Which is the greater crime in public life, corruption or stupidity? Take your time over the answer. If corruption were a political death sentence, quite a portion of the UPA Cabinet would not have been elected in 2009. Perhaps corruption is measured by extent; only when lubrication turns into loot does the voter decide that enough is enough. Conversely, even passing silliness creates disproportionate damage, possibly because the punishment is ridicule. Laughter can be more dangerous for reputation than a court sentence.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has had a difficult Parliament session. The Opposition attack on the allotment of coal blocks will hurt the Congress more than him, because at worst the PM can be accused of being a facilitator rather than a beneficiary. The beneficiaries were those who kicked back some of their expected loot to political parties, principally the Congress, but hardly the only party to use this route to welfare. The list of coal-cronies includes not just politicians’ friends and relatives, but crosses over into media. This is the way in which some media owners demand and get their rewards for being subservient to authority. These are the revelations that separate wheat from chaff, or independent media from quislings.
Politicians in power live, if not always amicably, with media all the time. It is therefore a trifle strange that they never seem to understand the dynamics of independent journalism. News, as someone who knew the business said, is something someone wants to hide. The paradox is quite logical: often the easiest way to kill a story is to hold a press conference. If you have nothing to hide, no one is interested.
The worst person that government can hire to “manage” media is a journalist. He becomes holier than thou. And so, when told to fix a story he attempts to fix the journalist.
The other part of media is opinion and analysis. A politician in power has every right to dispute analysis, but must be as meticulous as a silken lawyer in finding incontrovertible answers that dissect each point and prove it to be either hollow or distorted. Lawyer-politicians are obviously useful for such an exercise, but when they cut corners to push an unsustainable point they damage their own case. Witness the argument that there was zero-loss to the government in both the 2G stink and the Coalgate stain. The UPA has suffered badly from hyperventilation masquerading as argument.
Opinion, however, is a separate privilege. To accuse an opinion of being biased is to miss the point, since it is what it says it is, a viewpoint. Politicians get coy when praised, which is only human. But they should set aside that equally human weakness, wrath, when confronted with criticism. Another paradox: the best way to deal with an opinion you do not like is to ignore it. The sensible minister, or indeed Prime Minister, does not respond to the writer, he responds to the reader — and chooses his moment to do so.
Since this is becoming a litany of oxymoron, why not one which should be turned into an operating law of governance? The worst person that government can hire to “manage” media is a journalist. There is something in the culture transfer from a flowing newsroom to the granite blocks of a government building that transforms a journalist into the worst form of new convert. It is an old saying that the new convert prays seven times a day. He becomes holier than thou.
And so, when told to fix a story he attempts to fix the journalist. Aggression swells the ego and wells up hidden dyspepsia in proportions that become toxic — not for the target but for the government. A perfect storm was brewed out of a non-event when an officious media advisor to Dr Manmohan Singh thought that he would crush a journalist from the Washington Post, Simon Denyer, and send a stern signal to Indian reporters in the process, with a withering salvo of accusations. This pesky foreign correspondent had dared to commit the unpardonable impropriety of criticising the Prime Minister of India. If this was intended to cow down Denyer, it had the opposite effect. And if it was meant to frighten Indian media, then the consequences were worse, for a story which would have been ignored or reduced to the margins rose to the top of attention. The official’s pomposity was an invitation to laughter, and who could resist such an offer? This must be a high point of disservice to Dr Manmohan Singh by a man hired to serve.
Reportage merges a narrative of events with context. When a government has lost the plot, media will become a mirror of disarray and failure. Governments love journalists when the going is good; they all become potential censors when the ebb tide turns up. The freedom of India’s press is not a gift from government. It is an inalienable Constitutional right. Officials will come, and sometime go faster than they come; the Constitution lives on as long as democracy survives.