Now they represent the powerful, not the powerless
For years since I first started to report and write on the defence services, one complaint that I repeatedly heard from the uniformed forces was that the media was biased against the forces (make that the Indian Army); it indulged in sensationalism and unverified news reporting. Such was the unquestioning faith of the army officers in this belief that they elevated media to the level of a subject matter for study, maybe not in the same league as China, but important nevertheless.
Army officers on study leave started to do courses on media management/ media studies. Several journalists became experts in imparting knowledge on this amorphous subject to the military officers. Seminars on media became calendar events at various levels down the command hierarchy (disclaimer: Even I have participated in a few of these) and media cells were established at the lowest unit possible.
Fancy terms were coined like information warfare or psy-ops (psychological operations). Peeled down to their bare bones, all they amounted to was controlling the daily press coverage, especially in places like Kashmir, where the army was engaged in day to day operations. Of course, there was some amount of counter-propaganda too, but the primary focus was to get favourable media coverage.
Those days, even I succumbed to the notion that the military needed to understand how the media functions and often took pains to explain to whoever asked me the concept of direct and immediate reporting, deadlines, feature writing, opinion articles etc. What escaped me completely was that even if the military had no or little control over the messenger, it had complete control over the message, so misreporting could only be a one-odd mistake (disproportionate to the effort put in to counter this) and not a frequent occurrence. There could be articles critical of the army but they couldn’t be called factually incorrect. So, what were the sensational and unverified reports that the army spoke off?
Though senior army officers in charge of media openly spoke in terms of pro and anti-army articles (even pro and anti-army journalists), candidly expressing their expectations from the media, I failed to fathom that the army was not satisfied with its control over the message. It wanted complete capitulation of the messenger too. To further clarify their position, they also frequently alluded to embedded journalists from the United States media which accompanied their armed forces in campaigns as diverse as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Never mind that these ‘embedded’ journalists also wrote hard-hitting articles on human rights violations or inhumanity of the war being waged by their armed forces; and never mind that such articles created a public opinion bulwark against these military campaigns forcing greater transparency and reflection. Remember the Napalm Girl? Or Abu Ghraib?
Anyway, the army’s perseverance has paid off. It has succeeded in wielding substantive, if not total control, over the messenger. From being the voice of the voiceless, the Indian media, led by the television journalists, have become the mouthpiece of the army. In fact, such is their faithfulness towards the uniform that they are happy to peddle press hand-outs as reportage, accepting every word without questioning and by shouting down those who dare to whisper a doubt.
Two factors have contributed to this capitulation. One, the deafening noise over nationalism by the current political dispensation which has ensured that our public discourse remains within the limits set by its definition of nationalism; and two, turning of the humble soldier into the repository of all human virtues possible — valour, honour, patriotism, selflessness, honesty, nationalism and whatever else you can pile on him. Hence, for the media, the uniform class is now beyond criticism and beyond reproach. Even a whiff of criticism from old-fashioned journalists is swiftly met with indignation and horror.
While it seems that both the media and the military are pleased with this co-dependent relationship, the truth is that this is eroding the value system of both, rendering them hollow from within. An independent media is one of the biggest sources of strength and hope for the common citizens. Media is supposed to represent them, voice their concerns, articulate their fears and stand by them against the powerful, who often tend to become oppressors. This is not to say that the military is an oppressor, far from it, but military is powerful and can sometimes make mistakes against the citizens. Media should call out those mistakes, and not condone them. When you condone mistakes or hail the person who commits those mistakes, you demoralise those who have been working doubly hard to ensure that mistakes are not made.
Worldwide media is rarely independent. Since content is subsidised for the readers (as they loathe to pay for it), it has to depend entirely on advertisements to stay afloat. Yet, despite periodic compromises to humour those who support it, media does manage to exercise some degree of autonomy and doesn’t compromise on its core intellectual values.
Unfortunately, in India, the biggest democracy in the world, the mass media seems to have sacrificed its intellectual independence at the twin altars of power and misplaced sense of nationalism. It no longer stands by the people, but by the powerful. How long before other institutions of democracy are subverted too.