There are at least 50 reporters in Delhi on the defence beat. But for nearly six weeks, from early-May to mid-June, all but a couple of them were in the dark, or in patriotic denial, of the Chinese incursion into Indian territory at Ladakh.
The killing of 20 soldiers on June 15 provided the necessary reality check.
The prime minister’s logic-defying claim five days later that “no one has intruded on Indian soil, nor is any one sitting on Indian soil” (despite the defence minister’s interview to the contrary) produced a fusillade of editorial criticism.
When “mutual disengagement” was announced on July 7 after a phone call between the special representatives of the two countries, the print media called the government bluff that under “strong man” Narendra Modi, India had surrendered territory to China.
But something has been seriously amiss since.
As headline management kicked in, the government nudged TV editors not to play up satellite pictures; Press Trust of India was accused by Prasar Bharati of being “anti-national”, journalists received ready-made notes on what to play up.
The message went down.
Rather than demanding the head of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval for a cock-up that resulted in the loss of 20 soldiers, saccharine-sweet profiles followed. And to a man, newspapers reported that the Chinese had gone back.
“Pullback at Gogra”: Indian Express
“Chinese army retreats in Ladakh’s Gogra”: Hindustan Times
“Withdrawal at Hot Springs is complete”: NDTV
“Both sides start pulling back in Hot Springs sector”: Indian Express
“Gogra position restored; big troop pullback at Hot Springs”: Economic Times
What achieved this dramatic turn-around in the media?
Ajai Shukla, the strategic affairs consultant of Business Standard, who was the first to alert the world of the Chinese incursions, provides a scathing commentary on the media consonance in a July 11 interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire.
4.56: Karan Thapar: Are you saying these headlines from multiple newspapers are inaccurate, in fact they are false, they are not true?
Ajai Shukla: “Absolutely, that’s precisely what I am saying. They are all getting their information from one source, that is the government’s outlets that are disseminating information. There is very little verification on the ground going on. There are no crosschecks that these newspapers are carrying out from local sources. And they are basically reporting what the government is saying. All of them say government sources, government sources. That’s primarily where they are getting their information from…
“The government is misleading the media, and the government is putting pressure on the Army to toe the line. The Army is just spouting a line that is laid down from the National Security Adviser’s office. They want to create the impression that a pullback has taken place. Some kind of face-saving is necessary from the Indian side for the new settlement to be put in place, and this is apparently the method they have chosen to do it…
“In several cases, the senior correspondent who is in the know of what is happening has not put his name to the report. Instead other correspondents from that newspaper have their names on the report. These correspondents are per force forced to rely on the army’s statements that come out.
“In this country at this time the Army is a holy cow that cannot be questioned. So when the Army’s spokesman on orders from the NSA gives a statement that they have withdrawn from such and such place, most correspondents simply take that at face value because they simply don’t have the means to cross verify. They have not got sources on the ground which take years of cultivation to create and they have no recourse to technical intelligence. So they report what the Army tells them, and the Army is under instruction to spout the line.”
Further on in the interview, Ajai Shukla talks of the intelligence and operational lapses marking the biggest loss of Indian territory since the 1962 war. But, he says, even bigger than that is the “information dissemination lapse”.
“The biggest and the most telling lapse is the information dissemination lapse that is taking place right now. A completely false picture is being painted of what is actually going on at the border. An impression of Chinese withdrawal is being created when that is not happening. And that to me is the greatest lapse for India in general, and Indian democracy as a whole.”