Among the many changes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ecosystem has brought about in the last few years, is the change in large swathes of India’s journalism. The very nature and purpose of journalism has shifted from being the society’s watchdog to being the public relations arm of the government, from holding those in power accountable to holding citizens or the Opposition accountable.
There are worthy exceptions, of course, but they prove the rule.
To a large extent, journalism in the Modi era has come to mean comfort in being close to power, preening as the government’s cheerleader, skipping over inconvenient stories and questions, praising almost every move of the prime minister as a masterstroke, creating false equivalences, and shying away from the truth of the moment. This reflects in Modi’s men who preside over information management. It’s no wonder then that Shashi Shekhar Vempati, CEO of Prasar Bharati, chided the media – sections that focused on millions of migrants walking home in pain and misery – for doing its job.
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“Unfortunately in the last few weeks,” Vempati told the anchor of Doordarshan’s DD Dialogue, “the mass media has tended to focus a lot more on journalism of misery while there’s a lot more potential for journalism of hope and journalism of resilience…(and) with that message lift the entire masses of India to the normal, the new normal.” This DD Dialogue, telecast on 19 May night, was titled ‘Containing COVID Crisis – Communication Shift and New Normal’.
Vempati, who’s also in a sense the channel’s boss, shared his thoughts at the end of a panel discussion that had two joint secretaries and representatives of the UNDP and UNICEF on it.
What is the ‘journalism of misery’ that Vempati has a beef with? It is simply, the biggest story now, perhaps in decades. The story of millions of Indians drawn from the lower-middle and lower classes, the marginalised, indigenous people and their families, all walking hundreds of thousands of kilometres from cities back to their homes across state borders, after Modi announced the first nation-wide lockdown on 24-25 March to control the spread of COVID-19. Commentators have called it the largest migration since Partition of India.
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As Modi shuttered down a nation of 1.3 billion citizens with only a four-hour notice and then extended this lockdown three times (we are in the midst of Lockdown 4 now), millions of migrant workers in Indian cities faced an uncertain future. The days wore on. With no work or wages, thrown out of their dwellings and with no roof over their head, they began the long and arduous walk home. A government that organised flights to bring back Indians from other countries did not immediately organise buses or trains within its borders.
Millions of migrant workers had no option but to hit the highways on foot.
They lived on water, biscuits and hope – and sometimes, not even that – their tears of weariness interrupted by occasional outbursts of rage.
The story of COVID-19 in India turned into a humanitarian crisis; stories of unspeakable misery have unfolded every day over the last two months.
The story of Jamalo Madkam, the 12-year-old girl, who died just short of her home in Bijapur, Chhattisgarh, after walking nearly 150 kilometres from Telangana, as per this report.
The story of Priya and her three young daughters walking with tears in their eyes from Delhi to Kanpur, 475 kilometres away, as this video story in The Quint showed:
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The story of Virendra Singh Gond, the only survivor from the group of 17 men – 16 of whom were run over by a freight train in Aurangabad, as they slept on unused tracks, exhausted after walking for days from Jalna in Maharashtra towards Madhya Pradesh.
The story of Seema, her husband and three children walking from their workplace in Haryana all the way to Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, their form of transport coming to a naught and being turned away three times from the state borders, as this story by the reveals.
The story of Gurang Sah at Bandra station in Mumbai, struggling to board one of the Shramik trains that the government finally started for migrant workers, whose mobile fell in the melee of a lathi-charge and dashed his hopes of boarding another train, as this story details.
The human cost of COVID-19 in India far out-strips the numbers killed by the virus.
It encompasses the thousands who battle it in hospitals, health workers and frontline workers who have been at their tasks at great personal risk, often without PPEs, hundreds of thousands out of jobs and livelihoods, rural Indians in deeper distress, and millions of migrant workers virtually forgotten by the government.
Most walked and suffered, the few who could access trains weeks into the lockdown were squeezed for money by middlemen. It is nothing if not a story of misery, unimaginable wretchedness, heart-breaking despair. If India woke up to this, if the government was nudged into action, it’s because some journalists relentlessly focused on these stories.
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Mr Vempati, this is ‘journalism of misery’ because misery IS the story here. Pain, despair and uncertainty of millions of Indians greatly overwhelm all else; this is who we are as a nation right now. You cannot control-alt-delete it or over-write it with ‘journalism of hope’. Even if you did, it cannot simply “lift the entire masses of India to a normal”.
The coronavirus pandemic did not bring this misery; the government’s response to it did. If we do not look at it in the eye, we would be less than human.
If journalism did not tell this story, it would be less than journalism. We need this journalism of misery so we can do something – even if it means donating money for a ration kit that NGOs are distributing across the nation.
When journalism records misery, it’s only doing its job, fulfilling its purpose, a few news organisations even redeeming some of their lost ground. At its barest minimum, journalism is a record of society at a given time, a mirror to society as it were. When millions of Indians face pain and despair, to deliberately focus on stories of hope would mean an abdication of the core purpose of journalism. It isn’t that journalism has not captured stories of hope and resilience, but the focus has been on stories of misery, much to Vempati’s discomfort.
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In his earlier avatar, Vempati was CEO of Niti Digital, an online venture set up in 2012 by businessman Rajesh Jain. It brought out Niti Central, an online right-wing news and commentary website, where Vempati also wrote blogs. Niti Central, which promised to be ‘the voice of India’s neo-middle class’, was ‘retired’ in January 2016.
Along with India Votes and India 272+, Niti Central was part of the right-wing ecosystem to push PM Modi to the national scene and build his pan-India acceptability. By its own admission then, Vempati’s organisation had played a critical role in shaping the political narrative of the time. As CEO of Prasar Bharati, he wants to play a critical role in shaping the narrative during India’s tryst with COVID-19 and its humanitarian crisis – by downplaying misery and pain, and focusing on hope.
What Vempati misses is that there’s a limit to such manipulated shaping of narratives by vested interests and governments, that narratives cannot always be engineered to suit an agenda when the wretchedness of the human condition overwhelms all else.
When journalism sticks to its basic purpose – telling genuine stories of people with honesty, sensitivity and comprehensiveness – it afflicts the comfortable. And the comfortable whine – not about the society’s condition, but its story-tellers.
(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based independent journalist and editor, has reported on politics, gender and development for nearly three decades for national publications. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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