The need to ask questions of those in power is fundamental for the “preservation” of the nation and the health of a democracy, especially at a time when those who make the loudest noise tend to drown out those who disagree, President Pranab Mukherjee said in New Delhi on Thursday.
He was delivering the second Ramnath Goenka Lecture at the invitation of The Express Group.
“…the need to ask questions of those in power is fundamental for the preservation of our nation and of a truly democratic society. This is a role that the media has traditionally played and must carry on playing. All stakeholders in the democratic system, from parties to business leaders, citizens to institutions, have to realise that asking questions is good, asking questions is healthy, and, in fact, is fundamental to the health of our democracy,” Mukherjee said.
The Indian Express last year launched a lecture series dedicated to its founder Ramnath Goenka to mark the 25th anniversary of his passing, The Ramnath Goenka Lecture, in the spirit of the founder and the newspaper, aims to enrich and shape public discourse through the power of ideas.
Mukherjee said: “To my mind, while the press will be failing in its duty if it does not pose questions to the powers that be, it will have to simultaneously judge the frivolous from the factual and publicity from reportage. This is a tremendous challenge for the media and one that it must stand up to. It must resist the temptation to take the path of least resistance which is to allow a dominant viewpoint to prevail without questioning it or allowing others the opportunity to question it. Media must learn the art of withstanding pulls and pressures without sacrificing its commitment to free and fair reportage and always remain on guard against conformity.”
He underlined the need to keep an open mind to accommodate all points of view in the media space while doing rigorous fact checks to ensure accuracy in an era of “alternative facts” where extreme opinions to the left and the right abound.
“I have always believed that the bedrock of Indian civilisation has been its pluralism and its social, cultural, linguistic and racial diversity. That’s why we need to be sensitive to dominant narratives, of those who make the loudest noise, drowning out those who disagree. That’s why social media and broadcast news have seen angry aggressive posturing by state and non-state players literally hounding out contrarian opinions,” Mukherjee said.
At a time when people have the choice to read only what they want to and, more importantly, what they agree with, the “selective sourcing” of news, Mukherjee said, runs the risk of people turning a deaf ear to each other. This diminishes the room for agreement and increases the chances of intolerance taking over, he warned.
Technology, Mukherjee said, has opened the floodgates to the deluge of one-way unfiltered communication by the privileged to those who are less so. It is in this backdrop that media has an important role to play. “People in power, across the spectrum of politics, business or civil society, by virtue of the position they enjoy, tend to dominate the discourse and influence its direction. Due to technological advancement, they can now reach out directly to their audience, completely bypassing this crucial process of filtration and mediation. This often becomes a one-way only communication from the powerful to the less privileged, in an effort to push the narrative in one direction. Indian civilization has always celebrated plurality and promoted tolerance. These have been at the core of our very existence as a people, binding us together for centuries despite our many differences. We must continue to ‘throw open the windows for fresh breezes’ as Mahatma Gandhi observed, without being blown away.”
Talking about the phenomenal growth of the media, Mukherjee said that one had to be wary if its implications. “(The) abundance of media outlets has led to a highly competitive media environment which often results in the survival of the shrillest voices rising above the others to be heard. Dumbing down the news to attract an audience is another consequence of the phenomenal growth of the media. Together, these compulsions have led to complex issues being reduced to binary opposites which, in turn, create a polarity of views and distort the facts.”
He underlined the importance of giving people a forum to “doubt, disagree and dispute intellectually” without being blinkered by biases or “resisted with a closed mind.”
In his welcome address, Chairman of the Express Group Viveck Goenka said that Mukherjee was a public figure like no other — his range in public service was breathtaking. “In these times when most debates seem not just one-sided but some even zero-sided, when black and white seem to be the only two colours in our palette, when every discussion needs to be done, dusted, sealed and delivered, in less than a minute, the spirit of Ramnathji says that we do need a lecture…An insightful talk. And a reprimand of sorts, too. The kind Ramnathji would love. To make us sit up and listen. To embrace complexity so that we deepen our understanding of change,” Goenka said.
Giving the vote of thanks, Jaspal Bindra, executive chairman of the Centrum Group, talked about how he had followed Mukherjee since the latter’s days in the Finance Ministry, about his preference for the number 13 and his devotion to Durga.
Earlier, speaking about the founder of The Indian Express, Ramnath Goenka, President Mukherjee said that he embodied the finest virtues of journalism — fierce independence, fearlessness and a determination to stand up to the powerful and fight against abuse of power.
“There was nothing he enjoyed more than a fight to protect the right of The Indian Express to publish and be damned, if it came to that. He was a fighter. In the face of attempts to control the press during Emergency, he exemplified his willingness to stake all for his principles and to set the highest standards for press freedom in India. The blank editorial published by The Indian Express at that time, under the leadership of Ramnathji, was perhaps one of the strongest protests ever published against censorship in India. It spoke more loudly than any words could have. It still speaks loudly.”
The values that Ramnath Goenka celebrated, Mukherjee said, were relevant today more than ever. “The question that faces all of us including the media is whether we will choose to define ourselves as a nation enriched by the diversity of views or allow partisan views to dominate our national narrative?…We ought to remember that democracy will be the loser when and if we cease to hear voices other than our own,” Mukherjee said.
Earlier, introducing the lecture series that was launched last year by Dr Raghuram Rajan, Seema Chishti, Deputy Editor, The Indian Express, said that to many journalists and students of politics, Mukherjee was “Google before Google was invented” — his insight shaped by his over 50-year record in public service.
Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express Group, handed over to the President a special memento to mark the occasion and a photograph from the newspaper’s archives of Mukherjee from three decades ago.