[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ccording to John Locke, three rules guide the human life — the divine law, the civil law and the law of opinion. In the modern world, in fact since the days of Locke, the third law — that of opinion — assumed greater importance than the other two. The importance of opinion building gained increasing importance with the change of technology; first printing press, next the introduction of steam engine and finally the first wave of globalisation with Columbus and the East India Company playing significant roles.
With the change in technology came the change in the tools used for shaping opinion. When the printing press arrived, print media became the most important influencer for generating public opinion. Then came radio, next video — first movies and then television.
The infamous Joseph Goebbels successfully used all media to propel Adolf Hitler to power. Success of Goebbels made the term “propaganda” an ugly one. Realising this, the father of peacetime propaganda Edward Louis Bernays, who was part of the American effort during World War I, coined the term “public relations” when he launched the business of influencing crowd behaviour. Rigging public opinion became an integral part of the business of lobbying. Media emerged as the single most critical tool for influencing public opinion. Even the first two laws mentioned by Locke increasingly banked on mass media to propagate their views.
When so many interest groups are eager to manipulate opinion through media, it is but natural that everyone in media — owner, editor and even a lowly placed newsgatherer — will feel disproportionately important than what their job actually deserves. In order to prove their point of view, they manipulate, misinterpret and even occasionally manufacture news. A glaring example was of a leading English newspaper that had created a story of attempted coup in the country a few years ago. With there being no mechanism of penalising such sponsored news-traders, such media persons keep on enjoying privileges. When the seniors indulge in news trading, juniors cannot remain far behind. As a result, a not-so-insignificant part of what goes in the name of news are actually “plants”.
The unchecked abuse of authority and near absence of ‘due diligence’ while carrying a news help the business of rigging news and twisting public opinion. Vested interests across the board are busy influencing the influencers through manipulation of news. While the trend is prevalent in business of all sorts, the bias in news is perhaps the commonest; yet little talked of is in the field of education. Smriti Irani, for example, finds herself at the receiving end of this bias. Remember the campaign against Irani on the issue of teaching German as the third “Indian” language?
One reason is the dominance of left-leaning academicians in the Indian education system. This saw to it that no other thoughts survived the Indian discourse. Academicians not subscribing to their arguments find themselves as persona non grata of sorts in the Indian campuses. Thus a Jagdish Bhagwati receives less warm reception than an Amartya Sen while, judging by their respective contributions to applied economics, the former deserves more attention. This inherent bias saw a brilliant young scholar Subramanian Swamy being denied his post in the Delhi University then run by leftist economists like KN Raj, Amartya Sen and Sukhomoy Chakraborty. Swamy went back to teach at the Harvard University at the invitation of the legendary professor Paul A Samuelson.
The game continues unchecked. The most recent case in point is the controversy surrounding the shortlisting of Bidyut Chakrabarty in the list of four for the post of Vice Chancellor of Delhi University. A bunch of leftist intellectuals, which included a former journalist of a leading English publication, has objected to the empanelment of Chakrabarty, a professor of political science with no known leftist leaning. What is interesting is that the publication that carried the insignificant rant of these academicians was at the forefront of spreading a canard against Chakrabarty a few years ago. The charge was grave — that Chakrabarty as an honorary director of Gandhi Bhawan had molested a female employee.
On investigation it was revealed that the recalcitrant employee was pulled up by director for insubordination and indiscipline and had threatened the professor that she would slap a molestation charge on him. The case was dismissed by the Delhi High Court after the filing of the police report. Curiously, those who are now campaigning against Chakrabarty, including the former journalist-turned-academician, had used the same newspaper then to build a campaign against the candidate. In their plant, they winked at the court case and exoneration of Chakrabarty. Nor did the publication care to investigate and unravel the truth, at least to expose the bias in the petition filed by the left-leaning opponents to Chakrabarty’s empanelment.
What Goebbels did for his political master or what made some reporters make the imaginative story of an attempted coup in India is unknown and unseen by the gullible readers. Goebbels received public attention of historic proportions since his actions resulted in an unprecedented catastrophe in the history of mankind. The coup theorists would have at the most spoiled the reputation of an Indian Army general, a small event in the course of the murky politics played in the capital. Professor Bidyut Chakrabarty will end up as even a smaller peg in the game of manipulation.
A reason for media’s willingness to join the cacophony against the current political dispensation could be the insecurity that haunts high-profile journalists and media house owners. Their assiduously cultivated relationship with the former political dispensation was disrupted by an outsider who won the mandate of the people to govern the country using the singular factor of his charisma. What is more, to the media persons and commentariat, Narendra Modi was an acknowledged villain in the political landscape of the nation. Such a person dominating every discourse, not merely because he won the mandate, but also due to his out-of-the-box initiatives, predictably invites hostility in the discourse. When thousands on social media criticize these reports, they get branded as trolls. What is ignored during the process of heated exchanges is national interest. What is lost is fairness in discourse and, needless to say, the trust of the people at large in the objectivity of the media.
In the end, the biased discourse is merely helping fragment the nation as a sum total of varied interest groups. When some ingenious move of Prime Minister Modi ends up uniting the fragments, the merchants of division find it unpalatable. Media failed to expose the machinations of such disgruntled sections of society largely due to their close links with some vested interests working against such unity. The Modi-Sharif meeting in Lahore is such a deviation from the usual script that even the openly hostile media found difficult to ignore. Most will now be waiting for the euphoria of the ordinary citizens to settle until the media clings on to some new script to attack the government.
When a tool metamorphoses into a law and assumes a larger role that it is not geared to handle, confusion reigns. Had Locke been around, he would perhaps have revised his essay concerning human understanding and built a fresh set of laws guiding the human life.