rupee. The idea was that advertising — around a third of it from government — would compensate for the losses.

For two decades, this worked. Then, the rise of competing digital advertising platforms and shrinking revenues made newspapers ever more dependent on handouts from the government, much of it in the form of events graced by ministers and subsidised by industry.

In the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru's government — the author of the highly repressive legal regime that today chokes free speech and the media — birthed a generation of journalists whose highest ambition it was to suckle at the teats of the State. For decades, editors wafted in and out of government office; newsrooms were content to take dictation from government.

Today, too many journalists are content to claim they are reporting from Ground Zero — another masterful example of Orwellian political cliché — when they visited Leh — a convenient 250 kilometres from the nearest frontline — are heirs to this tradition. They have given up on even seeking information, realising that all that they are called on to provide is spectacle.

***

The cult of the official spokesman diminishes our security: this we should be clear on. There are some countries which realise this. Following Israel's crushing victory in the war of 1973, a commission led by Supreme Court chief justice Shimon Agranat recommended the sacking of the Israeli Defence Forces' chief of staff, Lieutenant-General David Elazar, and intelligence chief Eliahu Zeira, for missteps and errors of judgment that exposed the country to unnecessary losses in the battlefield.

Israel's leadership understood that the costs of these admissions — among them, the collapse of then-prime minister Golda Meir's government — were outweighed by the long-term danger posed by failure to hold the leadership accountable for their errors. Great nation-states are not built on foundations of hot air.

Governments are great things: Their responsibilities span everything from ensuring the health and economic welfare of citizens, and guarding the nation-state’s security. Even the local fire brigade is responsible not just for putting out fires, but rescuing children who have the misfortune of falling into drains,

The media is the only institution of democracies that has just one, and one single, function: To tell the truth as best it can.

Like the slaves who stand behind parading Roman generals in Hollywood films, it is the media's task to caution against hubris, constantly whispering, "Memento mori (remember you are mortal),".

It's improbable this has ever been a welcome message: There is likely a reason, after all, that we have no evidence an actual Roman slave ever whispered these words in his emperor's ears.

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