In the words of Benito Mussolini,
“Democracy is a kingless regime infested by many kings who are sometimes more exclusive, tyrannical and destructive than one if he is a tyrant. It is the fear of being exposed by the media that most of the politicians keep themselves under control to some extent.”
A nation is an imagined community that brings together people who find a common cause to forge a new identity. This entity functions because of its institutions; they become meaningful only if they represent ideas, drawn from values that highlight the social fabric of the authenticity of that nation. Similarly, institutions are weakened or strengthened depending on the individuals under the institutions’ act.
The media is that one and the only guardian that can hold these institutions accountable. As one is perceptive enough to catch a glimpse that as India’s multitudinous but hitherto dormant diversities resurface themselves, identities are asserted and ignored for a place in the sun. Issues of majority and minority, the centre and periphery, great and little traditions, rural and urban values and tradition and modernity have to be managed and addressed. This management of diversity and a vision of crafting a modern Indian state of building on the existential reality of a plural society a democratic polity with a secular state structure rests in the very influential hands of the media.
In a democracy such as India, the media plays a significant role in projecting and disseminating public opinion. It is or should be honest to witness events, and a tool to hold the government accountable to people. It is meant to abridge the gap between people and the government by providing a dialogue for the formulation and implementation of the state’s policies. For the media to deliver its designated role, it must be impartial and unprejudiced in its coverage of news and views connected with all threads of society. A fair and honest media is an effective instrument for enhancing transparency and accountability of all important ingredients of democracy.
Over the years, the media has grown in all walks of life, functioning in time as well as space. But today, the whole concept of the media has become a complicated one, owing to the fraught relationship between the media, politicians and public. The media has come to reflect polarities in societies. Powerful television anchors have become partisans as the rest, and indeed the media, is full of nothing but uncivil tirades.
Some media houses compensate for their mediocrity or untreated cultural angst by vilifying Muslims, Pakistan or Kashmir, or worse, by perfecting the art of access journalism, sidling up to political leaders, and eventually becoming so embedded in establishment circles that they barely disguise their connections. So, if you ask me if the media has become biased, I’d have to say yes. It is not an overnight shift, it has been visible for some time now. The alliance between predominant religious fundamentalism and neo-liberalism has also shaped it this way.
Now, if we view it from the window of the pandemic, people are drawn to various media platforms for information related to the pandemic and its induced lockdown, but what is provided is far from facts, and does not further a critical rational course. Rather, it has become a tool of propaganda and sensationalism. The news related to labourers’ mass exodus was only presented due to its sensational value. The abject lack of planning after imposing the lockdown was not adequately questioned by the mainstream media.
The current media has resolved to use cheap thrills like hyper-personalisation, nurturing the private-public separation with morbid and salacious intent, the thirst of the chase to an extent that it becomes blood sport, the gossipy edge stained by deep shades of patriarchy, the use of intuitive words to both sting and singe; the daily churning out of villains, the manufacturer of hatred in the minds of people by resorting to falsehood and fake news, intense competition for circulation with rivals, and finally, the constant feeding of the insatiable appetite of the audience to want more. With a simple analogy, I can explain the situation in the words of WB Yeats (the poet): “ The best lack the conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
This passionate intensity often exceeds the moral line of democracy, and what’s left to witness is the loss of constitutional morality and public consciousness, clearly defying our forefathers’ dream of a free and united India. Thus, this is the time to introspect and examine the role of the media to avoid creating a future that threatens to de-stabilise our democracy. Will the pandemic bring changes in government models and society? Will the increase in surveillance in Kashmir become the new normal?
Our media needs to pose these questions, and therefore prevent the moral decay of our democratic institutions. The media is highly capable of inflicting a shift in narrative from controversial ideologies to a more pluralistic and secular way of life. In order to do so, it needs to bring back the sense of restorative normalcy (unbiased culture) by clamoring itself to be redeemed by an updated perspective. The role of the media is vital in generating a democratic culture that extends beyond the political system and serves the medium for deliberation. The media can only be positive if it showcases the requisite skills for the kind of in-depth reporting a democracy requires.