Bootlicking as journalism

After the end of the Emergency, senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani famously told a group of editors: “You were all asked to bend—but why on earth did all of you crawl?” That was then; now they crawl all the time, orders or no orders. A proof, if one is required, is the front-page headline that appeared in The Economic Times (May 16): TEEN SAAL, BEMISAAL (Peerless in three years)! The ruling party’s mouthpiece, Kamal Sandesh, could not have done a better job.

During the Emergency, press barons and top journalists were at least asked to bend; they knew the alternative could be terrible—loss of job (for journalists), shutdown of the publication, incarceration, or worse. The response, though Advani found it cowardly, was to the diktats of a leader, Indira Gandhi, who was known to be headstrong and dictatorial. Electricity supply to newspaper offices was cut on the night the Emergency was declared; the opponents of the regime were being thrown behind bars; there was an atmosphere of fear. No such thing has been done by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his reputation of being an authoritarian notwithstanding.

That he is cross with India’s largest business daily is an open secret—at least among newspersons. This is said to be the reason that he didn’t attend this year’s edition of The Economic Times Global Business Summit. A lame excuse was offered—“security concerns.”

Many theories did the rounds but the most widely believed was that Modi and his people found the newspaper’s reporting of Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls tendentious, with a tilt toward the SP-Congress alliance. An ET reporter was said to be the pivot of the reportage that was disliked by BJP bosses. Other factors contributing to the government’s pique included Times Group managing director Vineet Jain’s demonetization tweets, The Times Of India’s scathing cartoons, and Modi spoofs on the media conglomerate’s Radio Mirchi.

Whatever may be the reason for Modi’s decision on the ET meet, the newspaper’s efforts to genuflect to the government is downright shameful. As I just mentioned, the government hasn’t done anything to intimidate the Times Group. The fact that a prime minister can bring the country’s biggest media house to its knees just by not attending its function is symptomatic of the poor business strategies adopted by it and the media in general.

Over the years, the jamborees organized by media houses have become an integral part of revenue generation for them. On the face of it, such conclaves are easy to be held by media organizations: they have access to the rich and the powerful who, in turn, are always keen to keep journalists in good humor. This also ensures lucrative sponsorships, especially from public sector undertakings. All manner of speakers—top political leaders, key ministers, corporate tycoons, limousine liberals, salon socialists, sports and film stars, sundry celebrities—pontificate at such jamborees. They splutter clichés, pledge to make the world a better place, remove poverty, usher in an era of peace… in short, they bullshit. And bullshit sells. At least, media houses are able to sell it.

But everything has consequences. When the business houses running newspapers and news channels organize jamborees, they dabble in event management, thus exposing themselves to the charge of conflict of interest. Event management is an activity that involves placation of people, while journalism—sincere journalism at any rate—often results in displeasing those who matter.

This is the reason that the media houses that organize conclaves often go soft on politicians and corporate czars. A senior journalist working with ET told me some time ago that a few weeks before their annual summit reporters are told to avoid stories too critical of the government. The presence of key economic ministers adds to the gravitas and glamour of the event, which translates into money by way of sponsorships. The other side of the coin is the misfortune their absence brings; and when it is the absence of the Prime Minister—and that too somebody as imperious as Modi—it spells doom for the event and a deals a blow the group. Hence the obscene endeavors to suck up to the government. And hence the bemisaal bootlicking.