Originally Published 2013-05-13 00:00:00 Published on May 13, 2013
Media's increasing reach cannot be ignored and policymakers and policymaking has to adapt itself to this grind. Media, despite it many vices, serves as a medium for greater appraisal of government policies. But media should understand that sustained attention comes only with sustained credibility.
Lingering mistrust
India's relations with Pakistan and with China, by dint of historical baggage and continuing incongruence over a host of issues, strike at the sensitivities of people at a pan-Indian level, and more so to peoples and governments in the states that border these countries. The threat perceptions in Indian minds, with justifiable reasons, regarding these two neighbouring countries and their collusion against India, are some of the few issues that Indians cutting across regions and classes, can identify with.

The deepening economic ties between India and China have not translated into convergence on political and strategic issues. Besides the border dispute that recently manifested into the Chinese incursion in eastern Ladakh, China's growing footprint along India's periphery, increases Indian fears of Chinese attempts towards strategic encirclement of India. Often the media attacks the government for downplaying threats from China, of lacking the nerves to stand up to the Chinese. And on most occasions, public opinion polls conducted by these news channels end up confirming the stand that they take, which are most often 'hawkish'. The Indian TV newsroom often ends up polarising the debates, creating "for-and-against" debates, with very minimal chances of a consensus being arrived at. And, viewers are fed comments in galore, and deprived of a nuanced understanding of any matter.

Media hijack

Indian TV journalism thrives on sensationalism and jingoism. In the most recent episode of its hijacking of the diplomatic discourse, it accorded martyr status to Sarabjit Singh through blanket coverage the death of Singh in a Pakistani jail. Singh was an Indian spy, or just a peasant who strayed across the border is a different matter altogether. The way he died in Pakistan is condemnable. However, the media hysteria created over the incident, and political one-upmanship attempted over his death body was something uncalled for. The attack on a Pakistani prisoner in a Jammu jail and his eventual death in a Chandigarh hospital emphasises the need for the media or public figures to avoid haste in taking a high moral pedestal over such episodic incidents.

The proliferation of media houses, big and small from New Delhi to the farthest corners of the country, yields both good and bad dividends. They have certainly expanded the information bandwidth for the citizens on foreign policy issues but quantity is clearly not synonymous with quality. Policymakers often blame the low quality of the content for not taking media seriously. Moreover episodic attention to issues does not qualify media for influencing more informed and long-term policy making process.

Indian media had a field day covering the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and beaming them live on TV screens across the country. Media definitely acted as the major source of information and interpretation, and because of the unforeseen nature of the events, where the government was caught blind-folded and had no pre-calculated line of policy, media debates with experts and former officials, offered desired responses. But, the same media has had to face major flak for the way it covered the attacks. The Supreme Court in August 2012 slammed the electronic media for its live coverage of the 26/11 terrorist attacks.

A Bench of justices criticised the media for their "reckless coverage", saying that the channels in their relentless competition for TRP ratings, had compromised the security of the operations, by exposing "the positions of the security forces, their weapons and all their operational movements" through their real-time live coverage. The Bench also precluded any attempt to justify the conduct of the TV channels by citing the right to freedom of speech and expression, stating that they were "subject to reasonable restrictions" under the Indian constitution.

Media, because of the very nature of its goals and objectives and the means to achieve them cannot be passive actors at all, but the question is: how much influence does the media have over government policymaking circles? Government officials normally do not ascribe any agenda setting power to the media in foreign policy-making. A monograph published by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a New Delhi-based think tank early this year, quoted National Security Advisor Shiv Shanker Menon who said that the media in India, unlike in the US, was not an integrated part of the 'foreign policy mechanism' yet. Menon noted that the 'breaking news model' of 24-hour news networks consumed by the game of highest TRPs ended up, "sacrificing accuracy and credibility in the bargain."

But, this matter cannot be shrugged off so easily. Since the rise of the internet, the networked population has increased manifold and news going viral online has become a part of normal day-to-day lingua. New forms of penetrative, inclusive and participatory media have created a whole platform, in which the government, the media houses, and the citizens interact and respond to each other. Moreover, with increasing role of some states in foreign policy issues, regional media has an increasing impact on people's perceptions.

Retrogressive tendencies

The print media definitely fares better than their visual brethren in the maturity of their analysis and reportage and the written news tends to be taken more seriously in policymaking circles. But unfortunately printed newspapers are increasingly turning themselves over to retrogressive tendencies like subordinating editorial interests to advertising, succumbing to the cancer of paid news and allowing Page 3 entertainment to eat into real news. The TV format relies on breaking news to the viewers as soon as possible, thus compromising on content quality and often going for maximum impact real-time without caring for the consequences. And, this is more prominent when covering news related to India-Pakistan and India-China relations.

Coming to remedial measures, the Indian government, as the IDSA paper rightly pointed out, should open up and engage with the media, establishing a systematic process of de-classification and access to information, instead of being secretive. This would prevent unnecessary speculation.

And at the same time, the electronic media should invest on in-house experts and field more foreign correspondents. This would prevent excessive dependence on foreign news agencies and foreign media partners, and on 'parachute journalism' that ends up putting journalists to report on areas and subjects that they are alien to. Media's increasing reach cannot be ignored and policymakers and policymaking has to adapt itself to this grind. Media, despite it many vices, serves as a medium for greater appraisal of government policies, but it should not lose its soul and integrity in quest for greater penetration and expansion. Sustained attention comes only with sustained credibility.

(The author is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy : The Pioneer, May 11, 2013

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