Campaign on Social Media rattles BJP & official agencies

Media is a double edged weapon which needs to be used with care and caution as it can hit back with equal force in reverse gear. This is a new reality which the BJP is facing today. It used social media without any care in the world during 2014 poll and managed to paint Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi as “Papu” who became a liability for Congress  and a butt of  political jokes. Even Dr Manmohan Singh who enjoyed reputation as a man of integrity and able economist was painted as a silent spectator while his colleagues indulged in plunder and corruption.

Three years later the butt has shifted and  prime Minister Narendra Modi has been turned into “Pheku” who never  honours his promises and keeps shifting goal posts. He is getting his share of ridicule in social media  as  one guilty of  economic growth suffering, employment  opportunities declining  and the mess created by demonetisation and hasty implementation of  GST. BJP which was pioneer in using social media as a political tool to humiliate their opponents is now calling for curbs on social media and is warning people against what it calls “fake news”.

Unfortunately BJP did not realise that attempt to ride a tiger can have serious consequences. Congress party is using the social media effectively in Gujarat where political jabs and songs set to popular tunes are creating problems for BJP. The ruling party which was showing signs of overconfidence  after  victory in U.P and  thought that a victory in 20019 was in their pocket  has realised that going may not be smooth.

Another area of concern is Rahul Gandhi who has been making waves in USA. Mr Gandhi who   in India speaking in Hindi failed to click with masses as admitted by him when he complimented Prime Minister Narendra Modi   as a better communicator. His stress  on lack of jobs in India, communal tensions under BJP rule  and  centralisation of rule under BJP has made deep impression on college students  and non-resident Indians addressed by him. Sharp reaction by dozen of Ministers  in Modi  Cabinet in response to Mr Gandhi including Vice President who holds a constitutional post clearly indicates that  he has managed to upset BJP leadership.

It is not to suggest  Mr Gandhi has won the battle, but a beginning has been made . A one sided match predicted earlier may become a close contest by the time country goes to polls in 2019. It has all started with wrong understanding of media, Indian newspapers  and T.V channels which had started ignoring Rahul Gandhi and written off Congress party have suddenly woken up to new reality  and are  writing articles and holding discussions to  understand the  changed scenario.

A big change in the media set up which has almost gone unnoticed by the society  and civil rights group  is the change from journalists employed by media houses under the Working Journalists Act which laid down conditions of service as well as their emoluments  and the current practice of  engaging them on contract basis  with right to hire and fire as desired by owners of media houses.

This in practice meant that freedom of press as envisaged by rulers after freedom has been replaced by  freedom of owners of media houses. As one  who  worked in media houses  for  three decades and as a free  lancer  for same period, I feel this has changed  the  character of  print media. Along with it also came   evils of  paid news and editors being replaced by  managers  and commercial  staff overruling  the  newsmen  engaged by newspapers.

In the first instance newspapers  offered hike in wages  but soon  threats were given  that in case  they refuse to fall in line  they would be forced  leave. The result was overnight a protection net  put in place by the Government  to provide security of service to journalists as a part of commitment to freedom of press  was broken and  journalists  became  part of  employees working for commercial houses. How far it affected freedom of press is a subject which is yet to be studied in detail.

Surprisingly in this respect lead was taken by  big newspapers who stated engaging brand managers instead of editors. This also saw  fast erosion in the authority of  editorial department. In olden times all perks , assignments  were decided by Editor. It started with approval of managers becoming necessary  and in next stage all authority was given  to management and  Editorial staff could at best make recommendations.

While print media underwent a slow transformation , electronic  media a new entry was bound by no rules. A raw recruit armed with a speaker and followed by a cameramen  would engage  all without bothering to study the subject or finding out details about person being interviewed. In early days when electronic media  was a Government monopoly, many ministers would not allow the function to start  unless a TV reporter arrived. Many of them under pressure would  run  cameras without any film to satisfy ego of all.

The scene changed when private channels arrived on the scene. A T.V reporter became a prized catch and some anchors became  major players  with power to build or destroy political carriers Media houses  who entered late on the scene soon became dominant players thanks to deep pockets. It has to be kept in mind that  electronic media is expensive to run and requires deep pockets. The media channels remained mostly in red despite  cornering a large share of advertising budgets.

The need for  deep pockets has seen majority of  T.V channels  being brought over by  big industrial houses or going under the control of  political parties. With this change the men in power have started calling shots by putting pressure  on owners and can today ask for sacking of  a  popular anchor and in case the owners refuse to oblige  they can  even use agencies like  enforcement directorate or official agencies  to make them toe the official line.

In olden days Editors who defied official line were shown the door, but they could find some relief by going to Press Council of India or taking the support of civil Society. At present no such avenue is available. Agreed over the years, the emoluments of  journalists have risen  in a substantial manner, but at the same time  the working conditions  have deteriorated.

In present set up instructions are issued  by junior staff and carried out..Gone are the days when managers took appointments to meet editors  now they are summoned by them. With such changes I feel media continues to exercise some freedom only because competition would kill it in case it becomes a slave of official dictates.


(Brij Bhardwaj is a veteran journalist and commentator)

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