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April 20, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

The erring media

If the Vajpayee government finally died last Saturday, it is mainly because of the media's inherent hostility towards it, combined with its own palpably poor PR on the Bhagwat affair as well as other subjects of its governance.

That the influential English media --- and its plagiarists or lackeys in the regional category --- was biased against the BJP-led coalition should have been obvious to the ruling class from the brouhaha created by the sound bytes and printed words over Pokhran II and the so-called atrocities against the Christians. Hence, when Bhagwat was sacked as Chief of Naval Staff on December 30, 1998, George Fernandes and Co should have become wise enough to give at that time adequate documentary evidence about Bhagwat's track record as a rear admiral whose dismissal was first recommended in November 1990 by the then CNS on account of his being an irresponsible blabbermouth, a suspected schizophrenic needing psychiatric help, and an incorrigible rebel against civilian authority.

Vajpayee's government could have done it without going into national security matters. By the time Defence Minister George Fernandes went to town with the truth, the damage had been done among members of Parliament who have long had a pathological allergy against the BJP; more critically, the seemingly unending Bhagwat controversy had given Jayalalitha the fuse with which to blow up the government that didn't oblige her whims to the extent demanded.

This is where the Indian media had a role to perform if it intended to play out the nationalist role it often pompously professes to assume on its editorial pages, day after day.

Having been berated and belittled by Francois Gautier of Le Figaro for the way our press had treated the war cries of Christians, our media men and women should have had the professional self-respect --- if not the patriotic duty --- to investigate the Bhagwat episode from A to Z. And, believe me, facts were available with just a little effort. If a retired company executive like this columnist could get documents to expose Bhagwat the man and the naval officer just sitting in Mumbai, would it not have been so much easier for the pros in Delhi with all their resources and sources.

The sad fact is that the media in general was just not interested in digging out the truth even in a grave matter related to our armed forces. It was not interested either because investigative journalism is already history in our country and/or because our media was just not keen to ascertain such facts as would vindicate the "barbaric" BJP-led government's "barbaric"dismissal of Bhagwat. As a result, the media forgot the national security sensitivity and, instead, laid out the red carpet for the venom of Bhagwat and his wife. The government, totally inept in the art-cum-science of PR, colluded naively with its silence --- until it was too late.

Two glaring instances are enough to prove the point being made here.

George Fernandes addressed a press conference in Delhi on April 6 to narrate his side of the Bhagwat affair. It was the country's defence minister's first such foray since Bhagwat was dismissed as CNS on December 30,1998. Shockingly, the Maharashtra Times (of The Times of India group) chose to black out that conference in its edition of April 7. Its million or so readers were given a report of it only on April 8 --- along with Bhagwat's acerbic reaction to Fernandes's views! Now if that was not biased, manipulative and fourth-rate journalism, what, pray, is?

Now take the example of BJP's indolence and incompetence at PR. At 3.15 pm last Saturday --- a couple of hours or so after the Vajpayee's government had fallen --- Star TV, the confirmed anti-BJP network, was airing a discussion on the Vote of Confidence event. Its three-member panel was itself loaded against the BJP: Kapil Sibal of the Congress, Jayanti Natarajan of the Tamil Maanila Congress (who had voted against the coalition) and Arun Jaitley of BJP. That was two against one. Anyway, the point is about Jaitley's poor PR. When Ms Natarajan smirked and made the accusation that George Fernandes had --- as an instance of the coalition's meek submission to Jayalalitha --- called on the woman to explain the Bhagwat matter, he had done so with several files in hand, Jaitley was almost dumbstruck into silence. Otherwise young, intelligent, legally trained and fluently communicative, Jaitley at that vital moment forgot to remind Natarajan that her demeaning accusation against the defence minister was one of the many accusations that the man had forcefully denied just the previous day --- and that too on the sacrosanct floor of the Lok Sabha. It was an occasion which Jaitley should have used to force Natarajan to withdraw her contemptible charge calling it a lie unworthy of a lady, unworthy of her party, unworthy of any patriot of India. Jaitley didn't do so. It indicated, yet again, that howsoever sincere and serious the BJP may be in its endeavour for the nation, it simply has to learn the elements of PR where command over facts and their timely as well as efficient dissemination are of cardinal importance in carrying out those endeavours.

Just how flippantly our media viewed the Bhagwat affair will become crystal clear with just one representative example from a "venerated" newspaper.

In its first editorial of April 8, 1999, The Times of India wrote that "Admiral Bhagwat's past conduct before he became CNS is not of relevance while considering his dismissal, which was effected after he had completed three-quarters of his tenure." This was so blatantly a retort to Fernandes's press conference of April 6, but all it did to those who think is that it exposed the TOI's immaturity. Imagine the newspaper, established in 1838 and considered as "reputed" by millions of its readers, telling its readers that Bhagwat's past conduct as a maker of wild unnerving allegations against a whole bunch of superior officers, against the government of India's cabinet secretary and even the prime minister has no relevance today. Imagine telling us that it is of no relevance to consider the past of the rear admiral whose dismissal had been recommended by the then CNS as far back as November 1990 but whose continuance in service remained a mystery till George Fernandes diagnosed the cancer and undertook its termination. Imagine telling millions of readers that Bhagwat's past hallucinatory behaviour has no relevance to his writing, in June 1998, to the country's defence secretary that the latter has no jurisdiction over the morale of the armed forces, and to his later informing the defence ministry that the CNS cannot implement a decision taken by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet of the Government of India. If that is the TOI's permissive attitude towards a chief of our armed services, god save our country.

Verily will the Indian media be regarded as a villain of the piece when objective historians (not pinkos) record the several severe setbacks that befell India towards the end of the 20th century.

The only saving grace will be that there are some souls in the profession who sometimes say some such sane views. One of them is Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, who, some months ago, had in his column accepted that the media had a lot to answer for with regard to its unfounded attacks on the BJP for the alleged atrocities on Christians. And as recently as March 23, 1999, Gupta made another confessional. He wrote: "Journalists --- print as well as electronic --- have fallen from grace...we have forgotten what brought us our power to begin with...Investigative journalism of the last five years has been a re-write of Public Interest Litigation petitions...We accuse our marketing boys of reducing our newspapers into brands and products. Have we, on our part, succeeded in promoting free and independent journalism as a brand value?" Add the sentence, "Have we been truly objective and painstaking in our work?" and Gupta's rhetoric will be complete.

Meanwhile, BJP out of power should have all its leaders, from Vajpayee downwards, subjected to an intensive course in PR by someone like Gerson daCunha. While Kumaramangalam may be excluded from this PR programme, the induction must be made compulsory for many including Pramod Mahajan, the erstwhile party and government spokesman always affixed with the supercilious smile.

Arvind Lavakare

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