The opening of the Kartarpur pilgrim route between India and Pakistan — and the colourful intervention of Navjot Singh Sidhu which smoothed the way — has unleashed unrelenting political spin in the media. While it was a novelty to see Indian and Pakistani journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai and Mehmal Sarfraz in the same studio on the other side of the artificial divide, and interesting to see Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan declaring that it is not in Pakistan’s interest to see its soil being used as a springboard for international terrorism, such clarity was occasionally missing in the Indian coverage.
The latest round of disinformation was delivered by Times Now, which spun a rather affable speech by Khan in praise of Sidhu’s efforts into a declaration of war on Narendra Modi. ANI showed the original, in which Khan said, “I don’t know why Sidhu was criticised. He was just talking about peace. He can come and contest elections here in Pakistan, and he’ll win. I hope we don’t have to wait for Sidhu to become Indian PM for everlasting peace between our nations.”
The thought of Sidhu at the helm must have rattled millions of Indians, but here’s how Times Now spun that: “Imran drops all pretenses, brazen leadership change call. Imran wants Modi out in 2019. Why does Pakistan fear Modi?” Navika Kumar hosted a prime time show hashtagged #ImranWantsModiOut. Satiated with perverting an expression of much-needed international goodwill, it ventured into domestic conspiracy-mongering. Times Now carried a “newsbreak”: “‘Muslim only’ manifesto for Telangana confirmed. Today, Cong’s pro-Muslim tilt gets better.” In reality, the Congress manifesto for the state had promised free power for all place of worship, regardless of denomination, and funds for the repair of all religious premises. You could accuse it of pandering to religious and minority sentiments, but not of unequal treatment.
While Times Now is clearly doctoring the news, a host of TV channels messed up coverage of the opening ceremony by focusing on a single incident, and the Pakistani press has taken a dim view of our inability to see the big picture. On the day the Kartarpur crossing was inaugurated, Karachi-based The Express Tribune noted, the Indian media watched in “hushed silence” until Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa was seen shaking hands with Gopal Chawla, General Secretary of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, who has pro-Khalistan leanings. What followed, the Tribune felt, was “frenzied propaganda against Pakistan”.
It may be recalled that the very same channels had produced similarly frenzied propaganda against Sidhu in August, when he had hugged the COAS. The hugplomacy bore fruit, despite the hyperventilating storm in our TV studios. And the deep focus on Chawla, a red herring which distracted attention from the diplomatic progress made, was so out of line that Major General Asif Ghafoor, Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations, reacted: “Indian media, taking a myopic view, is selectively showing Gopal Chawla meeting COAS. Army chief met all guests at the venue irrespective of identity. A peace initiative should not be subjected to propaganda.”
Spin is everywhere, and CNN has borrowed an old device from print media to counter it: the fact checker box that was a common feature in most newspapers until recently. But they did it in real time, which is quite a feat. Brooke Baldwin anchored coverage of the White House press briefing on climate change by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in which she dismissed the recent report as “not based on facts”, but on unreliable modelling. While the world’s climate scientists depend on modelling, it was presumably found unreliable because the good folk at the White House found it incomprehensible. CNN ran a side panel titled ‘Fact First’ along with the coverage, providing all the information that the viewer could possibly need.
We, who only get the BBC’s sanitised world service, are denied goodies like Inside the Foreign Office, which is restricted to the UK service. But one clip has leaked out and is regaling the world. Before meeting up with the economy minister, Britain’s former foreign secretary Boris Johnson has to do a quick bit of filming for his Twitter feed. “I am in Lisbon,” he says, “to celebrate the oldest alliance and friendship in diplomatic history, going back to 1386, going forward through the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War, when this was a place, er, er… Cut this for a second. What did we do in the Second World War? This place was neutral, wasn’t it? The Azores? What did we do in the Azores?”
After the cut, Boris changes tack, abandoning the grand sweep of history in favour of crass commerce: “Portugal is our fourth-largest trading partner.” An aide breaks in with the news that it’s the other way round: the UK is Portugal’s fourth-largest trading partner. “Okie-kokie,” says Boris, and plunges on: “James Bond himself was said to have been born here in Estoril.” The correctional aide is back: “James Bond: he wasn’t born. The idea of James Bond was born here.” After Lisbon, next stop: “Hi, this is Boris Johnson, and I’m in Paris, our nearest neighbour.” Out of kindness for a wounded animal, the BBC camera switches off.