When Thiru Veerapandian expressed the sound idea that people must think before they voted for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, he would not have imagined he would lose the prime-time programme he had been anchoring on Sun TV for 17 years. But since December 20, he’s been waiting for the channel to call him to conduct Vibhada Medhai, his daily debate forum.
“I said people should think—not vote for Modi just because there was a Modi wave,” says Veerapandian. “I said they should remember that, if they voted for Modi, they might well have to live with that decision for the next 15 years.” He did not make the comment on the programme either. He made it in his private capacity, at a forum that had nothing to do with the channel: it was an in camera discussion on November 25 of a committee report on the Muzaffarnagar riots. But it was posted online and led to demonstrations by the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit. The party’s state secretary Sarvothaman complained to the channel in December that the comments were divisive; its leaders threatened not to participate in any Veerapandian programme. The axe fell.
All of a sudden newspapers and television channels have become wary of offending Modi. He interacts with the media minimally and selectively. But his name is being breathed in talk about top-level editorial changes in some media houses. Reporters are being asked to pipe down; editors are losing their jobs; prime-time programmes are going off air; commentators are replacing vitriol with neutral ink while writing on Modi. Such is the ‘M’ effect on the media, some believe that proprietors and decision-makers are using it as a convenient handle to control editorial expression. They are often able to justify such decisions by citing the fusillade of harsh, even obscene, online and social media feedback that greets anything anti-Modi. What’s more, in an increasingly corporatised media, political alignment is swivelling like a wind-vane rather than a compass needle.
Feeling The ‘M’ Effect
Says Siddharth Varadarajan, who had to quit as editor of The Hindu in October, “Proprietors are by nature risk-averse. Given that Modi is averse to a critical press, it shouldn’t surprise us that most proprietors don’t want to get on his wrong side. How that impacts the editorial side depends on the DNA of the individual media house. Sometimes there may be explicit instructions. There’s also self-censorship, which is more insidious.”
Varadarajan had fallen foul of a new board of directors at the newspaper. He had set rules on the coverage of political personalities in the light of the forthcoming general elections. The new editor-in-chief, N. Ravi, it is learnt, did not approve of how the Modi avalanche was being underplayed.
Asked to comment on the changes at The Hindu, editor-in-chief Ravi said, “We have been editorially opposed to Modi, but this never reflected in our news coverage. We had to restore professionalism, and in my view, the emergence of Modi on the national scene was not being properly covered.”
Sometimes, there are no explanations of the sort Ravi offered. On October 27, the Hindi daily Divya Bhaskar had screeched in a banner headline: ‘Nehru didn’t attend Patel’s funeral’, a statement attributed to Modi. In fact, Nehru did attend the funeral. So Modi’s bloomer (some call it a mischievous lie) and the newspaper’s front-paging of it was subjected to heavy-duty criticism on television channel discussions. Two days later, the newspaper simply retracted the report. No elaboration.
Hartosh Singh Bal, former political editor of the weekly Open magazine, wasn’t directly told why he was losing his job or how his proprietors felt about his work. While his articles have been critical of Modi, they have equally scorched Rahul Gandhi of the Congress. “It was conveyed to me by my editor that my exit was due to political pressure,” says Bal. The magazine had put up a cover online with a photo of Modi on a pile of skulls and Rahul on the shoulders of his parents (to indicate dynastic rule). It went viral, after which the staff was told to take it off. Whispers were that the Modi camp had exerted pressure. The magazine has now had a change of guard.
A rightward swing at Network 18 is being attributed to its takeover by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance group. Former editors of Forbes (India), one of Network 18’s magazines, have commented on instructions to go soft on Modi. Four of them, including Indrajit Gupta, quit last year. All television channels, magazines and the online paper owned by the group are learnt to have been instructed to carry material promoting Modi; voices of protest are learnt to have been stifled or silenced.
Modi-backing—like mouse click-driven Hindutva—finds vociferous expression in the social media. Its fury recently found a target in Raheel Khursheed, Twitter’s head of news, politics and government in India. A few old tweets of his, now nowhere to be found, were dug up to demand his removal. In one, he allegedly said (in a retort to @NDTV) that Modi “oversaw mass murder for fun”. Like Bal, Khursheed has been equally critical of Rahul, calling his political interventions “insipid and uninspiring”. He seems more anti-establishment than anti-Modi—he tweeted in support of a Tahrir Square in Srinagar and said of the UPA’s crackdown on protesters in December 2012, “India banega Kashmir”. But all that is lost on the likes of Sachin Dixit (@India_MSM), who started a campaign and gathered some 5,000 ‘signatures’ to have Khursheed sacked. Khursheed did not respond to texts seeking comment.
If such is the influence on the media at the national level and online, in Gujarat, of which Modi is chief minister, the attempt to control is exerted to a greater degree. The management of a top business magazine was informed that their state correspondent was not welcome to do the cover story on the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit, a bi-annual event meant to showcase what Modi has done for business and industry.
Months ahead of the jamboree, bureaucrats fan out across the world to garner participation and presence. And in Gujarat, hardly a week passes anyway without the government doling out print and television ads countrywide, showcasing Modi’s dramatic plans, such as one for installing a tall statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
Advertisement staff of publications and television channels are homing in on Gujarat to make the most of the splurge. While it cannot be said that this has always eroded the wall between advertising and editorial, its effects are indeed visible. In tandem with Modi’s ascendancy, they form a potent field-force, one that is changing how the media is being run. Sadly, first principles are being abandoned, heads are being buried in the information avalanche instead of being used to critique it.
By Anuradha Raman in Delhi with R.K. Mishra and Pragya Singh
Why only the media, Shiv Visvanathan was sacked for writing an essay critical of Modi (Clogging the Ink, Feb 03).
R. Saroja, Mumbai
Modi-bashing has been a full-time occupation in the media for some time now. But people today have access to multiple news sources and are demanding real journalism backed by facts and evidence. Which is why armchair journalists are getting the boot and causing much heartburn within the fraternity.
Ravi Jain, Hyderabad
This article not only exposes the sycophantic mindset of the country’s editors but also their pretence at objectivity in the face of a scenario of a fascist-demagogue coming to power. It’s an indication of the shape of things to come—bending over backwards to lionise someone who is going to give democratic values the short shrift, including the freedom of the press, ironically the very values they are meant to stand up for. How ironic!
M. Jameel Ahmed, Mysore
And our media crows about being free, bold and fearless when in fact both the print and electronic streams are only the running dogs of one business house or the other. Witness the media’s collective loud silence and total blackout of a recent Aston Martin incident.
Ramesh Ramachandra, Bangalore
Siddharth Varadarajan’s dismissal had nothing to do with Modi or editorial policy. It was simply a case of the family exercising its control.
Rakhal Chandra Ghosh, Tomball, US
This article does not come as any surprise as Outlook has taken it upon itself to stop Modi from becoming the prime minister. It is silent on the shameless attempt by magazines and TV channels to promote a certain party just before the last elections. In 2009, Outlook had a long interview with Priyanka Gandhi. Wonder who it will be this time. Robert Vadra?
Krishna Kumar Saboo, on e-mail
Sonia Gandhi does not hold any constitutional position, yet her mugshot looms over that of Manmohan Singh in all Bharat Nirman ads. Why doesn’t the media subject the Congress to any scrutiny ever?
S.S. Nagaraj, Bangalore
It’s really shameful that in some quarters people are defending media’s browbeating.
Kishore Dasmunshi, Calcutta
It is both funny and ironic at the same time. If Modi had such an influence over the media, why would he be subjected to such criticism, like no other leader has endured in recent times? And how come this anti-Modi clique of journalists, including the author of the piece, still have their jobs?
For years, corporate media editors have enjoyed ‘free speech’, as they were only too happy to promote the Congress’s interests. But owners can’t afford to be ideological, their business interests have to align with the chaps in power.
Vishwanath Rao, Bangalore
The media judges Modi by the worst apprehensions of his critics, Kejriwal by his intentions and Rahul by his looks, none of them by their deeds.
Mohan Renu, Kutch
Apropos Clogging the Ink (Feb 3), Modi’s proximity with corporate India is an open secret. But the way these corporates are bending the rules at their media houses in order to flatter Modi does not augur well for the fourth pillar of democracy. In all this, Modi comes across as an unaccommodating leader, one whose shot at prime ministership is bound to be viewed by many with a lot of scepticism.
It is really pathetic to see people defending the browbeating of media!!
Shame on modi!!
I challenge OUTLOOK to do a piece on the way Air India was hijacked in last 10 years, and destroyed from within to benefit a few private enterprenuers and some ruling political parties.
Bhargava (not sure on name) has written a book on this topic, but is the book on the shelves ? Why cant OUTLOOK reveiw it and publish excerpts?
Remember Polyster Prince ?
Oh Forgot.. the propreitor of this media house is also owning india's biggest plastic processing company (supreme industries??) and the raw material that they need is sourced from one of the many industrial Units of Polyster Prince group??
SO WHEN YOU LIVE IN A GLASS HOUSE, DO YOU THROW STONE AT OTHERS?
Your job may also be on the line, if Rahejas face the heat. Why don't you write an article on why many of your colleagues were fired from Outlook? For years, the coporate media editors enjoyed 'free speech', as they were only too happy to promote the Congress party's policies. But the owners can't afford to be ideological, their business interests are best served by aligning with the chaps in power. before writing such bogus articles, think of whether you or the 'media heroes' fired recently have the moral authority of someone like Premchand. Premchand who? There's your answer.
I dont think this "Modi" wave has anything to do with adversting revenue. In the service of God, we Hindus work for free.
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