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Have journalists lost their political access and clout?

I have a memoir out and because most of it focuses on my journalistic career, I keep being asked if journalism was really so different in the old days.

Mostly, people just want to know if journalists really had that much access to politicians once upon a time and whether politicians really took journalists that seriously.


When I say that yes, it was really like that, they nearly always ask a follow up question: when did it all change? When did journalists lose so much of their access and clout?


   I have been thinking a lot about the answers to those questions. One thing seems clear: when we talk about journalists losing their clout or their access to the top politicians of the day, we are over-stating the case.


   This view is largely Delhi-centric. In all state capitals, chief ministers care very deeply about the things that journalists write. Most widely-read journalists continue to wield the same level of influence in the states that they always have. It is true that in such states as UP, there have been allegations of official intimidation and the filing of cases against journalists who have been critical of the government.


   But this, by itself, is not new. There have always been state governments that try and intimidate or prosecute journalists. And secondly, if a Chief Minister cares enough about what a journalist writes to use the state machinery to intimidate him or her, then it kind of proves that journalists can influence public opinion. Otherwise, why would the government try and shut him or her up?


   Secondly, I suspect that the view that journalists no longer have influence is really based on the behaviour of a few top politicians. It is clear that Mr. Modi does not have much time for the media. He had them thrown off the Prime Minister’s plane, does not hold press conferences and gives very few interviews. He does meet journalists and proprietors on an off-the-record basis but he clearly gives nothing away at those meetings. No journalist or proprietor can claim to know the Prime Minister’s mind, a situation that is unusual and largely without precedent.


   This may explain why the media are nearly always wrong about what Mr Modi plans to do next. Nobody in the press or TV had a hint that demonetisation was coming and much of the last reshuffle took the media by surprise. Nobody expected Ravi Shankar Prasad to be sacked. It was believed that Prakash Javadekar might be moved sideways but the total exit was a surprise. Nor did political commentators predict that various previously obscure figures would get major portfolios.


"On days when major news stories were breaking, TV news would be obsessed with vilifying Rhea Chakraborty rather than covering the big stories of the day."

   What this suggests is that a) Mr. Modi does not reveal anything of his own mind to the media and b) he doesn’t even reveal it to the people who work closely with him. Usually, leaks don’t come from the Prime Minister himself. They came from the people around him. In this case, many of the people who work with Mr. Modi are as surprised as the rest of us by his actions.


   Though this is not commented on as often, there is also a lack of transparency within the Congress. Was Rahul Gandhi serious when he stepped down as Congress president and said that no member of his family would take his place? If so, why are his sister and he still calling the shots? Why, two years later, does the Congress still not have a full-fledged President? Was the decision to suddenly elevate Navjot Singh Sidhu as PCC chief in Punjab purely Priyanka Gandhi’s idea as the optics suggest? Or was the entire senior leadership in agreement with that plan? Nobody in the Congress outside of the principals is sure and the Gandhis feel no need to explain the rationale for their actions to the media. (Or to their party men either.)


   More to the point, even those who do speak to the press claiming to speak for the Congress leadership are clueless. At no time, since I became a journalist, has the baffling behaviour of the Congress leadership been so hard to justify, let alone explain.


   It is this unwillingness to come clean, to explain themselves by the people at the top of both of India’s great political parties that conveys the impression that politicians don’t like the press and feel no need to use it to explain themselves to the public. It is not true of all politicians. But people focus on what happens at the top.


   There are other differences. Till about a decade ago, both press and television were on the same page. They ran the same sorts of stories, they asked the same questions. But half-way through UPA II, TV became nakedly partisan. There was not even a pretence of neutrality or objectivity in news coverage.


   This was followed by a growing tabloidization of TV content. On days when major news stories were breaking, TV news would be obsessed with vilifying Rhea Chakraborty rather than covering the big stories of the day. As the shift away from news to sensationalisation of all coverage and an overdose of shouty opinion has continued, fewer and fewer decent people have agreed to appear on the debates. Political parties which once used to send the likes of Arun Jaitley and Kapil Sibal to studios to argue their cases, now send talkative figures of zero political consequence. The parties recognise that TV news is just entertainment anyway.


   In that sense, the media have connived at their own irrelevance in setting the political agenda. When politicians can’t take you seriously any longer, their only interest lies in seeing how much they can manipulate you.


   Despite all this, to argue that the media no longer have access is to exaggerate the case. Most ministers are happy to chat off-the-record with journalists and to provide useful background. So are most opposition leaders. The problem is with on-the-record interviews where ministers often have to seek permission from their bosses and where permission is frequently denied if the interviewer is not willing to conduct the interview in the kneeling position.


   So yes, things have changed. But some of this is only at the very top. And some of it is the media's own fault.



Posted On: 13 Aug 2021 11:24 AM
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