Hoist by its own petard—which was Shakespeare‘s way of saying “blown by your own bomb”—on China’s incursion into Indian territory, the Narendra Modi government has rolled out “headline management” on a war footing to control the political damage emanating from the prime minister’s naked lie (above).
With hitherto “loyal” journalists covering the defence and external affairs ministries no longer able to see merit in Modi’s claim at the all-party meeting, despite the clarification from the PMO the next day, the BJP-led NDA government’s image handlers have embarked on tried and tested methods to limit the fallout.
# It has begun to communicate directly with Editors, over the heads of specialist reporters, on WhatsApp.
# It is urging TV bosses to “downplay” satellite pictures showing Chinese incursion that contradict Modi’s claim.
# It is falling back on BJP beat reporters to undercut defence and MEA reporters and paint a rosy narrative.
# It is accusing news agencies like Press Trust of India of “anti-national” reporting.
The Modi government’s moves have caused more than a little heartburn among journalists on the BJP beat, and led to considerable double-guessing among specialist journalists on the defence and MEA beats.
On Friday, handpicked journalists on the BJP beat received a “debriefing” from foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla—not in his South Block office, or at the sprawling Jawaharlal Nehru Bhavan which houses the ministry of external affairs in Delhi—but at the home of Kiren Rijiju, the minister of state for youth and sports affairs.
Archis Mohan, a journalist with the Business Standard newspaper, tweeted the news.
Originally, the word was the external affairs minister S. Jaishankar and information and baordcasting minister Prakash Javdekar would brief the BJP beat journalists but in the end it was left to foreign secretary Shringla, and minister for minority affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, at the home of the junior minister, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh.
By a cruel twist of fate, Rijiju’s home is on Krishna Menon Marg, named after the defence minister when India last fought a war with China in 1962.
The Modi government’s decision to keep only a few “loyal” journalists in the loop has resulted in serious sniping in the wider community covering the BJP.
“The BJP’s pet poodles who interview Ram Madhav and Vinay Sahasrabudhe and Bhupendra Yadav every week, and media outlets which find space for their brilliant articles on their op-ed pages got the pride of place,” said one incensed BJP beat journalist on being left out of the “debriefing”.
The out-of-the-ordinary interaction of the foreign secretary with handpicked BJP beat journalists came close on the heels of the creation of a WhatsApp group by the Army public relations officer (PRO) Col Aman Anand as the Chinese incursion became apparent.
The WhatsApp group, created in early June, is said to comprise about two dozen Editors of newspapers and newsroom heads of TV channels, most of them Delhi based.
“Editors, especially of TV channels, were yesterday gently nudged to not play up the satellite images of the border situation which clearly show that either Narendra Modi was ignorant or was lying when he said no one had entered India’s borders,” said a defence reporter.
Whether the nudge to downplay satellite pictures came on WhatsApp or on the phone is unclear, but it is unlikely a message of that nature would be broadcast to all, although it has its benefits.
The creation of a WhatsApp group of editors by the Army PRO is problematic at many levels. One, the Army is speaking overs the heads of defence correspondents, while leaving them guessing of what their editors are being conveyed or instructed.
Older, more established defence correspondents may be able to have their writ run in their organisations despite the direct line of communication between the Army and the Editors, but younger ones do not enjoy the same privilege.
Two, instead of the time-honoured journalistic process of issuing a clarification, or rebutting and denying published stories, telling Editors not to run satellite pictures amounts to virtual pre-censorship of stories by the Army.
And three, there is a full-fledged Indian Information (IIS) officer of joint secretary level, at the helm of the defence ministry’s media outreach wing, ADGM&C. Is the Army PRO’s WhatsApp instructions to Editors with his knowledge and approval?
A third flank the Modi government has opened as part of its headline management to limit the damage of Narendra Modi’s premature articulation on the China issue, is painting news organisations which show the government in poor light, as “anti-national”.
On Friday, the news agency Press Trust of India (PTI) put out an interview with India’s ambassador to China, Vikram Misri, in a series of tweets, one of which (above) clearly suggested the opposite of Modi’s June 19 claim, that China had not intruded across the LAC.
The quote was eventually not included in the PTI story, but the damage was done.
As naturally as night follows day, unnamed “officials” were planting stories on Saturday that the supposedly autonomous Prasar Bharati Corporation, which is her master’s voice regardless of the party in power, was singing the “anti-national” tune against PTI.
The Economic Times journalist Vasudha Venugopal tweeted Prasar Bharati’s peeve.
For the record, PTI has long been in the line of fire of the Narendra Modi government, after Arun Jaitley‘s ham-handed attempts to install one of his own as the agency’s Editor was noisily rebuffed by the owners who run the newswire.
Smriti Irani, as I&B minister, targetted PTI’s newly appointed Editor Vijay Joshi over a picture that mocked Narendra Modi.
The Prasar Bharati attempt to label a vast news agency as PTI as “anti-national” achieves a crucial objective: it sends a chilling message to everybody down the food chain to either fall in line, or risk being accused of desh droh.
Screenshot: courtesy The Telegraph