08 July 2011
The invitation by the Prime Minister to five newspaper editors to share his thoughts or, months ago, TV editors seated around a rectangular arrangement for a televised transmission of ideas, are two recent examples of effort at building a communication link between reticent leaders and a precocious public.
TV, particularly its 24X7 variant, is a recent phenomenon, beginning around the mid 90's. In other words, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and, contrary to the general perception, even Rajiv Gandhi pre dated the barrage of 24X7 channels rained on us the past sixteen years.
The first Prime Minister who completed his full term in the 24X7 age was P.V. Narasimha Rao, articulate in several languages but singularly indifferent to media arc lamps. Narasimha Rao and his Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh's arrival on the scene coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of (it seemed then but no longer) a lasting unipolarity, accompanied by bugles of undiluted capitalism, which needed advertising which needed the amplifying media. The balance of power in news establishments shifted radically from the editor to the marketing manager.
It seems difficult to believe that before the "total" market takeover of the media in the mid 90s, newspapers were more free. True, the then 20 year old Doordarshan however largely remained a government department.
Overwhelmed by the market, print and electronic media began to serve partisan interests on key issues, leaving just that much space in between - a bit like the speaker's corner at Hyde Park.
Having an "independent" media is one thing but having one held on the leash by Business Houses quite another. One does not necessarily need dictatorships to have a controlled media.
The quest for media management in an environment of a media so controlled is a quest for the impossible. Even assuming that the Prime Minister's conversation with the chosen five last fortnight had helped clear the air on issues and that the unfortunate statement on Bangladesh was just that, unfortunate, how will the PMO justify conferring Prime Ministerial favours selectively, five at a time?
As the media is structured today, it calls the shots.
The culture of obsequious eager-beaver spokesmen for the major parties, hopping from channel to channel, gives power to anchors disproportionate to their grasp of the subject.
A private market survey will reveal, the channel hopping spokesman does himself and the party more harm than good. It imparts to anchors, not always informed, the role of arbiters. If a political party does not send its spokesman to defend an issue will it concede an advantage to the opposition which will? Quite the contrary. In fact the channel concerned will carry the episode only on pain of being accused of being biased.
Will this tactic remove the issue from public view? Not at all. Political parties must wrest the initiative and hold weekly briefings themselves rather than turn up in channels, cap in hand. The idea is to avoid the shouting match, the tu-tu-maen-maen format from which our Parliament has begun to take its cue.
The PMO, and relevant ministries must likewise hold regular briefings.
Briefings, by their very nature, are tepid and can be dull unless handled by someone interesting - and there are such talents available. Sometimes their being an asset outweighs the risks involved in having them bat for you. The person I have in mind reminds me of Mir Taqi Mir's line: "Hai aib bada usmein, jsey kuch hunar aawey". In other words he is cursed by his own ability. Talent inspires jealousies. No hierarchy likes to keep in its stable someone who can run away with the show!
Then, an essential requirement of a developing society and country is a public service multi-media, an idea that Rajiv Gandhi, Inder Gujaral, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh have all endorsed. The Prime Minister himself announced it twice during UPA I. Regular meetings were held in which PMO officials participated. Then what happened?
As for the Prime Minister, his interaction with the media must consist in a projection of the future, not 2G and "haan ji".
To quote Jean Genet, "as for living, my servants will take care of it." The PM's response to 2G like queries should be: "As for recent scandals, my minions will take care of them." Find suitable "minions". Don't place the Prime Minister on show, pinned and wriggling against the wall, allegedly blundering on Bangladesh.
(Saeed Naqvi is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)