Media and the proximity to power

A large number of journalists attended the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s dinner at Nehru Guest House on Wednesday. The function lasted around two hours. The journalists came, had dinner and left.  There was precious little interaction  between the CM and the journalists. The CM said nothing that could have added to the understanding of the working of her government and in a sense justified the dinner. But as it turned out dinner was meant to be dinner only. And as anywhere else, this raises some troubling ethical questions. Should journalists attend official dinners or lunches when their sole purpose is to treat journalists to some sumptuous and expensive food?  The answer to the question is not an easy one. Inviting journalists for dinner is a worldwide practice. Recently US President  Obama attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.  The journalists schmoozed with the same senior government officials whom they are supposed to hold to account. However, it is not the US government which pays for the dinner. The dinner is paid for by tickets bought by the people attending the dinner, most are actually purchased by corporations including media organizations and given to their employees and guests. The dinner is also a fund raiser for scholarships for journalism students. But despite that the dinner almost always raises its own ethical questions.

After 2007 dinner the New York Times banned its reporters from attending the dinner. The newspaper’s executive editor Dean Baquet recently said in an interview that he imposed the ban when he was Washington bureau chief because he thought the dinner made “the press and politicians [look] too cozy for my taste.” Frank Rich, a columnist with the paper called the event “a crystallization of the press’s failures in the post-9/11 era because it “illustrates how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media in its shows.”

Similarly, in one of the worst instance of media’s lure of the power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was mobbed by media persons for selfies during an interaction last year at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi.   This fawning admiration for the PM among the members of the fourth estate generated a huge public outcry.  Any wonder then that Modi has got such positive coverage over the past four years. In fact, his prime ministerial campaign was led by the big media houses, with some television channels at the forefront of it.

In J&K, media has shared an ambivalent relationship with the successive governments.  Similarly, some media organizations have been generally close to power and some have been hostile. We have yet to establish a healthy and balanced relationship where the media engages with the government but also knows where to draw the line. A professional distance from the government is important to retain the ability to speak truth to the power. And this we certainly can’t do by attending the official feasts at the drop of the hat. While we should resist tooth and nail the government’s tendency to muzzle the press, we should also resist our temptation to be close to the structures of power. In Kashmir, the threat to the media’s independence is more from the later tendency than the former.

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