Narendra Modi‘s relationship with the news media since becoming prime minister in 2014 has been built on conspicuous contempt and confrontation, but behind the scenes, chummy co-option and cultivation has been a constant endeavour.
Modi likes the world to believe he is not bothered with what the “news traders” of the mainstream media say, when he can directly “speak” to the people through social and public media: so no media adviser; no journalists on board his aircraft; no press conferences; no one-on-one interviews with quality journalists, etc.
But a smart politician knows that there is only so much that the trolls, bots, trends, followers, likes, clicks and shares purchased by the “IT Cell” can fetch in the real world. He still needs the support of established media to amplify the message, manufacture consent, and build his persona, i.e. he needs friends with benefits.
Which is why Modi, who did not feel the need to meet news media owners before announcing demonetisation in 2016, abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, or the promulgation of CAA, interacted with “those associated with the print media”, before he announced the 21-day shutdown of the country to fight COVID-19.
The video conference was to “discuss the role media can play in times such as this”, as if true professionals need to be lectured by somone known for his antipathy and animosity toward their calling. But Modi, who mystifyingly accused the media of scuppering #CAA with its coverage of the protests, knows that it pays to massage the media ego.
There is nothing that pleases media barons more than the delusion that the country is being run as per their sage advice and guidance. And the sight of the prime minister taking notes while they spout their wisdom is affirmation of why they got into the media business actually.
The big English newspaper groups which took part in the “interaction”—The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Indian Express—are mercifully honest about its intent and outcome, possibly because they can see through the facade: Modest, general, medium-sized stories without bylines on the inside pages.
But the impressionable albeit influential language newspapers are another story. Most report the “interaction” from the perspective of their owners, as if they were the centre of attraction.
The front page of the Hindi daily ‘Rajasthan Patrika’ is a stellar example.
Often in the crosshairs of the BJP governments in the Centre and the state previously, it features a photograph of the paper’s owner Gulab Kothari grandly advising Modi during the ‘samvaad’.
The PM is, of course, taking notes in the TV screen on the wall.
The Telugu newspaper ‘Eenadu’ has the PM’s interaction with its owner Ramoji Rao as the front-page anchor.
The headline is Rao’s advice: “Save villages from Coronavirus”.
On the paper’s website, a clickable link takes readers to a 3-minute news item on the paper’s news channel ETV News, where Rao advises the PM on the steps to be taken to combat COVID.
(Rao sold his non-Telugu media empire to Mukesh Ambani‘s Reliance Industries.)
The Kannada daily ‘Vijaya Vani’, owned by former BJP MP and transport tycoon Vijay Sankeshwar, uses the “interaction” featuring his son Anand Sankeshwar as the top flyer.
The story is continued inside with a picture of Sankeshwar junior sitting with other colleagues as he takes part. Naturally Modi is doing his ‘namaskar’ to them on the screen.
The senior Sankeshwar was decorated with the Padma Sri this year.
In the Marathi daily ‘Lokmat’, the report features a photograph of managing director Rishi Darda on a split screen with Modi.
In the Oriya daily ‘Sambad’, its owner Soumya Ranjan Patnaik sits alongside ‘Dharitri’ and ‘Orissa Post’ owner Tathagatha Satpathy.
But the icing on the cake is ‘Andhra Jyothy’ owner K. Radhakrishna, whose newspaper has a stock picture of him on the cellphone.
Radhakrishna also runs the Telugu TV news channel ABN.
Ashwini Chopra of Punjab Kesari doesn’t feature his photograph, but has four pictures of Narendra Modi doing ‘namaskar’ to readers, “to save your life”.
Likewise, the Mathews of Malayala Manorama, who were present but were professional enough not to feature themselves.
The coverage of the PM’s “interaction” with the owners offers full and final proof, as if full and final proof were needed, that the freedom of the press in India truly belongs to those who own one.
Narendra Modi and his ministers and minions have been accused (correctly) of talking to owners directly, above the heads of editors and reporters, to undermine the journalistic process and to manage the headlines.
The cast of owners assembled by the Press Information Bureau (PIB)—20 participants from 14 locations representing 11 languages—shows it is not a wrong conclusion to make. Barring Jaideep Bose of ‘The Times of India’, a journalist who sits on the board, all of those who “advised” Modi are owners.
On the PIB website, the three photographs of the “interaction” offer clues of who stands where in the Prime Minister’s scheme of things. The pictures are of N. Ravi and Malini Parthasarathy of The Hindu, Ramoji Rao of Eenadu, and Shobhana Bhartia of HT.
The fawning, uncritical coverage in their newspapers today shows that yesterday’s “interaction” was a communications outreach that checked all the boxes.
Some media owners, it appears, also continued their samvaad with the PM after his 8 pm address, if this audio clip doing the rounds is authentic.