An anecdote from the recent past narrating the kind of journalism practiced by Lutyens media
Abolishing the five-plus decades’ practice of appointing media advisors and totally shunting out the alleged media should reckon as one of the soundest decisions that Narendra Modi took almost immediately after he was sworn in as Prime Minister in 2014. A rough calculation of the amount of taxpayer money mooched by the rank and file of newstraders of all hues over half a century will easily equal the budget of at least two states of our North East. This amount excludes the invisible, media shadow-economy in the form of industrial scale fixing, real-estate pimping and sundry sleaze.
This reason shares the First Prize for why the alleged media’s visceral hatred for PM Modi, and why it spent the first three years of his first term denouncing, slamming, and finally, begging him: kuch toh de do Sarkar!
Abruptly, rudely cutting off this uninterrupted supply of the oxygen of journalistic sleaze, political trafficking and the sense of entitlement that follows as a consequence has proven highly effective.
A repeated phenomenon or trend in recent times suffices to illustrate this: the manner in which this pack of unscrupulous media wolves is eating one another publicly. The scavengers could huddle together only for so long. This is politespeak for the notorious media omerta, a parallel unwritten, unspoken law which said that the most deplorable journalist or editor gets the best protection while the genuinely honest ones are largely silent onlookers. That changed, first with a trickle and then a flood: we are now used to reading news and stories of journalists and editors exposing mutual dirty secrets and reopening long-buried archives of various indiscretions, corruption etc, all tumbling out without external assistance. The infamous spat between N. Ram and Siddharath Varadarajan is relatively recent, to recall a prominent instance.
All this is in the present. In the Modi era if you will.
However, a little-known fact is the skilful astuteness with which a former Prime Minister put the selfsame media in its place and the veiled, justified contempt he showed towards it. Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao knew, as every true statesman knows, that the media as we know it, especially the “top” editors and pretentious “star” journalists were nothing more than a bunch of inflated egomaniacs who actually believed in their self-inflicted grandiose delusions that their fleeting textual fulminations actually changed governments and even worse, changed the course of history itself. It reminds us of what one of the greats of journalism, Hunter S. Thompson wrote about his own profession:
Thompson spoke from the authority of personal experience. He was both an epic drug addict and a journalist.
Which is exactly how P.V. Narasimha Rao saw through and beyond their intimidating titles, claims of greatness and power to influence. What these bottom-feeders were incapable of detecting was that they were dealing not with a subzero Nehru-dynasty-slave as Prime Minister but an encyclopedic mind, a first-rate scholar and above all, someone who had deeply imbibed the spirit of the Sanatana ethos notwithstanding the treacherous field he was in. The frequency at which and the sort of invective they poured on P.V. Narasimha Rao throughout his tenure is only surpassed by their venom against PM Modi.
Which is where our story begins. With the barely-disguised long-rant of a veteran…errr…editor and columnist. Who almost says it in so many words: that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had contempt for the media. The editor cites some incidents as proof. For example, how the PM put the media contingent in the economy class of his official flight, how he ignored these moochers instead of…pampering their entitled selves. He uses a different word but knowing what we do about this media species, “pampering” is an appropriate choice.
Even more pompously, the said veteran editor refers to himself as a journalist “of consequence.” He also mentions that the PM had not held even one press briefing in three and half years. The obvious conclusion the editor derives from this royal media-snub: the PM doesn’t have the confidence and ability to communicate with the people of India.
Among other such alleged editors and journalists, this particular eminence went after P.V. Narasimha Rao with single-minded viciousness. This sustained witch hunt—resembling the one Narendra Modi faced as the Chief Minister of Gujarat—didn’t arise in a vacuum. The editor harboured two major disgruntlements against the Prime Minister himself.
We will narrate the story of the first here.
Sometime during his tenure, P.V. Narasimha Rao embarked on a trip abroad. As was customary in those days, his office drew up a list of editors and journalists who would accompany the PM. The list then reached the table of the PM’s media advisor for his approval. Let’s hear what happened next in the media advisor’s own words.
…In [the list], I ran into the name of a journalist, of whom somebody had made a mention to me earlier. She was being considered to accompany the PM in his press party on behalf of an Urdu newspaper. Assailed by a doubt, I wrote on the file, “Find out whether she knows Urdu.” Information Department officials deleted her name from the list without responding to my query.
It is reasonable to say that the twist in the tale or said disgruntlement occurs at this juncture related to the alleged Urdu journalist as we shall see. P.V. Narasimha Rao’s media advisor continues.
Strangely, a few weeks after that, the journalist Vir Sanghvi wrote an article in…a magazine depicting me as a “joker” who stood in the way of journalists.
Only then, I was informed by the official of the Information Department that the so-called Urdu journalist deleted from the list following my query was Sanghvi’s wife. [Emphasis added]
Your guess is correct. P.V. Narasimha Rao’s media advisor was that rare IAS officer, P.V.R.K. Prasad who has rendered such signal service at Tirumala among his other accomplishments. His autobiography, Naaham Karta Hari Karta is a highly recommended read.
And to repeat the obvious, the veteran journalist “of consequence” is Vir Sanghvi whose role in the outrageous Radia Tapes scandal is perhaps the best advertisement of his notion of journalism. The condescension and ire that Sanghvi has towards Prasad and Narasimha Rao is best revealed in his venomous own words. Written in the defunct Sunday news magazine, 15-21 January 1995.
…poor Prasad…has no time for the media. He knows few journalists well…and is not particularly well-placed to either monitor or influence coverage of the Prime Minister…I am perturbed by the spectacle of the Prime Minister’s clueless media advisers running around like headless chickens.
It may make sense to have such people if you don’t care about the media; but if you do care, then it is suicidal to continue to depend on them…
The Prime Minister's men, it is now clear, are incapable of doing anything to change this…
Perhaps, it is now time for [the Prime Minister] to take charge of his own image He needs to communicate… As a man who stood up for his vision of India. And not as an arrogant old bore who entrusted his image to a bunch of jokers. [Emphasis added]
This passed off as journalism and informed opinion for the longest time in India since “independence.” Had P.V.R.K. Prasad not written his side of the event, a person who reads Vir Sanghvi's column even today will have no reason to doubt it.
I leave it to the wisdom of the readers to make their own conclusions: (i) about how the wife’s name actually figured in the list on the PMO’s table stating her to be a Urdu journalist while she was not. How it is obvious that the Information Department officials had known such skulduggeries all along but still passed it on for P.V.R.K. Prasad’s approval. (ii) about “journalism” that feels entitled to allow its practitioners to fatten themselves on taxpayer money; when this corrupt opportunity is denied, their attack borders on obscenity and doesn’t spare even the Prime Minister.
It is with good reason that Gen. V.K. Singh uttered the word “presstitutes” and Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi, “news traders” to describe it.
The story of the second item of disgruntlement will be told in a future piece.
There is a silver lining in all this. The said presstitutes and news traders have behind a massive, smelly trail of their misdeeds in cold print. Digitised archives are widely available for the interested researcher.