Monday, Nov 28, 2022
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Discussion Over Debate

Mass media may give greater expression to those who are vocal and articulate, but it is the electoral process that reflects the will of the silent majority. No democratically elected government can ignore the interests of the silent majority.

PM's remarks as he gave away the Goenka Journalism awards

I am truly delighted to be here at this very special occasion. We are here to recognize the good work of good journalists, and also to pay tribute to the memory of a great publisher. I was unable to join the Indian Express family at the Ramnath Goenka Centenary celebrations in 2004. I therefore take this opportunity to pay tribute to Ramnathji’s memory. He built this great institution of The Indian Express with passion and dedication.

As my friend George Varghese has written in his biography of Ramnathji, he was a man of many parts. A freedom fighter, a Gandhian worker, a politician, a merchant, a real estate developer and industrialist, a newspaper magnate and, above all, a patriotic Indian. Few publishers have defended the freedom of the press with as much passion and conviction as he did. Therefore, I am personally very pleased that the Express Group has instituted these awards for excellence in journalism in Ramnathji’s memory. It is a fitting tribute to a man who greatly valued professional excellence in journalism.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Sometime back, speaking at the Chandigarh Press Club, I had expressed my concerns about the rapid quantitative growth of our media outpacing qualitative development. The pressures of competition have hobbled professionalism and encouraged some unhealthy trends. I was heartened, however, by the reaction of many media professionals to my observations. I was happy to see many turn their torch inward and introspect. The Editors Guild of India responded in a most professional manner.

I hope the debate within media, about trends in media, has helped strengthen the hands of journalists who are proud of their professionalism. I am sure the Ramnath Goenka Awards will further encourage the growth of a professional approach to journalism. India is fortunate to have a free and vibrant media. We must defend its freedom and foster its vibrancy.

As I have said before, freedom of press is more than just the freedom of publishers and editors. It is the freedom of society to have its voice heard. The exercise of this freedom does require, as your motto proclaims, a "journalism of courage". However, it also requires a journalism of honesty and integrity. A journalism of toil and hard work. I also believe that a "journalism of courage" is not just about giving voice to those who are willing to shout, but it is about giving voice to the voiceless and to those who choose to be silent. I submit to you that a "journalism of courage" also implies taking sides. Objectivity does not imply neutrality. It implies respect for truth and facts, and a willingness to take positions, howsoever contrarian or contentious.

I have heard my friend Arun Shourie, a distinguished editor of The Indian Express, and a compatriot of Ramnathji, decry a trend in journalism where every discussion is turned into a debate. Perhaps that is because debates are entertaining, and discussions are boring. But there is a downside to this trend. A discussion can facilitate a consensus. A debate invariably divides opinion. There are many issues of great public and national interest, where a debate is useful, but where a consensus is necessary. Getting rivals to disagree and turn debate into a gladiatorial sport, maybe entertaining and commercially rewarding. But does it help society move forward? Our democracy may be better off if we can increase the area of agreement, rather than sharpen disagreements. I would like you to reflect on these issues.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our polity has come to terms with coalition Governments. Political parties of varying hues and diverse constituencies are trying to work together in complex coalitions. For a country to move forward, any Government has to ensure consensus on many issues across a wide spectrum of political opinion. The national media has an important role to play in the process of consensus building. If media is content with focusing only on disagreements, who will widen the area of agreement?

In free societies there are bound to be extreme positions taken on many issues. But a great majority of people normally occupy a consensual middle ground. To say that there are opposing views on an issue is not enough. More often than not, the majority view is a middle view. Those who articulate extreme views tend to be vocal. Their voice is heard more often on television, and in newspapers. All of this is, perhaps, more entertaining. Mass media may give greater expression to those who are vocal and articulate, but it is the electoral process that reflects the will of the silent majority. No democratically elected Government can ignore the interests of the silent majority.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We often say that we are a plural society and that our nationhood is a celebration of Unity in Diversity. But we do not always remember that this unity has been made possible by our ability to arrive at a consensual common ground on most policy issues. If every viewpoint insists that it reflects the Truth, then diversity will manifest itself in disarray, in anarchy, in a social and political impasse. How then is unity possible?

Our democracy was not built on the simple principle of the rule of the majority. It was, I believe, built on the idea of Unity in Diversity. That is the most important idea that Gandhiji and Panditji gave us. The idea of building a consensus. It is a great liberal idea. It rejects extremes and extremism. I believe it is an idea that our media must grapple with, come to terms with and promote in its own way.

You have a social responsibility, as an institution and a pillar of our democracy, to facilitate a consensus. You have a responsibility to uphold and articulate liberal values and empower liberalism. You can of course purvey the views of those who take extreme positions. But you owe it to your audience, and our nation, to place those views in their context, in a perspective.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is the great strength of a democracy, and the democratic process, that it eschews extremes. It forces every extremist political formation to moderate itself and to move to the center to be able to move to the center-stage. The political development of India stands testimony to this great truth. Political movements that were launched in pursuit of extreme and sectarian causes, some with ostensibly anti-national objectives, have over time moderated themselves. They chose to join the national mainstream. They chose to move to the political center, away from the periphery of politics.

Who could have imagined fifty years ago that a political party in Tamil Nadu created to champion secessionism would one day move to the very heart of our national politics? Who could have imagined fifty years ago that a Communist leader, belonging to a party that pledged itself to overthrow "bourgeois democracy" and establish the "dictatorship of the proletariat", would so proudly and dignifiedly occupy the chair of the Speaker of our Lok Sabha? Democracy and the electoral process have a logic of their own. They make it possible for those who are disaffected to feel that they belong. In this process of moderation and consensus building, the media must play a constructive role.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our nation is standing at the threshold of a new era. As I have said so often, the world wants India to do well. There are no external constraints on our development. For us to realize the full potential of our people, we must overcome the hurdles at home and the roadblocks in our mind. I believe it was Karl Marx who once said, "when an idea captures the minds of men, it becomes a material force." You are in the business of capturing the minds of people, of shaping ideas and thereby transforming society. I hope these awards will encourage more of our journalists to pursue the journalism of change. I wish you well in your endeavours. May your path be blessed.

Thank you.

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