The CBI raids on NDTV owner Prannoy Roy are designed for multiple objectives. At a surface level, they are meant to intimidate the press. But, at a deeper level, they also seek to heighten the social and ideological momentum on which much of this government hopes to thrive.
Most ordinary citizens and commentators are at an asymmetrical disadvantage when dealing with law enforcement agencies. Most of us, rightly, find it difficult to comment on specific cases because none of us have seen the relevant documentary evidence. And even if you have, it takes extraordinary sophistication to separate truth from innuendo. We are sometimes astonished at the confidence with which people pronounce presumptive guilt or innocence in individual cases, brandish selective pieces of evidence, and come to all kinds of conclusions. This is why a society needs strong adjudicators of the truth: Credible independent investigations, courts, etc. This is why trials cannot be media trials, without careful and rigorous protocols of fact-finding, legal issues, etc., in place.
But what do you do in a society where “truth adjudicating” institutions have less and less credibility? How much do we trust the CBI? The answer depends on what our prior experiences are in particular cases. One response to this frustration with the lack of credibility of state institutions was the frenzied media trial; the public was willing to do what it thought institutions could not. This had the inevitable consequence — innuendo became proof of guilt, evidence was parcelled on partisan lines, cases became about destroying reputations, not establishing the truth.
We cheered this so long as “civil society” was doing it. The net result was two-fold — on the one hand, we did not gain better institutions; nor did our power to discover the truth increase. But what this did achieve was clearing a ground where the politics of innuendo would win hands down over everyone else. All we have to do is to cast doubt on someone’s credibility, and they are on the defensive.
This backdrop is necessary to understanding what seems to be going on in the performance of the NDTV case, if not the actual case itself. Sections of the media were often incompetent, sycophantic, partisan and compromised in many ways. The media’s alliance of convenience with ruling establishments has a long history. But what happened to the media in recent years was an almost wholescale de-legitimisation.
Some of it was deserved. But a large chunk of it was the state and the political class taking its full and artful revenge on civil society. It performed an ideological function more than a descriptive one. Once the press called all politicians cheats, the political class simply turned the tables on them by calling them all “presstitutes”. Remember, as civil society did, all the state had to do was sow the seeds of doubt. The result was an almost wholescale delegetimisation of the media.
What we had perhaps not realised is the dangerous degree to which we had internalised this narrative. This has put people defending press freedom on the back foot. Defending the freedom of the press is now associated with defending corruption and compromise. The most amazing alchemy that we have achieved is a confusion of the two — defending freedom of the press has become defending “presstitutes”.
One does not have to second-guess the CBI’s motives. But the function of the raids is to keep this confusion alive. It is to keep feeding the story that the defenders of press freedom are in truth nothing but those who sold themselves. More than the specific act of intimidation, it is this ideological construct that serves the powers that be most effectively.
NDTV has today become, for the right wing, the totem in this ideological construction of the media: The corrupt in the guise of the free, the anti-national in the guise of the cosmopolitan, the closet weapon of the old Congress establishment masquerading under the guise of independence. But the rest of the media will be foolish to suppose that this is just about NDTV; NDTV will become the stand-in for media that deviates from the party line. The government will constantly need to feed this idea, constantly finding new targets. It is the politics, of casting doubt on the media, that shores up its power.
The worrying thing is not just that the government has decided to go for a show of intimidation — it is that the entire media is so much on the defensive. It so much operates within the ideological horizon that has de- clared it a “presstitute” that it is scared of defending itself. It has so internalised a self-image created for ideological purposes that it constantly needs to wrap itself up in a flag of nationalist virtue, to shore up its credibility.
None of us who have not seen the documents can have a view on whether there is a credible case against NDTV; nor is this a place to debate NDTV’s virtues and vices as a news channel. But the manner, circumstances and justification for the CBI raid does beg more questions than it answers. Given the facts out there, it seems a case of selective targeting for demonstration effect. And the lack of media worry about this should be worrying.
There could be an understandable reticence on the part of the media in not wanting to pre-empt an investigation, or prejudging guilt or innocence in a particular case. If the CBI feels a raid is necessary, who are we to second guess that decision? But this is clearly not a case of the media suddenly finding institutional restraint to be a virtue. Whatever the truth of the case (and you hope some institution can credibly adjudicate it), the sequence of events leading up to it should worry the media.
This is not a case where the “law seems to be taking its own course”. If it is indeed professional law enforcement doing its job, then professional law enforcement should give professional explanations of what is going on — what you get instead is a party spokesman pre-emptively threatening a channel on live air, on the grounds that they have an “agenda”, and then, the raids follow. Perhaps just a remarkable coincidence?
Recovering the media’s credibility will be hard; its internal problems run deep. But if the media does not see that the fundamental ideological justification of the state will require constant targeting and delegitimising of the media, it is missing the story. The CBI raids on NDTV are not about fixing NDTV: They are about casting doubt on the very possibility of media.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Delhi, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’