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Collective Embarassment By Indian Press And Polity

The American press on Monday grilled White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki over Modi and Biden not taking questions, and Biden’s praise for the Indian press.

Despite not being a big fan of the Indian legacy media, I spent the last week sympathising with them, for what some of them suffered during the US visit coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Indian anchors in the USA

Indian television anchors, who rarely go out on ground in India and prefer to sit in AC studios of Noida to run debate shows, chose this opportunity of the PM’s foreign visit to show their live ground reporting skills.

But the Indian TV anchors are far away from the reality. That’s the reason they are shown door by a young IAS officer. That’s the reason they think the musician in the street must be a Modi fan and he rather nonchalantly says on Live TV: “No, we have actually been called here to perform.” That’s the reason when they are told by a US citizen that Modi should improve poverty situation in India, they do not even try to translate that to their Hindi audience and just move on.

As if the cringe TV coverage of PM Modi’s US visit was not enough, Indian media is now in news for another embarrassing reason.

The US media, which I hold in high esteem despite its flaws, did not take it well that before  journalists were allowed into the Oval Office on Friday for a ‘press spray’, the US President Joe Biden is heard saying in an Indian television clip that he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not take questions and that the Indian press was “much better behaved” than the American press.

“The Indian press is much better behaved than the American press…I think, with your permission, we could not answer questions because they won’t ask any questions on point,” Mr. Biden can be heard saying in a video clip from an Indian television channel that was in the Oval Office, setting up before reporters arrived, The Hindu reported.

American press angry

The American press on Monday grilled White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki over Modi and Biden not taking questions, and Biden’s praise for the Indian press.

Jen Psaki, when asked why the American President was criticising U.S. reporters in that setting, said: “Well I would note first that he took questions on Friday and he took questions again today. And I think what he said is that they’re [the U.S. press] not always on point.”

“Now, I know that isn’t something that anyone wants to hear in here [the White House briefing room], but what I think he was conveying is, you know, today he might want to talk about COVID vaccine …and some of the questions are not always about the topic he’s talking about on that day. I don’t think it was meant to be a hard cut at the members of the media,” she added.

In the context of Biden not taking questions in meetings with with Mr. Modi and, before that, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, another reporter asked if the President was “reticent” about taking questions in front of a foreign leader. The Press Secretary denied that was the case and said: “ … He’s taken questions standing next to a foreign leader many, many times in the past and will continue to,” she said.

Annother reporter posed a question that challenged Biden’s understanding of the Indian press and its ranking in terms of press freedoms.

“ The President said that the Indian press was better behaved than the U.S. press, but the Indian press is ranked 142nd in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders, for press freedoms. How does he say that about the U.S. press, compared to the Indian press?” the reporter asked Ms Psaki.

“I would just say to you that having now worked for the President, serving in this role for nine months, having seen that he’s taking questions from the press more than 140 times, including today, and Friday, that he certainly respects the role of the press, the role of the…free press. We ensure that we have press with us, of course, when we travel, that we have press with us for sprays in foreign capitals and we will continue to,” Ms. Psaki said.

Now, there are two entities to be questioned in this scenario- the Indian Prime Minister and the Indian Press.

Why no press conference?

If Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison could hold a press ‘gaggle’ at the White House after Friday’s Quad meeting, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga could address the press on Friday evening and Saturday morning, why couldn’t Prime Minister Modi hold even a single press interaction during his three-day visit?

Speaking at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, after his meeting with President Biden, PM Modi said that he represents a country that is known as the ‘mother of democracy.’ “We have a great tradition of democracy that goes back thousands of years.”

Being the largest democracy in the world, and being the “mother of democracy” as claimed by PM Modi, shouldn’t the Prime Minister of such country be addressing the press even once during his visit?

 

Prime Minister Modi with US President Biden during meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 24, 2021. (Reuters)

 

Prime Minister Modi has not faced the Indian press in an open conference since he was elected to power in 2014. Though he appeared in one with Amit Shah before 2019 election, he strangely chose not to take questions from the reporters and insisted that Mr Shah gave all the answers. Even before the start of parliamentary sessions, the inaugural press address by PM Modi is one-way affair, and he doesn’t take questions after he delivers his remarks.

Press equally responsible

But the fall in the standards of the Indian press, especially the TV channels, is not only an outcome of the compulsion to be pro-government in the last few years, but also of the amount of money the government spends to advertise on these channels. The major chunk of the Indian press currently does not need to be told by the establishment to not ask difficult questions, because they have themselves adopted to reporting the government handouts willingly.

And this is not the first time an American President has praised Indian press.

Earlier in 2017, during PM Modi’s visit to the US, the US President Donald Trump told the Prime Minister: “You have a friendly press.”

Now if you ask the journalists who’ve not yet compromised on the ethics of journalism, they will tell you that being called “friendly” by someone holding position of power is not a compliment for a journalist or the press.

The press should not be “friendly” and “well-behaved” with people in powerful positions. It beats the whole purpose of free press that holds politicians or administrators accountable.

Time to reflect

The US press did the exact job. They held Biden accountable not only for not taking questions after meeting with PM Modi but also for his comments praising the Indian press.

The Indian press needs to reflect. The job of a journalist is to ask question, to be a voice of people and not the government. I do not believe that the Indian media is in position of making a course correction, because they have come so far on the path of TRP-oriented journalism, that there’s no return from this point.

For our politicians, especially the Prime Minister, taking questions on foreign lands should be a norm. PM Modi, whenever he’s visiting other countries like the US, is representing the Indian citizens and taxpayers. If the PM does not interact with the press or take questions from reporters of other countries, it reflects badly on the “democracy” he proudly talks about in his speeches. Moreover, the press interactions are one more way of conveying the roadmap of progress and future aspirations of the country to the nationals of various countries who are following the PM’s visit.

 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP President Amit Shah during a press briefing at the party headquarter in New Delhi on May 17, 2019. | (PTI)

The recent US visit by the Prime Minister has caused collective embarassment for both Indian media and polity. However, the two entities also collectively deserve the entire blame for reaching this low.

 

 

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