Naresh Fernandes, Editor of Scroll.in, believes that Indians are now seeing through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s delusion and are now unwilling to allow the newspapers they read and the TV channels they watch to be dishonest anymore.
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“The owners of media realise that they can't keep passing off government PR as news anymore. Also, one of the things that I think has prompted this shift is that readers are not willing to accept the government version anymore. They want it critically examined, and this has forced media houses to do that,” he said in an exclusive interview with BestMediaInfo.com.
In the interview, Fernandes speaks about how the Indian media has covered the second wave of the pandemic, even more so as many journalists contract the disease, how readers’ preferences are evolving and how the future of media will shape up after the pandemic.
How do you think the media has covered the second wave of the pandemic?
There's an enormous contrast between the first and the second wave. During the migrant crisis last year, much of the media didn't take the government to task. But for many journalists, the second wave came on their doorstep, with many relatives and friends falling sick. The migrant crisis was still something we observed at a distance but now the lack of hospital beds and oxygen is something we have to grapple with personally.
The attitude of Big Media has changed enormously. There has been fantastic reporting — reporters travelling over 1,000 kilometres in North India to count bodies and the Gujarati press calling out the official lie on the undercounting. Readers too are unwilling to take the official version anymore. It has been quite inspiring to see journalists across the country doing what they're supposed to do — hold the authorities to account.
Do you think the media's role as a watchdog has become all the more important now?
Exactly. The media is unwilling to take the government at its face value any more, and neither are readers. I think that's just prompted the shift. The owners of media realise that they can't keep passing off government PR as news anymore. Also, one of the things that I think has prompted this shift is that readers are not willing to accept the government version anymore. They want it critically examined, and this has forced media houses to do that.
While we see the international media strongly criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah for the disaster, we don't see the Indian media holding them responsible. They even now say ‘the government has failed’ or ‘the system has failed’.
I think that has also changed. So you know, this attempt to claim that this is the fault of a generic "system", which is a word that the Prime Minister's spin doctors were attempting to say; this notion that we, the citizens, have all failed—and that's what Mohan Bhagwat said—rather than the government has failed, ordinary Indians are not willing to take that anymore. And so more and more supporters of the government, as we can see in the media, are coming out strongly to point out what's wrong. So today, Prabhu Chawla, for instance, has an open letter to Modi in The New Indian Express, saying you have failed. That's happening a lot more frequently.
Does the government's attitude towards criticism make it more difficult for the media to do their job? Also when the government expects the media to cooperate, how does it manage that thin line between cooperation and holding them accountable?
Before the lockdown last year, the Prime Minister had a meeting with the owners of big media houses and asked for cooperation — and they extended cooperation through that first wave. It's clear that now media owners are realising that the readers will not allow them to cooperate with the official lie, and that if they do, they will lose whatever little shred of credibility they have left. They have been forced by the enormity of this crisis, to be more honest.
What do you see as the future of the media post-pandemic?
More than the media, it's the polity. Many Indians have seen through this great Modi delusion. And now that the scales have dropped from their eyes, they will not be willing to allow the newspapers they read and the TV channels they watch to be dishonest anymore. The Emperor has been shown to have no clothes. And anybody attempting to say otherwise will also be similarly discredited.
Has the reader's preferences changed?
I don't know, it's difficult to tell. Because, in the end, people read all kinds of things. And just because they are reading hard news, they will not stop reading things that are a distraction. But it's clear that they've realised that they need to keep track of the hard news, as it affects their lives in a very real way. You can't ignore government policy, and they've seen a direct link now between how government policy or then lack of it literally endangers their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
At this time, we have also seen a lot of journalists losing their lives. How difficult has it been at Scroll to keep the work going while keeping safety in mind?
Yeah, so that has been a challenge. Our big challenge is that we are just a very small organisation and there are so many stories we want to do. And every day, we have to decide what is possible with our small team. That's our main challenge. But we've had several colleagues who have been sick, about four or five. We've been trying to minimise risk and do some work on the phone.
Does it make it more difficult to get to the truth?
Not really, because a lot of the stories we've done—for instance, about the government having put out tenders for oxygen plants eight months late, how aid was being held up at the airport—don't require you to go out and see things yourself. There are a lot of policy-type stories you can still be doing from afar. But other stories—about the state of crematoriums, for instance—require you to go out to see things with your own eyes to speak to the people who have been the most affected.