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)