Dear Mr Prime Minister,
At a time when even the Chinese have realised the soft power of the media and been trying to understand it, speak its language and make it a national asset and not a national vulnerability, it is disquieting that your government is reported to be thinking of setting up a small group to deal with issues concerning the accountability and regulation of media in the light of the way the media covered the recent fast of Anna Hazare.
The government seems to feel that the media—particularly the electronic one— was one-sided in its coverage creating in the minds of the people a larger-than-real-size image of Anna and giving Anna’s movement a projection that was far removed from reality. Many seem to feel that the media also became an unwitting tool of the leaders of the movement for projecting the government and the political class in negative colours that were unwarranted.
In the beginning, I myself used to think that the media was playing a pernicious role in providing oxygen — as Mrs Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister, used to call it— to anti-government and anti-political class elements for commercial reasons.
After a half a day spent in the Ramlila Maidan on the afternoon of August 25, 2011, I realised that barring certain channels which, in my view, consciously sought to give the movement a distorted projection to the detriment of the government and the political class, the majority of our TV news channels and print media were largely objective in their coverage.
The milling crowds of young people were there for all to see. Their ras-le-bol (fed up) with corruption feelings were there for all to sense. Their admiration for Anna and their disgust with the political class were palpable. Their patriotic fervour was reminiscent of the fervour that I, as a young student, had experienced while attending meetings and rallies addressed by Mahatma Gandhi before 1947.
Anna is definitely not another Mahatma Gandhi, but the atmosphere that prevailed during the 12 days of his fast brought to one’s mind the atmosphere that used to prevail at the meetings and rallies of Gandhiji. The disgust of large sections of the youth with the government and the political class for dragging their feet on the issue of action against corruption played as great a role as their admiration for Anna in galvanising them into uniting against corruption.
Large sections of the media did nothing but project this atmosphere marked by disgust for the government and the political class and admiration for Anna . Yes, the media did use unwarranted hyperbole in its coverage instead of restricting itself to a factual, unvarnished reportage. But the use of hyperbole did not detract from the fact that the ground reality of large sections of the youth in revolt was something historic, the like of which the country had not seen for some years now.
It was an electrifying and ennobling atmosphere. Anna and his team of media advisers—many of them whiz kids from the world of the IITs and IT companies— rose to the occasion and took advantage of the new soft power of the media for giving their movement an extra boost.
The government, its spokespersons and government- controlled media such as All India Radio and the Doordarshan totally failed to harness the new soft power of the private media outlets to correct an one-sided projection of the movement. If the government’s version remained untold, the fault is not that of the media. Its commercial machinations alone cannot be blamed for the negative colours in which the government and the political class appeared.
The government and the various political parties have shown a total disinterest in learning and mastering the various dimensions of the new soft power— the print media, the private TV news channels, the social media world and the expanding community of netizens— and harnessing them for correcting the projections to the people— either of the Anna movement or of the government and the political class.
The fast-expanding soft power of modern media came out loud and clear during the movement. This power needs to be understood, appreciated and suitably harnessed. Instead of learning the right lessons from the role of the media during the 12 days that electrified large sections of India and its youth, the government’s ill-advised focus seems to be on how to regulate the new soft power of the media. This will be a retrograde step, which needs to be strongly discouraged and deplored.
Mr Prime Minister, instead of remaining confined to an inaccessible shell, get out of it, plunge into the world and sea of the media, learn to speak their language and idiom, interact with them vigorously and encourage them to interact with you and your spokespersons. Media interaction is no longer a one-way street. It is a multi-lane road. Learn to use that road with self-confidence and without complexes.
Start today, Mr Prime Minister. Don’t wait for tomorrow.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies