Watchdog of democracy shouldn’t turn into a tail-wagging lapdog

Santanu Borah

Press is the fourth estate of democracy. That sounds so good. Just that the fourth estate is ailing from within. The fireworks that mark debates on many news channels are like a constant Diwali celebration at prime time, except that everyone is pissed off. After watching some TV channels. Now, I have come away with these lessons:

a. The government is right. Don’t question it.
b. The opposition, political and otherwise, is wrong. Screw them, hashtag it for everyone to see.
c. Screaming is our birthright.
d. Screw objectivity and ideals, let’s side with the bully.

In such an environment, the line dividing government PR and the media becomes fuzzy, and the watchdog of democracy turns into a tail-wagging lapdog. In the words of Ravish Kumar, India’s ‘godi media’ has come of age, even though we are still to find that GPS chip on the 2000 rupee note. It is easy to see that hard questions are now mutating into lazy head-nods.

For example, during the Dalit unrest in Bhima-Koregaon, some anchors squarely blamed Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid for fanning caste fires, without once questioning if the cases against them were also an attempt to stifle dissent. Go for them by all means, but also look at the flip side. The ‘godi media’ did not seem to dissect the merit of the cases against Hinduvta leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide said to be behind the riots, with the same kind of fire and brimstone.

One thing I learnt as a young journalist back in the day was that there are three sides to a story: the lie, the propaganda and the truth. Digging to get to the truth is arduous but it has one priceless benefit – it keeps the meaning of the word ‘freedom’ intact. Whenever you see journalists not digging enough and rushing to the finish line (like the Quint did on Khulbushan Jadhav), you can be sure that social discourse is in decline. Getting to the truth is not a 100m sprint. It’s more like a long steeplechase.

In these times of the lapdog media, it was heartening to see the Aadhar data breach investigation by the Tribune. It may be a great system according to Nandan Nilekani, but digging into it to unearth the rot within is a noble endeavour. That it was done without any techie hacking away behind a screen somewhere makes it even more serious.

When such a thing happens, what is it that a responsible government should do? For starters, the UIDAI should not file a case against Tribune journalist Rachna Khaira for doing her job well and showing us that Aadhar data can be bought and sold as easily as hooch.

An unshakeable truth in the internet world is that data can be lost, breached, changed and sold. Security is a work in progress. This is not something to be surprised by or ashamed of, which is why you have a breed of professionals popularly known as ethical hackers. The government, with all its experts, should know this and ask the Tribune journo to help them plug the holes in the system instead of punishing her.

Now, if you want to make Aadhar compulsory for even funerals, the least you can do is ensure it’s not compromised for a measly five hundred bucks. It is not enough to point out that we anyway share our data on Facebook to take lame quizzes and, therefore, we should shut up about Aadhar. Even if biometrics were not compromised, it is still a cause for concern.

It is common knowledge that governments often try as best as they can to muffle or buy out the media, like Indira Gandhi did during the Emergency. So, it’s incumbent on the media to stay as free as possible, because a slavish media is respected by none. A government may indulge a pally press, but it will never respect it. Being a slave is counter productive and bad for business.

If the fourth estate wants to stay the way the Constitution decreed in Article 19, it must stop hobnobbing with the government and start questioning it. After all, if the media does not do it, the people will, sooner or later. And if the people start doing the media’s job, the media will lose its respect and, finally, its job.

Here I remember an anecdote about Ramnath Goenka, arguably one of India’s most fearless publishers. He had once sacked a reporter after a chief minister told him, “Aap ka reporter bahut achha kaam kar raha hai (Your reporter is doing good work)”. If journalists forget this story, the fourth estate will turn into a government estate.

Let’s question more often and remind the media to do the same. Or just unsubscribe. That, just like voting, is a power you have when a watchdog becomes a lapdog. Let’s be real Indians, and not just ‘nationalists’.

(Santanu Borah writes, paints and procrastinates at leisure. He can be reached at atmavan@gmail.com)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Indialivetoday and Indialivetoday does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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