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September 28, 2017

Delhi’s So-Called National Media and Its Irrelevant Obsessions

Delhi’s So-Called National Media and Its Irrelevant Obsessions

Indian politics has changed, but the national media hasn’t quite realised it. Actually, it would be a travesty to call a bunch of Delhi-based channels and newspapers – some of which sell barely a few thousand copies – the ‘national media’. They are the Delhi media and yet they have given themselves national status. Regional-language papers and channels, whether in Bengali or Gujarati, Tamil or Hindi, may sell millions more and be watched by millions more but they will never be considered ‘national’. Like the ‘regional parties,’ they are forever consigned to second-rate status in the Delhi media caste system.

The Rajya Sabha has 233 elected members, of which around fifty per cent belong to the BJP and the Congress. Fifty per cent% of the House is made up of the non-BJP non-Congress parties, many who often act in concert. For example, anti-Dalit atrocities in Gujarat and elsewhere were raised by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Trinamool and other parties. I recall the attempt to make Aadhaar compulsory for claiming government benefits and availing public services – an imposition that is contrary to earlier commitments by the government and the advice of the courts -was protested against by the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the Trinamool Congress (AITC).

Issues of public importance are taken up by the opposition when Parliament is in session. Often these subjects are first raised by comparatively smaller parties not always by the Congress, who have by far the most number of opposition MPs in the Rajya Sabha. The media, almost by reflex action, reports it, however, as a Congress versus BJP battle. Generally speaking, regional parties – fifty per cent of the Rajya Sabha as I said – are given scant coverage. The one exception among the smaller parties is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Good for them. I suspect they get more than a fair share of media coverage because they are based in the capital. If AAP were a Bengaluru based party phenomenon or a Mumbai-based party, it would have received the same neglect. For Delhi’s media supremacists, there is no India beyond the capital, or at best Gurgaon and Noida.

This may sound like a churlish complaint. It is not, and Trinamool is certainly not pleading for column inches and prime-time space. The fact is that this is a snapshot of inadequate knowledge and awareness of political and social issues and the churning in the country by a media permanently stationed in Central Hall. I got a taste of this during the 2016 West Bengal election, when Delhi-based journalists were making wild predictions without setting foot in the state and without speaking to anybody other than BJP and Congress and occasionally CPI(M) fat cats who were and are Delhi fixtures.

Doesn’t India deserve better? Doesn’t the media industry, now so rich and well-endowed, aspire to higher standards? Isn’t there a credibility gap? Does the media have interest in understanding how policy is shaped and legislation is negotiated in Parliament? Can this be done without engaging with and understanding what I term the ‘middle bloc’ – the state parties that occupy the largest space in the Upper House, between the BJP and the Congress?

The media is overwhelmed by the same one dozen personalities and politicians from the two big parties that it interacts with everyday. The ‘special briefings’ too come from the same folks. What is even more dangerous is that some glam television anchors are becoming self-obsessed. Do you recall the bizarre sight of an anchor on News Channel A interviewing an anchor from News Channel B about the conduct and views of an anchor from News Channel C? I was aghast.

This is delusional. Who the hell is interested, in this country of a billion people, if a couple of senior journalists have a personality clash or even an argument on principles? It can form the subject of a panel discussion at the India International Centre or Press Club, but how is it prime-time news? The messenger cannot become the message. The media cannot be interviewing each other and reporting on each other. That is what we did when we produced college magazines.

I know much has been said in the past about ‘nationalist’ and ‘anti-national’ media. This is a tiresome debate. Much more important than this squabble about ‘nationalist’ and ‘anti-national’ is the question of what the Delhi-based media considers ‘national’ and what it considers ‘regional’. We very easily give these titles and names to media outlets, to politicians and to economic, social and political grievances and concerns. So a short-lived Delhi-Gurgaon flood, which causes only traffic jams, is a ‘national story’. And a week-long flood in West Bengal or Assam, which displaces thousands and kills fifty, is a small-time ‘regional’ story. I rest my case.