Does the media distort facts? The Prime Minister thinks so. By “focussing excessively” on scam after scam, does the media spoil India's image? The Prime Minister thinks so. For the leader of a government that is neck-deep in scams, it is natural to think as the Prime Minister does. But that does not make it right. In fact the Prime Minister is hopelessly wrong.
Manmohan Singh was in conversation with television editors. A great deal can be said in criticism of news channels. Generally speaking, they are amateurish, childish in their “me first” claims, irritating in their competitive sensationalism, more irritating in their loudness, superficial, repetitive and often plain unprofessional. But, like newspapers, they are essentially mirrors.
News journalism may have its weaknesses, but functionally it merely reflects the reality around it. It does not generate governmental corruption, it only reports it. If scams demoralise the nation and spoil the image of the country, the blame lies squarely with politicians and officials and fixers who produce the scams and benefit from them. The Prime Minister must attack the scamsters, not the mirrors.
Actually, the media is doing an incomparably valuable national service by bringing corruption to public attention. After all, if the media had resolved not to do anything that would “spoil India's image,” what would have happened? The shame of India would have spread anyway as the world would have known that India was a country where a roll of toilet paper could be sold for Rs 4000, and where decisions on spectrum allocations were made in Chennai's Gopalpuram area, and where there were billionaires with more illegal funds in Swiss banks than billionaires in the top five countries put together. It is the people of India who would have remained in the dark about the extent of their rulers' criminalities.
Worse, India would have sunk deeper and deeper into corruption since the corrupt would have been emboldened by the fact that they would never be exposed. The media, for all its excesses, has put the fear of god into the hearts of the criminally inclined politician, bureaucrat and “crony capitalist”. That even their private conversations may someday become public property is one of the best disincentives we have against corruption. The Prime Minister would have been smart to acknowledge this instead of suggesting that the media was negative in its attitude.
It is true that the media also has developed a taste for corruption. It has a long way to go before it can be called mature and creative. But even in its present three-fourth-baked state, it performs the function of a conscientious opposition. Without the media playing this role, Indian democracy would lose much of its substance especially since the formal opposition in Parliament is playing a petty obstructionist's role.
Both in Delhi and in the various states, the Opposition's role is to oppose – oppose for the sake of opposing. If the Government says the sun rises in the West, the Opposition will say: No, it rises in the North. In no other democracy is Parliament's functioning completely blocked as a form of Opposition politics. Even on urgently needed social and electoral reforms, they never show the unanimity they readily bring out when their salary increase bills come up for passing. When corruption cases come up, different parties take different positions as all are entrenched in corruption in different ways.
In such an environment the media becomes the only reliable forum for actionable information and democratic mobilisation. Even those who get the wrong end of the stick really have no reason to grumble. As Ram Mohan Roy explained: “A government conscious of rectitude of intention cannot be afraid of public scrutiny by the Press since this instrument can be equally well employed as a weapon of defence”.
Those who are beyond defence cannot of course use the weapon. But Manmohan Singh should have known that the real scoundrels who spoil India's image are outside the media.