When the Babri Masjid fell and anti-Muslim violence ensued in Uttar Pradesh in December 1992, the local Hindi press became a propaganda tool. In a few cases, it was even caught inciting violence. Many years later, after a similar role was played by Gujarati papers in 2002, I went around Lucknow, asking Hindi editors what was wrong. The answer that stays with me was that there was a storm and that everyone, including the media, was swept by it. Those who chose resistance saw falling circulation.
When societies and nations go through political transformation, it is only to be expected that the political winds will also affect the media. For instance, the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in India has mesmerised so many journalists, in Delhi and elsewhere, that they have joined the party or become so sympathetic to it that they seem like propagandists. Yours truly is facing similar allegations from friends, including journalist friends who are blind to their own sympathies for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Congress.
Years ago, when I went across Uttar Pradesh to ask the Dalits why they vote for their leader Mayawati — a question the Indian media’s target audience did not want asked — I was branded a journalist sympathetic to Mayawati’s party, the Bahujan Samaj Party. Some jokingly asked when I was getting a seat in parliament. All I was doing was my job, asking a community why they voted for one leader and not another.
Journalists and commentators who are inclined towards the BJP’s worldview often complain that pro-Congress journalists are seen as neutral, independent and objective, whereas journalists with right-wing leanings are branded BJP spokespersons. The Radia tapes showed us that respected big names of Indian journalism could even act as go-betweens for the Congress party and yet, no one will ask them when they were getting seats in parliament (having already received civilian honours from Congress governments). The Hindu right practises a mirror image of hypocrisy: hailing journalists and commentators who say what they want to hear, labelling the critics of the BJP “biased”, “bought over” or ideologically sympathetic to the other side.
There is no such thing as journalistic objectivity. All eyes and pens are subjective. You can expect fairness and honesty, but two different human beings can judge the same situation differently. Journalists are also human beings, they are also citizens, they are shaped by nationality, time, place. They also have a stake in the politics of their country. It is but natural that they have political inclinations, especially because they don’t have a compulsion that media owners have: business interests, which often need to bow down before the party in power.
Yet, there is a red line, a lakshman rekha. With so many journalists joining political parties, especially the AAP, it becomes difficult to be appreciative of the AAP because a lot of people might think you’re trying to impress it to get a ticket. Yet, this is an old problem: the Congress and the BJP have long given Rajya Sabha (indirectly elected upper house of the parliament) seats to their loyal editors. I feel that journalists (and bureaucrats) should declare that they would never join a political party or accept a Rajya Sabha seat (thankfully, yours truly is too small a fry to be offered even a lollipop). It would be easier to take political sides on critical issues if the reader or viewer didn’t wonder if you are doing so to be in power.
It is one thing to have political inclinations and another to cross the line and become a politician. And then there is a power hungry man without a conscience. Two famous editors in the news recently, are examples of the third category. The late Khushwant Singh made his Illustrated Weekly of India a propaganda tool for Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay, who thought he was the constitution when his mother had imposed the Emergency in 1975. Khushwant Singh was a darbari and remained one until he became a darbar of a kind himself. He would not have had to return his civilian honour (the Padma Shri) in 1984 to protest the Indian Army’s siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar (Operation Bluestar) if he had not accepted the honour in the first place in 1974.
The writer is a journalist with Scroll.in in Delhi. He is a Multani from Lucknow, who finds himself trapped in the Republic of South Delhi. The write up was originally published in The Express Tribune.