Once there was a media policy, now there is fire-fighting
This is an old, old tale. So old that I had forgotten about it, till an incident a few weeks ago reminded me of it. First, the incident.
In preparation for this Navy Day special issue, I requested the Indian Navy’s public relations officer for an interview with the chief of naval staff (CNS), as has been the tradition for many years. He said traditions changed long ago. The navy has divided the media into two groups: general media and trade media, in which category he placed FORCE. The general media has to be humoured because of its reach and potential for damage. The trade media has to be treated with a disdainful distance, because of its commercial interests. Seriously, general media do not have commercial interests? These are mere technicalities, said the PRO. The CNS cannot waste his time with the trade media. But, he relented, on the day of his traditional Navy Day press conference, you could ask some questions.
Now the story. Once upon a time, I was invited by the navy PRO to meet up with a hitherto unknown creature; something that went by the fancy sounded term assistant chief of naval staff, foreign cooperation and intelligence. Why should I meet him? Does he want to give an interview?
No, explained the PRO. He wants to chat about the Indian Navy. But chat for what purpose, was the natural question. An exasperated PRO threw up his hands. Come, if you want to, he said. Is this off-the-record briefing, I persisted. For the record, off-the-record briefings really put me off. They are so sanitised that even if they were not off-the-record, they have hardly anything worth writing about.
No, the PRO insisted. It is just a chat. Out of sheer curiosity, I relented. Having seen press conferences, background briefings, off-the-record interviews and written answer interviews, I might as well see a ‘chat’ before I die.
So, I arrived at the appointed hour and was ushered into the office of the creature called ACNS FCI. The creature was actually a human being, a pleasant man, to be precise. And was he prepared for the ‘chat’. Holding a fine-tipped cane in his hand, he rose from his chair and walked over to the wall on my side, on which hung a gigantic world map, on which he proceeded to explain to me the exact position of India, not geographically, but geopolitically. How the sea lanes of communication crisscrossed on the map, how India’s areas of responsibility differed from India’s areas of interest; where the twain met and where they did not. What conflict this generated and what were the challenges that the navy faced on the high seas and how port-calling helps. The lecture was as mind-boggling as it was baffling.
Then, the man in white tossed an unfair question at me, “What is India’s total maritime border?” I blinked. He smiled. “Don’t worry, nobody knows that,” he said sympathetically. Could he be serious? He was. And he proceeded to explain. While the Indian coastline has been calculated as 7,516km, the maritime border of the country is deemed to be 12nm ahead of the baseline at the coast. This maritime border has to factor in all the promontories as some coastlines are not linear. Given this, the baselines often are a little away from the actual coast. In India, because of the focus on the land, maritime issues usually get a short shrift. This was before 26/11 jolted us from our reverie.
After the hour-long lecture, he asked, “Now when you write about the navy, do you think you will be able to ‘see’ the big picture?” I tried to look offended. Does he think I don’t know the big picture? He laughed wickedly. “The government of India does not know the big picture,” he said. I laughed too.
Finally, from the big picture we came down to the small details. The Indian Navy is growing at a rapid pace, he said. Since its roles and responsibilities are increasing, it wants to co-opt the media as a force multiplier, because that is what the media is. The issue, however, is who does the navy wants to address through the media? Is it the youth in the university? Is it the researcher in a think-tank? Is it the bureaucrat? Is it the foreign powers? Or is it its own officers and sailors? In the answer to these questions lay navy’s media policy.
The ACNS FCI said that the media policy did not imply sending out press releases. That’s the defence PRO’s job. The media policy entails identification and cultivation of certain magazines or journals to disseminate navy’s vision and future plans. After following certain publications for a few months, the navy felt that FORCE was the magazine they could trust. The reasons for going with FORCE as opposed to the general media were quite simple. The general media does not have time or space to devote to a service’s perspective. The only space the service gets is ‘scandalous’ space. While the magazine, not only has the space, it also addresses the service-specific readership. The bottom line was honest and brief: we understand your editorial compulsions and you understand our operational limitations.
Never before had I come across any service personnel with such clarity about the media. Honestly, never after have I come across any service personnel with such clarity about the media. Clearly, if you engage with the media sincerely, you will generate enough interest in the public mind that you don’t have to advertise the service in the newspapers asking the youth to join. In contrast to those days, we seem to have entered the dark ages, when once again most military officers regard media as an opposition, if not downright an enemy.