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Why Democratising Opinion Industry Will Only Enhance Media’s Credibility

The last seven years have been one of the most crucial, defining, periods in Independent India. Media will enhance its credibility if it accords the period its due in its Opinion pages, too.

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In the post-Covid world order, India will have a special place. The world’s largest, most ambitious, and successful, vaccination drive is an example to be emulated, across the world. The rise of Unicorns, mostly by Young Turks, in the pandemic period, boosted by an enabling environment, has been a sign of the country’s growing confidence and rising ambitions. India’s leadership on the global stage on issues like Climate Change & Justice has been hailed. There is a new found respect for India, its people and its abilities, in the last seven to eight years, across the world over. 

Domestically, whether it is the welfare of the last man in the queue, or greater national integration – physical, emotional -- or deepening of Democracy, India has taken giant strides in this period. Indeed, transformative changes have been seen here in the Narendra Modi years. 

However, if one were to scan Opinion pages of our newspapers, or the Opinion sections of mushrooming digital platforms, the picture that is sought to be conveyed is markedly different. Many would argue that it is often divorced from reality. Many would also argue that there is a vast cultural lag between how most of our Opinion writers and columnists see the changing India, and ground reality. 

Is there a case, then, for some introspection on part of our editors, media practitioners, teachers, to bridge this lag, and perhaps, present a more honest and authentic account of the changing times – something that India truly deserves?

In our Opinion pages, and Views sections on digital platforms, there is often a hierarchy of knowledge systems, worldviews and ideologies. Maybe this has to do with Left dominance in the world of media.

A discerning reader would see many trends, especially in the Opinion sections and Pages, which would perhaps call for a debate. For instance, a case study can be carried out to understand how sections of media, unwittingly, or by design, end up perpetuating stereotypes, and manufacturing a false consciousness, often at variance with facts and ground reality. Three examples would explain this phenomenon.

One, anyone can do a study, say, over a period of three to six months, on how the average Opinion Page columnist often presents an account which seeks to argue that the philosophy  of BJP (and RSS) poses “a threat to Constitutionalism”. And, it is assumed that those countering Left-inspired narratives will necessarily have to be BJP functionaries. 

In other words, it is implied that even when the BJP is the pivot of the political system, the average non-card carrying Columnist cannot be seen arguing a point which is even remotely sympathetic to BJP / RSS. 

What is interesting, however, is that while pieces critical of BJP / RSS find prominent places in the Editorial section, the counters to such accounts are often relegated to the bottom of the page.

Two, anyone can also do a study of portrayal of India in international media, by their arms operating from India, over a period of three to six months. More often than not, what we get are biased, one-sided accounts. The controversy over the job description by a foreign publication that was looking for a Delhi correspondent, has not died down. This is only symptomatic of a larger malaise.

Three, a case study can be done on portrayal of India by Indian, India-born, columnists in foreign publications. The study will prove that such accounts often don’t do justice to India at all.

Once there is a pattern visible in sections of Indian media, they are also picked and amplified in global media. In turn, they also have a bearing on many so-called reports that seek to “question” India’s “credentials” on a number of parameters.

The Indian media is inarguably among the freest. Is it time for it to be among the fairest as well? Should not the media, for instance, be expected to fight fake narratives, sought to be peddled by vested interests? We should, maybe, use the phrase “Free and Fair Media”, rather than just “Free Media” more often.

Mahatma Gandhi was a journalist par excellence. In a 1919 letter, to Syed Hussain, who was planning a journal called “The Independent”, Gandhi said: “…I hope your writings would be worthy of the title you have chosen for the journal; and may I further hope that to a robust independence you will add an equal measure of self-restraint and the strictest adherence to truth? Too often, in our journals as in others, do we get fiction instead of fact and declamation in place of sober reasoning.” 

In another letter to an aide, in 1934, Gandhi said: “They (the journalists) will discharge their functions well if they will give unvarnished versions of events. When they criticise, they must base their judgments on facts strictly within their knowledge”.

Gandhi, the journalist, is a good, relevant reference point for every age, now, and for all times to come. Gandhi also showed how a newspaper can bridge the gap between the media and the people. His “Indian Opinion” was described as a “paper which belonged to the publisher and the readers in equal measure”.

Media should also be a worthy partner in nation-building. The Mahatma once said that “Satyagraha would probably have been impossible without ‘Indian Opinion’.”

In the project to build a New India, Sri Aurobindo is a huge influence. Addressing a group of College students in 1907, Aurobindo Ghose said: “There are times in a nation’s history when Providence places before it one work, one aim, to which everything else, however high and noble in itself, has to be sacrificed. Such a time has now arrived for our motherland when nothing is dearer than her service, when everything else is to be directed to the end. If you will study, study for her sake; train yourself body and mind and soul for her service.” He had taken over as the Editor of the “Bande Mataram” a year ago.

Both Gandhi and Aurobindo, among several others, remain the guiding lights as India sees a phase of civilizational renewal, integration, growth and modernity. This transformative phase deserves its due place in our Opinion Pages and Views Sections as well. As some would say, Truth cannot be extinguished by a sense of False Consciousness.

The Opinion Industry, and the media, has multiple cross connections with the worlds of Corporates, Personalities and Politics. There is also a cut-throat competition to set the agenda. Our media will do itself a world of good by injecting some transparency in its functioning. For instance, Jayaprakash Narayan, in his self-edited magazine “Everyman’s”, gave details of how he met his personal expenditure.

Gandhi said once in “Indian Opinion”: “There is no duty higher than Truth and no sin heinous than untruth. Indeed, Truth is the very foundation of Righteousness”. On another occasion, he noted in the paper: “Truth alone prevails and not untruth. Truth is the pathway which learned men tread”.

Indeed, Truth is the pathway that all of us should tread. Our Opinion Columns can set an example here in encouraging honest debates that highlight facts and capture the aspirations of an India which is rising. Attempts to peddle fake narratives, often by vested interests, must be nipped in the bud. 

The last seven years have been one of the most crucial, defining, periods in Independent India. Media will enhance its credibility if it accords the period its due in its Opinion pages, too.

(The writer, a JNU alumnus, is a political analyst. Views are personal)