[This is a guest post by an independent journalist journalist and in Kolkata]
How difficult is to make a choice between the Caligula and the powerful senators who plotted against him, purportedly to save Rome from the populist-turned paranoid emperor?
The question comes to one’s mind in view of the ongoing public spat between Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and a powerful section of Bengal media which has virtually likened her to a female (a non-libidinous also) version of Caligula. The row, that now involves pro and anti-Mamata media blocs also, has been triggered by a recent government order asking 2500 plus state-run and aided libraries to subscribe, initially, to eight pro-government newspapers —five Bengali, two Urdu and one Hindi— barring the market leaders in these segments. The circular of the state libraries and mass education department cited the ‘promotion of free-thinking’ as the reason behind favouring the chosen newspapers.
However, the issues involved are neither limited to Mamata’s increasing attempts to browbeat critical media as the aggrieved houses are complaining about nor her well-meaning effort to support ‘small’, resource-starved newspapers against their big brothers as she herself and beneficiaries of her patronage are claiming. A closer scrutiny reveals that there are more to it beyond the binary of Ora–amra (them and us), now part of Bengal’s political and media lexicon after Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s infamous bragging over his government’s brute majority in the state assembly in order to rubbish all opposition to his policies.Mamata and her Courtiers
Mamata’s blatant patronage of her courtiers in media is evident from the selection of her favoured dailies. Both the editor and associate editor of one of the favoured Bengali newspapers, Sambad Pratidin, is now Trinamul Rajya Sabha MPs. The latter is also the group CEO of Sarada Group, which publishes Sakalbela, the other chosen one. The group now controls two of the city’s oldest Urdu newspapers; Azad Hind and Akhbar-e Masriq in addition to running two news channels. The Masriq editor and his counterpart in Sanmarg, one of the oldest Hindi dailies in Kolkata that will also enjoy the sarkari promotion have also entered the upper house as Trinamul nominees this month. The other three favourite broadsheets are Dainik Statesman, Ekdin and Khabar 365. The order left the largest selling Bengali daily, Anandabazar Patrika and second lead, Bartaman out of government patronage since both are now hostile to Mamata though on different grounds.
The list was extended later to include another five newspapers after her detractors in media cried foul and a section of pro-Paribartan civil society as well as CPM-led Opposition and Mamata’s bruised ally, Congress joined in protesting the blatant bias. The revised government order has now included Times of India, clearly to tick off The Telegraph, the market leader in English segment in Kolkata from the stable of the ABP group which also owns Anandabazar Patrika and host of other upmarket periodicals in addition of running television channels and FM stations. It was another matter whether TOI, the flagship of a largest media empire can be counted among small newspapers to receive the token state patronage. The order also added Aajkal; a pro-left Bengali daily, to show government’s impartiality as Mamata harped on that, and two Nepali and Santhali dailies as well as new-born Bengali daily with special focus on Muslim community.
Mamata’s claims of promoting the small resource-starved newspapers through this order fell flat on its face as her media detractors revealed another recent government order stopping government advertisements to district and sub-division based publications.
The earlier regime had promoted the CPM daily and other pro-LF newspapers at government expenses, through advertisements and better visibility at state libraries. It filled up press accreditation committee etc mostly with the journalists belonging to Bhattacharjee’s charmed circle. Mamata has been doing the same but only more blatantly. During the CPM’s heyday, loyalty to the party was the passport for all kinds of self-servers. In Didi’s rule, unquestioning obeisance to her is the only criteria for getting berths in her numerous committees.
Power begets Paranoia
The mercurial Didi is never known to be tolerant to criticism, even from friendly quarters. She runs her party and now the government as a personal fiefdom. Her intemperate and increasingly abusive treatment of journalists who still dare to ask unpleasant questions only echoed Bhattacharjee’s arrogance and impatience, particularly during Singur and Nandigram years. With the illusion of a fundamental Paribartan in political-social culture — the change from CPM’s one-party rule towards non-partisan and tolerant government and ruling party— fading fast even from the eyes of her civil society supporters, Mamata is now aping the CPM’s carrot and stick policy to tame the disloyal media including few TV channels.
Bengal’s new ruler has started seeing the ominous signs of ‘conspiracies’ around her as the hostile section of media is reporting bloody factional street-battles among her boys over the share of power and fortune when they are not busy in capturing unions in colleges, factories and service sectors including transport from the CPM. Mamata’s volte-face is most shocking concerning the crime against women. Our big sis had always posed herself as the agony aunt for the rape victims during LF regime. She made headlines by clashing with police while exhibiting one deaf and dumb victim in front of Jyoti Basu’s chamber at the corridor of state power which she now walks on. She made political scores by flanking herself with those violated women in her public rallies till the assembly polls last year. But as the first woman chief minister in Bengal, she has not only rubbished the complaints of victim women irrespective of their social background— night-club hopping upmarket Kolkatan, a poor village widow in Bardwan and a tribal housewife in Junglemahal— but also accused them of fabricating lies at the instigation of the Opposition, both CPM and Maoist varieties.
Exactly what CPM and Bhattacharjee, for that matter, his predecessor, Jyoti Basu used to say in similar situations. The powerspeak has remained eerily unchanged as she has swapped the roles with Bhattacharjee and other CPM bigwigs in denying debt-driven suicides by farmers, starvation deaths or negligence death of new-borns in government hospitals after she has assumed office. True, maladies accrued over the decades of LF rule can’t be cured in 10-months of her rule. But that cannot condone her daily denial of unpalatable reality and ridiculous claims of already solving the tricky political and administrative problems including Gorkhaland agitation. Angry with the disloyal media’s out-of-sync reporting, she accused them of hatching a ‘conspiracy’ against her government by ignoring her developmental initiatives and polluting public mind with misinformation. She threatened to hit back by telling the public not to read and watch those ‘bundle of lies and smear campaign.’ Once again, this only reminded Jyoti Basu’s routine public tirade against selected media in the eighties.
Mamata’s Clash with the King(queen) makers
But Mamata’s megalomania alone can’t explain the clash of interests with the powerful section of media.
Although she launched her tirade against her media detractors through a televised interaction with chosen journalists representing the loyal TV channels, there are some truths in Mamata’s charges as she hit back against ABP group and Bartaman without naming them.
Beneath the veneer of rhetoric over democratic norms in government-media and its violations, business rivalries between the two sections of the media houses have been lurking close to the surface since the run-ups for regime-change in Bengal. Both the owners of Pratidin and Sakalbela have business interests in non-media sectors. Particularly, the latter group, with a controversial Chit fund background and stakes in real estate et al, has undertaken an aggressive drive to take over old newspapers and TV channels in Kolkata to addition to its new ventures that include a Guwahati-based English daily. With a highly politically ambitious journalist-turned Trinamul MP and Mamata’s confidante serving both the groups, the bloc seems to have rattled their more established competitors. That Mamata has decided to promote their rivals who are eyeing their market share apparently peeved the market leaders. Bartaman under its founder-editor Barun Sengupta, the tallest journalist in Bengal in post-independence period, had supported Mamata in her Opposition years but changed its tune after the assembly polls. Apparently, it felt betrayed. In retaliation, Mamata has stopped government advertisements. As she no more needs watchdogs that will bark at the government but tail-wagging lapdogs only, she has denied Bartaman the role of the queen-maker and her conscience-keeper that the paper has been claiming after she came to power.
Democracy and its Pretentious Media Defenders
But it’s not only the matter of immediate business rivalries and Mamata’s defaults in paying back her political debts to her media mentors. As Mamata indicated enough in her outburst, the real clash, specially, with the ABP group, is more on macro government policies with far-reaching impacts on its strategic business interests. Run by the high priests of pro-corporate, pro-FDI market fundamentalism, the most powerful media house in Eastern India with growing foreign connections has always loathed Mamata’s ‘street-smart, populist politics’. Their mutual bitterness was particularly high since the Singur agitation that led to exit of Tata’s Nano project out of Bengal which was so close to the ABP owners’ hearts and plans.
Mamata recalled that the group had then lionised industry-friendly ‘brand Buddha’ while demonising her as anti-development, anti-industry and backward-looking politician. During Nandigram, the group was initially dismissive and hostile to the peasant unrest. It became critical to the CPM and government after public opinion raged over police firing that claimed lives of farmers, both men and women, and, later on ‘harmads’-run recapture of the turf. Nevertheless, its heart continued to bleed for Bhattacharjee’s vision of top-down, forced industrialisation. The head of the ABP empire found a Bengali Deng in Buddha, succeeded to set the agenda for him to a good extent. He went for Buddha’s apotheosis while trying hard to keep his nemesis away from power as long as possible. The media group grudgingly changed tune only when writing on the walls became too clear for Bhattacharjee regime.
Prakash Karat and Mamata have one thing in common. Both have been treated as enemy of progress in the country and Bengal respectively by the ABP group. Karat’s crime was not only limited to his ditching of Congress over the Indo-US nuke deal. His original sin made room for Mamata to join hand with Congress to dislodge Buddha. This was against the wish list of the ABP owners who have always aspired to do the backseat driving for successive Bengal governments. The aspiration is anchored in their self-perceptions as the guardian angels of Bengal politics as well as its post-Tagore culture and literature. Despite their pathological hatred of communists in general and CPM in particular, Buddha was their best bet in Bengal.
Not that the house and its popular Bengali channel, Star Ananda did not court Mamata time to time before and after polls, depending on the political equations between her and the groups’ owners. But the tension between two sides has been renewed with Mamata’s refusal to buckle under the group’s pressure on number of high-stake issues. These include acquisition of farmland for industry and abolition of urban land ceiling that would allow big league developers to grab land more openly as well as recognition of SEZ status to Infosys’ proposed expansion project and other aspirants. Mamata said no to all these citing her pre-poll positions. Her electoral instincts knew she would have to sustain her rural support base in view of upcoming Panchayat polls. So she announced a pro-farmer state budget without big sops to industry and stopped co-operative banks to auction defaulting farmers’ properties—all much to the chagrin of the ABP group. It showed cautious optimism after Mamata made ‘baby steps’ in removing rural land ceiling by allowing corporate holding of ceiling-extra land in specific sectors but declined to withdraw urban land ceiling as lobbied by the ABP group and its likes in corporate media.
A zealot for reforms who wants faster pace that Manmohon Singh-Pranab Mukherjee can afford because of coalition hazards and Congress’ compulsions to court Am Admi, the ABP top gun is miffed at Mamata for role in spoiling government’s proposed reforms in retail, pension, insurance and labour laws et al— all dear to his heart. That Mamata forced Manmohan to rollback train fare-hike and make her Man Friday, Mukul Roy railway minister by replacing prodigal Dinesh Trivedi also infuriated him further.
Caught Between: The Legacy of Independent Journalism
The economic wisdom or lack of it in Mamata’s policies and media’s freedom is not the issue at stake as it has been portrayed. For, neither side is interested in fair and balanced reporting and informed public debate on the pros and cons of government moves and alternatives suggested by different quarters. If Mamata never bothers for any discussion in the state cabinet and her party forums on major policy issues before cracking her brainwaves in public, the first family of Bengal media also cares a fig about creating level-playing ground for the development discourses that now compete in politics and governance across the country. For the media tycoons, all the debates have been automatically settled after the fall of Soviet Union and neo-liberalism is the panacea for all the ills of Bengal and rest of India. They openly boast of setting agenda for the public opinion and deciding the parameters for public interests in tune with their political and business strategies.
If Mamata runs her fiefdom according to her whims, the ABP empire is being run as a feudatory where no democratic niceties are allowed in the name of journalistic and intellectual freedom. Subordinate journalists are not allowed to air their opinion freely even inside the newsroom, report and write according to the golden rules of independent journalism. Instead, they are goaded to follow the ‘newsroom consensus’ dictated by the corporate boardrooms or the enlightened autocrats, the owner-editors. Those who crow about the media freedom in editorials are the worst violators of journalist’s rights. Media insiders know it from their daily experiences. But this is also true in case of other media empires as their apologists in journalistic fraternity, the new-age pragmatic professionals, will argue.
This makes the absurdity of the high-pitched quarrels between the paranoid ruler(s) and the self-righteous and self-serving media mughals who pretends to uphold democratic values unbearable. As more and more apprentices of Goebbels are masquerading as journalists in this part of the country, those who still fail to conform to the new standards, mourn a death— the death of independent journalism in Bengal.