Governance in a fish-bowl: How UPA lost the media plot

Navigating the TV media has become a professional hazard for government and its spokespersons — as the Anna coverage shows. Governance in the glare of 24x7 coverage is fraught with risk.

R Jagannathan August 31, 2011 12:29:59 IST
Governance in a fish-bowl: How UPA lost the media plot

Many members of the UPA government appear genuinely confused by the success of Anna Hazare's fast and wonder why the media treated him with kid gloves. One of them was Law Minister Salman Khurshid.

Asked how the government could arrest Anna in an ‘unfair and undemocratic” manner on 16 August, Khurshid was flabbergasted: “You sound as though this is the first time the law of the land is being imposed. The law of the land is for everyone…”

Not for TV, though. To use actor Om Puri's eloquent words, many in the media are anpad and ganwaar about the laws of the land. Every event is about drama and theatre and what will work with the audiences right now. Very often what they report has no context.

When the interviewer (Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN) persisted and asked how the government could have “swooped” down on Anna at seven in the morning when he had done nothing wrong, an injured Khurshid blurted out: “I can’t understand one thing – it has happened to me six times (such arrests) when I was UPCC president. You didn’t ask anybody why that was done to me.”

Governance in a fishbowl How UPA lost the media plot

Governments in the first world have probably worked things through, but in India, politicians have been fumbling in the harsh glare of 24x7 media coverage. Reuters

Khurshid’s conclusion: “I am a small man… I don’t have media partnership…” He then added rather defiantly, “The world doesn’t end with the media box.”

True, but the moral is clear. In the age of the idiot-box, a story is what happens when the cameras are rolling. When Khurshid got arrested six times, TV wasn’t quite around. Or it didn’t look like a story.

This gem of an interview (watch video) tells us several things about how the media —largely TV — has changed the politician’s world. And how the latter are still to comprehend its ramifications.

Governments in the first world have probably worked things through, but in India, politicians have been fumbling in the harsh glare of 24x7 media coverage, unsure of how to manage public perceptions. They are forced to work in a fish-bowl, where anything they say or do can be held against them. They are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

The prime driver of TV coverage is what plays to the gallery (the audience), which means anchors have to extract juice out of human emotions and get a rise out of politicians by asking them aggressive double-edged questions (“Have you stopped beating your wife?”)

The other reality is that news that can be captured by TV cameras is what becomes “real news”. This is why the Gujarat riots of 2002 remain top of mind, but not the 1984 anti-Sikh riots or even the more recent Kandhamal riots. Gujarat was a TV event (from the burnt S6 coach to pictures of burning buildings and scared people running helter-skelter), Kandhamal was not. Hence, no matter what Narendra Modi says, he will always be regarded as the biggest villain by TV.

The other problem for politicians is that TV supposedly does not lie. You see a person saying something, and so TV footage is eminently believeable. But the trick is in the context, and the amount of time you get to explain something as trivial as a quote that went wrong.

Consider this situation: Last month, just before the cabinet reshuffle, Minister of State for Railways Mukul Roy declined to visit an accident site in Assam saying he was not required as there were no casualties. This statement can logically be justified on the ground that the arrival of VIPs tends to shift the administration’s focus away from helping the victims to managing the minister.

Many mediapersons have decried this kind of “disaster tourism” in the past (after 26/11 Vilasrao Deshmukh lost his job for this; after the recent Mumbai blasts the media was equally critical of VIPs descending on victims to commiserate), but that does not stop them from debunking Mukul Roy’s explanations.

What matters to TV is the optics — and the possibility of instant sainthood or villainy. A TV anchor will ask his correspondent a closed-ended question that runs something like this: “Is the minister refusing to visit the accident site?” He won’t ask an open-ended question: “What is the minister saying?” where the answer can be more neutral and nuanced. The correspondent knows that the minister is not visiting the site, but that is not the whole story. So he will say “yes, but…” but the anchor has no time to give the minister’s side full play. So the story will end up saying the minister couldn’t care less about railway accident victims.

Meanwhile, someone stationed at the PMO will send a story saying the PM would like the minister to visit the accident site, to which the minister (or his close aides) will say he has spoken to the PM and he agreed that it may not be necessary. But TV will report that the minister is defying the PM. “Minister snubs PM” will be the breaking news headline.

The story then takes on a life of its own. The other channels latch on to that “angle” and berate their own reporters for “missing” the juice. It’s competitive lunacy, but that is what Indian TV has become most of the time.

This is what Khurshid didn’t understand – and his anger was palpable. Once the media saw Anna Hazare as a frail 74-year-old man valiantly fighting big, bad government corruption, the establishment instantly became a villain. So a quiet arrest of Anna Hazare on 16 August became an “undemocratic swoop".

The use of loaded phrases on Indian TV has become the norm, and politicians are often at the receiving end of it. (This is not to justify the government’s inept handling of the Anna movement, or its flip-flops, but just to show that TV can easily hijack the news and take it to a different ending if the government does not watch out.)

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Similar ineptitude was shown by the Vajpayee government in handling the Indian Airlines hijack to Kandahar in 1999. Those were early days for combative TV, but with relatives of those on the plane parading themselves before TV anchors and shouting slogans against the government for delaying negotiations to release the hostages, the Vajpayee government lost its nerve and surrendered to the terrorists. TV coverage did a part of the damage – it hadn’t learnt that in live situations like those, it could jeopardise rescue operations.

Even by 26/11, TV hadn’t learnt — or refused to learn — how to handle itself when lives were at risk. During the terror attacks, some TV reporters were seen giving locations of security personnel, which were then relayed by handlers in Pakistan to the terrorists inside the Taj.

While TV anchors and reporters clearly need to introspect and create a code of conduct for themselves, in the meanwhile, government ministers and politicians have to adjust to the reality that their actions and words will be scrutinised 24x7.

In fact, the world's most successful leaders now realise that they can control TV reportage by restricting access rather than by giving more of it. Politicians now have only planned media interactions — and seldom impromptu ones.

George Bush's PR team choreographed all his appearances to the last detail: the backdrop, the attire, the precise words and even "on-the-spur" witticisms. When he visited Delhi, his team wanted him to speak from the Red Fort but accepted the Purana Qila as a good enough second choice. The Indian speech must look authentic back home. What is India without a few forts? He didn't get the Red Fort because only Indian prime ministers speak from there on I-Day.

Even in India, politicians who limit access get better media coverage than those more accessible. Sonia and Rahul seldom give press conferences. Nor do Narendra Modi and J Jayalalithaa and Mayawati.

The reasons are obvious: the more you talk to the powerful, the more human they appear, and thus less worthy of uncritical adulation. Mystique works better with the media than familiarity. Even when these leaders meet the media, they control the interaction to an extraordinary degree by imposing conditions —where you can take pictures, what you can quote them on. The net result is often a subtle hagiography.

This is how the west manages the media — whether it is politicians or business leaders.

Being less accessible works well for them. Barring reportage of public meetings, Sonia, Rahul, Modi and Mayawati seldom appear on TV shows. So they get away without mishap. It also explains why Rahul never participated in the recent Lokpal debate: he would have been shown up as a poor speaker and others would have stolen his thunder.

What then explains the fall from grace of a UPA dispensation headed by Sonia, Rahul and Manmohan — none of whom give the media much access to their thoughts?

The answer is clear: the separation of political power from administrative power that Sonia and Manmohan have agreed upon needs strong communication between the two sides. This has not been happening — either because of Sonia's convalescence or some other reason. Members of the government thus don't know what their line ought to be. When they speak in different voices, depending on whether they are closer to Sonia or Manmohan, they lose the plot.

This is the answer to Khurshid's bewilderment. But the Manmohan-Sonia communication is not something they can do anything about. They thus need to have a strategy to deal with the following:

1) Aggressive questioning by anchors and reporters – where any answer can appear wrong when taken out of context. They must thus plan answers well in advance based on anticipated questions.

2) TV can be in several places at the same time. So if one minister is asked one question at one place and another minister another, their varying answers can be presented as a conflict. This means government spokespersons must have clear gameplan on who will talk and who will not. Else they will fall into media traps.

3) When terror attacks or calamities strike, governments must have a standard operating procedure and a clear set of rules on how the media will be handled, how it will be fed with the right information. The media should also be given a clear set of dos and don’ts – transgressions of which means their exclusion from future briefings.

4) Government must have effective spokespersons – people who are presentable and give the appearance of honesty. TV can capture facial expressions very well. Which is why no matter what a Kapil Sibal or Manish Tiwari may say, their smirks give them away.

5) After every PR success or disaster (the Anna handling clearly belongs to the latter category), government needs to analyse how TV handled it, and how it could have been done better. Getting advice from the anchors themselves is not a bad idea.

Governance standards are anyway not too high in India. Governance in a fish-bowl situation is practically a lose-lose situation. Time the government woke up to the new realities.

Also read: Firstpost's ebook People's Movement, a collection of articles that offer a 360 degree view of Anna Hazare's agitation.

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