Aditya Sinha: Why we have nothing like The Post
Most Indian media turn a blind eye to the societal messes that Modi's followers have unleashed, while we argue about films like Padmaavat
Washington Post owner Katherine Graham courageously allowed executive editor Ben Bradlee to publish the Pentagon Papers. It is difficult to imagine journalists so independent or committed if you follow the Indian media
Steven Spielberg's The Post is both enjoyable and significant. Briefly, it tells of the publication of The Pentagon Papers, the highly-classified studies of the USA's involvement in Vietnam from the 1950s onwards. Daniel Ellsberg, who served in the war and whose conscience was shaken by years of governmental lies, leaked the papers to the New York Times. Richard Nixon's justice department got a court injunction against further publication (on the familiar ground of "national security"), so the Washington Post took it up. Post owner Katherine Graham courageously allowed executive editor Ben Bradlee to publish the papers. They were vindicated when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Times on the ground of freedom of expression. Despite the absence of explosions and car chases and bikinis, it is fast-paced and engrossing.
It is difficult to imagine journalists so independent or committed if you follow the Indian media. Specifically, three recent interviews with Prime Minister Narendra Modi lacked rigour, insight or even basic knowledge. True, they weren't different from the way that US media outlet Fox News covers President Donald Trump ("How does it feel to be the most loved US President in history," asks an interviewer). No wonder some TV news channels are popularly known as North Korean channels in their robotic obeisance to the Great Leader ("How do you maintain the energy of a young man?"). No questions about the Aadhaar controversy or the Karni Sena's violent threats, leave aside the mysterious death of Judge BN Loya, whose case unprecedentedly roiled the Supreme Court. To underline his contempt to news, Modi made his let-them-eat-pakodas observation on employment generation.
The difference between India and America is that the Times, the Post and CNN refuse to be lapdogs of the government. They maintain their vigilance of Trump's activities, lapses and potential criminal misconduct. Trump retaliates with incessant vilification and personalised attacks on their reporters. (This isn't new: an open microphone once caught George W Bush and Dick Cheney privately referring to a Times political reporter as a "major asshole". Conservatives around the world are eloquent that way.) Perhaps it's the media's steadfastness that makes Trump crave the approval of his hometown paper, the Times.
India's servile media means that Modi doesn't need it, much less crave its approval. Most media turn a blind eye to the societal messes that Modi's followers have unleashed on multiple fronts. Instead, newspapers feel obligated to print illogic by government apologists, supposedly for balance and fairness. Then why not print Hafeez Sayeed's speeches on your Op-ed pages? Nobody has followed up on the financial magic by Jay Amit Shah, the BJP chief's son, who overnight increased his company's worth by 16,000 times. The government is treated with kid gloves, while the Opposition is presumed guilty even before the charges are laid.
TV channels have gone to the extent of self-parody, as evidenced by a report from Davos, Switzerland, where a TV reporter played in the snow with the Maharashtra chief minister's spouse. On a more serious note, the former editor of Manushi covered herself with glory last week by falsely tweeting on the identity of some of the boys arrested for stoning an elite school's bus in Gurgaon (the protest was by the Karni Sena's cavemen against Padmaavat, which turned out to be a regressive film); the Gurugram police was forced to tweet that no Muslims were arrested.
It is an article of faith for many middle-class educated Indians that what they read on WhatsApp is true, and that what institutional media organisations dig out is false, simply because it shows up their hairy-knuckled hero. This is despite the fine work done over the decades by newspapers like the Indian Express during Emergency, or the Hindu during the Bofors scandal, or what various magazines published after the leaking of the Niira Radia tapes. As a former newsroom insider, I blame it not on our editors, who have by and large been true to their mission of pursuing the truth and being a watchdog of democracy.
I blame the pathetic state of Indian journalism on the fact that we don't have our own Katherine Grahams. On the contrary, we have people who will fire their editor at the drop of a Gandhi cap, as soon as they've requested the PM to attend their private jamboree. It foxes me: Indian newspapers (and TV) have immense power, so they need not cave in to the powers that be. And yet they inevitably do. It's another admirable aspect of Americans: their belief that the government serves them and not the other way around. India seemingly persists with a mai-baap attitude to sarkar. Perhaps Indians, faced with the chaos of everyday life, crave authoritarianism. If that be so, you'll never see Bollywood turn out its variation of The Post.
Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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