The Indian media have been on talking terms with the Pakistani armed forces for decades, but a nuclear winter is descending after the beheadings on the border. In retrospect, perhaps the apoplectic fulminations of reporters in photographers’ jackets gussied up to look like flak jackets was preferable to the silence which is now descending. Even malevolent clowning is a form of communication. The silence of the echo chamber is far unhealthier.
Relations between the Indian media and the Pakistani brass were prudently formal until Times Now made it fashionable for studios to be tastefully decorated with a couple of retired Pakistani generals who are there to be yelled at, and to yell back, for handsome appearance fees and punishment posting allowances.
Arnab Goswami, pioneer of such confidence busting measures, is back in action with Republic TV after six months off air. The free to air channel, whose logo is a capital R followed by an emphatic full stop, will soon be on Hotstar, too, extending its reach. In recent weeks, we have been seeing Republic TV billboards promising migraines for Pakistan, but other TV studios are offering migraines exclusively for retired Pakistani generals. Led by Rajdeep Sardesai, a few anchors have vowed not to invite Pakistani military leaders to their shows. This is a strong signal but one suspects that after a favourable change in the weather report — after the storms subside in Kashmir — studios will resume the India-Pakistan verbal hot-pursuit challenge.
If you flipped through the news channels earlier in the week, you would have come away with the impression that the situation in Kashmir and the visit of Recep Tayyip Erdogan were the big issues facing the nation. The silence on the Aadhaar case in the Supreme Court, which persisted until a daily splashed it on the front page, was simply incomprehensible. Erdogan’s random thoughts on Kashmir can scarcely be more important than the Aadhaar question, which will influence the nature of our democracy and the validity of the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. It is surprising that journalists, who are unusually quick to engage with questions thrown up by digital culture — in which we are immersed, actually — were initially disinterested in this particular matter.
But the press has other things to ponder. Reporters Without Borders has released the freedom Index for 2017, in which India has slid down three places to the 136th position, directly after Algeria and Palestine. The entry on India is headlined “Threat from Modi’s Nationalism” and speaks of growing self-censorship in the face of a “purge” of “anti-national thought” from the national discourse. The passage also speaks of the growing incidence of online smear campaigns against journalists and the use of sedition law to encourage self-censorship. Bars on foreign funding and the recent internet outages in Kashmir are also mentioned. Well, nothing we didn’t know already, but the index is not made to inform us. It informs other nations about what’s going on here. Their reactions should be interesting.
India is also in the thick of the business model crisis which mowed down vast swathes of the American media and causes the Guardian (it is visibly conspicuously among many other publications) to solicit subscriptions to support good journalism, which is expensive. Our markets are dissimilar, being much more dependent on advertising than on subscriptions, but the effects of convergence are being felt here, too.
But cheer up. It has been a week of some truly extraordinary goof-ups. In the UK, the Sun reported that Prince Philip had died. This was an exaggeration, as Mark Twain said about news of his own death. The prince has only retired from his public duties, thankfully, and we can look forward to lots more controversy in a jocular vein from him. Indeed, the Sun story itself inspired a fair bit of humour, urging the British to complain that the empire is so very clearly history that people laugh when something newsworthy happens at Buckingham Palace. When something happens at Putin’s Kremlin, on the contrary, the US sends NATO troops to Poland and Germany.
The British are generally good-humoured and heads did not roll for the Prince Philip story, but that relentless slap-slap-slap in the middle distance is the sound of bottoms being smacked at the Indian Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA). Some inattentive cog in its sarkari machinery had retweeted a tweet from one “Venkronym Naidu”, an account satirising MoHUPA minister Venkaiah Naidu. It explained that MoHUPA expands to “Ministry of Helpful Ultra-Powerful Acronyms”. Our government is perfectly humourless but fortunately, the sedition law has not been invoked against the subversive Venkronym.