Brexit and lessons for the Indian media

Subir Roy | Updated on April 04, 2019

Need for vigil   -  /iStockphoto

The Brexit vote was driven by false propaganda. Indian media is just as tendentious, with a rabble rousing social media to boot

The unfolding of the Brexit drama, hugely disorienting for Britons who do not know when and how their country will leave the European Union has an important lesson for Indians. After a referendum opted for a British exit, it should have been a rather simple matter of working out the details and a timetable.

But now a lack of resolution of conflicting positions and a particularly intractable issue (defining an open border with Ireland) has put it all back in the melting pot.

Underlying the whole confusion is a key new reality. In the run-up to the referendum Britons thought they got little out of Europe but gave a lot more. But it is only when the reality of Brexit loomed large and the details of an exit began to be negotiated that the arithmetic tilted the other way.

Britain got as much as it gave and the threat of being swamped by Muslims was spurious. Besides, issue like how much European help Britain secured for scientific research, which would end, emerged in the open.

How could a modern, educated and open society, in which intensive open discourse precedes the exercise of public choice, have got it so wrong? The answer is that Britons were deluded by their popular low brow chauvinistic right wing press.

Now let us look at the current state of the Indian media. Virtually all TV news channels and most of the print media have become highly supportive of the political dispensation of the day. There can be nothing against honestly held convictions and their propagation on the basis of impartial and balanced reporting. But what we have is a clear preference for the dominant political and cultural position which is served by biased and unethical news management.

To get a sense of the reality on the ground let us look at the revelations made by Cobrapost last year on its website. The revelations have been barely reported by the rest of the media, except for a few relatively young news portals. This is unsurprising because the revelations involve some of the most prominent media houses in the country.

A Cobrapost reporter approached 25 leading media houses, claiming to represent a wealthy sangathan (organisation). The deal he offered was for them to execute a three part action plan for which he was ready to pay handsomely, if need be partly in cash! The first part was to promote “soft Hindutva” by highlighting the contents of some of the most widely followed Hindu religious texts like the Bhagwad Gita. The next part was to publicise aggressive and militant speeches by some hardline Hindutva leaders.

The third and last part, as the elections approached, would be to attack the most important political opponents of the BJP like Congress president Rahul Gandhi, BSP chief Mayawati and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav.

All but two of the media groups approached, represented in the conversations by senior executives and editors, across languages, were willing to look at the proposal. Among the modus operandi discussed were setting up special teams to create and run viral videos, quizzes and speeches through advertorials, paid news and special features. When the video recordings of the conversations of the Cobrapost reporter were revealed, the media houses in question said the recordings were doctored to misrepresent the discussions.

Today, as if the abdication of the print and TV media is not bad enough, social media has added an unsupervised and unregulated forum for dissemination of “news”.

Such is the importance of social media that the prowess of political parties and their effectiveness in campaigning is being judged in part by the size and competence of their digital media teams.

The sobering reality that needs to be grasped is that by having in place a functioning constitutional democracy you do not automatically have an informed, fair and responsible media, though the former cannot survive without the latter.

To get the right kind of media which is a key pillar of democracy endless effort is needed to ensure meticulous and responsible reporting that is the first step to purveying fair and balanced opinions. For this you need to establish the right kind of traditions, build institutions and ensure their sustenance. Simply having laws against defamation and inciting of hate are not enough.

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on April 03, 2019

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