For the record: ‘If politicians go into a shell, they waste opportunity that has no cost’

The second change was that 24x7 television decided they are not meant to report but to set the agenda.

Updated: February 6, 2015 1:39 am
I&B Minister Arun Jaitley with MoS Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore in New Delhi on Monday. (PTI Photo) I&B Minister Arun Jaitley with MoS Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore in New Delhi on Monday. (PTI Photo)

Edited excerpts from Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley’s speech on February 2 at the workshop
on ‘streamlining government communication’, organised by the Press Information Bureau.

The first significant change in the communications scenario is that the nature of the medium has completely altered. The convention was that newspaper pages are sacrosanct — they must accurately report what they are supposed to report, and opinion pages were meant for expressing a variety of opinion. That’s no longer the case, and the reason for this is the entry of 24×7 television in the last two decades. The definition of news has changed. So, a conventional Press Information Bureau (PIB) release, just informing about
a government programme, is no news for television.

The second change was that 24×7 television decided they are not meant to report but to set the agenda, and get government, politicians and civil servants to react to it. But technology has impacted another change. The future doesn’t even belong to television, but to digital media. The reach of digital media is massive and the costs are very little. My television viewing time has declined because I keep getting news throughout the day.

We are a country with 900 million mobile phones; the number of smartphones is almost half of that figure and increasing. In this scenario, what does the government do and what does the civil servant do? I think it’s a great opportunity because there’s a huge constituency of people who, in this crowded media scene, are also interested in getting factual information.

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In the game of government, there’s a huge institutional architecture led by a political mechanism. Political leaders have to decide how much they want to communicate. They have to lead from the front. If some of them go into a shell, they are wasting an opportunity that has no cost. It is very difficult to expect civil servants to become the face of the ministry. They will always exhibit restraint, legitimately. But I think, there’s a huge amount of information that needs to be presented and there’s a large constituency waiting for it.

The information that the government prepares should never be long-winded. It should be crisp, but it must have lots of facts and figures. There’s a large section of readers/ viewers starved of factual information.

In relation to most government activities, there’s a distinction between propaganda and information. Your job is not to spread propaganda. In my field, we can do it. You can’t. Your job is to put out government-centric information. This information may not find a mention in a prime-time debate. There’s nothing unusual about that. But in spite of the width of mediums available, it still has the capacity to reach millions of people.

Your own department’s website must be credible. The information must be correct. It should be presented in a reader-friendly manner. Everybody in the ministerial team may not be as familiar with the art of dealing with the media. So slowly, everybody has to be nudged, because we live through the media, we communicate through the media.

The media has also become more interested, not in the final decision that the government takes, but in the decision-making process. This creates a problem. I have always believed that a civil servant’s job is to honestly and correctly present his or her views. You give both sides of the picture and then suggest the more appropriate step  the government should take.

Ultimately, the decision-making authority may agree or disagree with you. But because of the changed character of the media — from being reporters to being agenda-setting players — they will be more interested in the alleged controversy in the decision-making process. There may be cases where people have alternative views and they must be factored in. But one has to be extremely careful that even when contrarian views are expressed, this is done as part of an honest decision-making process.

Ultimately, it is the last decision of the government that prevails. Society is relatively open now and not much is secret in governance. Therefore, the use of language should be restrained. Even when there is a contrarian view, it should not be bombshell-creating. While there are many advantages of a highly open society, an honest expression of opinion is one area that could create issues and be embarrassing to the civil servant himself. We should be conscious of this. This is not to suggest that you don’t express yourself honestly. You are trained with your experience to do that and you must always be prepared to give the best input to the final decisions the government takes.

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