Aditya Sinha: It's simple. Just blame the media

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Despite media pervasiveness, it is lately everyone’s favourite whipping boy

A current paradox is that while everyone seems to hate the media, in India newspaper readership is growing (5.04 per cent annual growth), digital media is expanding (about 30 per cent year on year), and more are watching TV news (Arnab’s mouth gets bigger and louder). Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet trends report says that even in the USA — where the New York Times is undergoing tectonic changes in publishing and editorial leadership, or where a proposed takeover by USA Today-owning Gannett newspapers of Los Angeles Times-owning Tribune Publishing Company is now in doubt — the advertising expenditure in a newspaper (16 per cent) exceeds the reader’s time spent on it (four per cent). Compare that to 36 per cent time spent on TV with 39 per cent of ad-spend, or 22 per cent of time spent on the internet which gets 23 per cent of ad-spend. Americans spend 25 per cent of their time on mobiles which generate only 12 per cent ad-spend (the Chinese are ahead here).

Former Miss Turkey Merve Buruksarac was last week sentenced to 14 months for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Instagram
Former Miss Turkey Merve Buruksarac was last week sentenced to 14 months for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Instagram

Despite media pervasiveness, it is lately everyone’s favourite whipping boy. Phillipines’ President-elect Rodrigo Duterte justified the recent murder of a crime reporter by calling journalists corrupt; one was not “exempt from assassination” if one was “a son of a bitch”, he added. Duterte’s brother-from-another-mother, US presidential hopeful Donald Trump last week had a meltdown when reminded by journalists about his promise in February to donate to a US war veterans charity; till last week he had not done so. Trump called one persistent reporter “sleazy and dishonest”. And the prickliness extended to even the social media when former Miss Turkey Merve Buruksarac was last week sentenced to 14 months for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Instagram.

In India, we had our junior minister for external affairs, the birthdate-challenged VK Singh (coiner of the charming “presstitute”) who said that last week’s attacks on Africans residing in Delhi was a “minor scuffle” that was blown up by the media. (“What is the media’s motive?” he asked on twitter. The answer: to inform the public.) And last week, Rajnath Singh’s home ministry de-registered veteran lawyer Indira Jaising’s NGO, Lawyers Collective, from foreign contributions — a day after she released journalist Rana Ayyub’s book Gujarat Files, which attempts to pin complicity in the 2002 riots on the state government, then headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (One of the riot cases, at Gulberg Society, was decided this week. The pawns were indicted, the masterminds acquitted.)

But VK and Rajnath are small fry compared to Modi, who once called journalists “news traders” and last week lordly proclaimed that the coming end-of-term of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan ought not to be speculated upon by the media. First, the controversy was not started by the media but discussed in the media - by his own party-walla, Subramanian Swamy, who suffers from Twitter’s Tourette Sydrome. Second, anything that involves the public interest involves the media, particularly inflation, against which Rajan took a tough line (as opposed to lowering interest rates to ease corporate’s finances), giving India more credibility internationally than most people that Modi ever appointed.

Modi has a habit of thinking he knows best for the country - that he knows better than Parliament, better than his Council of Ministers, and even better than the Constitution of India. He and his cohort might try and paint the media as an evil vested interest but the truth is that the media is simply a forum for public debate. But I guess that’s the problem with tough-guy leaders - they don’t want a forum, they want an echo chamber.

What’s common to authoritarian leaders is their antipathy to facts. Trump reminds many Americans of former President Richard Nixon, who was famous for lying about his expansion of the Vietnam War to Laos and Cambodia (he eventually resigned when faced with impeachment over lying about the Watergate break-in). The government of India released its GDP growth figures, which led the world at 7.6 per cent; but during the past week, a number of respected writers have pointed out how fudged these figures actually are. (Inflation of growth figures is another hallmark of this government.)

Facts are an uncomfortable metric when governance depends on perception. Authoritarian leaders such as who we have now, or what is around the corner (Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy) depend on perception for their assumption of power - by playing on insecurities and promising muscular solutions - and for their continuance in power. If facts come in the way, then facts be damned. So in the coming years, expect more and more tough guys to do more and more media-bashing. But also expect more and more media. Because after all, despite the strong men, we’re addicted to democracy.

Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the recently published anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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