“If required, I will tell the people which newspapers to read in future”: this gem of an announcement was made by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in an interview given to selected news channels recently. Giving interviews to a chosen few, especially those who would not dare to put a toe beyond the parameters set in advance, is, of course, the current fashion in the State.
The Chief Minister was replying to a tentative query by one of the selected interviewers on the furore over a State government circular which directed all government and government-aided libraries to buy only selected newspapers listed by the government. To the utter amazement of readers and horror of certain leading media houses – many of the mainstream newspapers, including the largest-circulated English daily, The Telegraph, and the largest-circulated Bengali daily, Ananda Bazar Patrika, did not figure in that list.
“No government fund will be spent on purchase of newspapers/dailies published or purported to be published by any political party as a measure to develop free thinking among the masses”, says the order signed by Mr. Rampada Biswas, special secretary, library services and mass education. Definite high moral ground here if it meant that no party’s mouthpiece would be purchased with government funding and to be fair, the Trinamul Congress mouthpiece, Jago Bangla, does not figure in the list and neither does Ganashakti, the CPI(M)’s mouthpiece.
But, the bigger picture is that the newspapers which did make the cut are those with poor circulation, some of them recently launched. As for the promised development of “free thinking”, its enough to point out that four editors of the selected eight papers have been elected to the Rajya Sabha on Trinamool Congress ticket. The list had five Bengali dailies, two Urdu dailies, and one Hindi daily.
The circular also certified that the listed newspapers will help “promote language”. Considering that widely circulated Bengali dailies such as Ananda Bazar Patrika, Bartaman, and Aajkal, or a single English daily did not make the list then, it was not clear how the papers which hardly had any readership would contribute to “language promotion
Things got marginally better after caustic reactions from sections of the media, most of them of course directly affected by the circular; intellectuals, including writer Sunil Gangopadhyay and painter Shuvaprassana; and people from different walks of life. A revised list with five more names was issued, including the only English daily, The Times of India, and the Bengali daily Aajkal, which is viewed as being pro-left. Also included were Saptahik Kolom, a Nepali daily Himalaya Darpan and a Santhali daily. But the government remained adamant in not including any publication from the largest media house – The Ananda Bazar Group, or other English dailies.
As one of the editors, recently elected to the Rajya Sabha on a Trinamul ticket, explained on prime-time television: the government is trying to support the small, fledgling newspapers. The Ananda Bazar House is rich and does not need government support. Its papers will anyway sell. The others need government support to improve their circulation. If a State government, mired in debt and with thousand other administrative problems, busying itself to increase the circulation of certain newspapers sounds logical, then read on. He also sincerely advised readers that the poor and the rural masses should read “our small papers” and not papers such as Ananda Bazar or the English dailies which were for the rich!
As you sow, so you reap. The current situation of news organisations in West Bengal is a classic case study for this adage. In the build-up to the Assembly elections last year, the subsequent rise to power of the Trinamul Congress, and for a couple of months after that, newspapers and television channels in the State displayed a blatant taking of sides. The news coverage exposed, even to the most unobservant, the vested political bias of the media organisations and personal objectives of many journalists to an extent that put to shame every journalistic ethic one could think of.
But, there can only be so many shares to the pie! The fallout within the media itself, post-elections, was inevitable once plum postings went to certain journalists and certain media houses and their personnel were given extra privileges. Soon the team players, who had worked in tandem to build the image of Ms. Banerjee and her party as an alternative to the Left and who had heralded her clarion call for “Parivartan” (change) as the best thing for the State, started taking pot shots at each other – like the land dealings of a media house proprietor’s family being questioned by the editor of another media house – though both belonged to the pro-Mamata side at that time.
However, the big shift came on February 28 – the day of the Trade Union strike – when a stringer of Star Ananda and other journalists were thrashed allegedly by Trinamul Congress goons, who also tried to prevent photographers and cameramen from taking pictures. The Chief Minister, on being questioned, categorically said “Sajano Galpo” (invented story). The channel went on a campaign “to get justice for our staff” and “Sajano Banerjee” became a nickname for the Chief Minister in the headlines of newspapers from the Ananda Bazar House. Didi anti-Congress attitude on Teesta waters to the fuel price-hike to NCTC to the Railway Budget did not help matters either. Ms Banerjee claimed that those in the media criticising her stand were “spoiling our relations with the Centre.
The criticism of Ms. Banerjee’s insensitive reactions to rape cases in the State by the same sections of the media which were earlier her staunchest allies, who traveled in her car and helicopter during the election campaign, who covered her daily “Diary”, cataloguing her every waking moment, who praised even the blinking of her eye and whom she herself certified as being “good channel, watch it”, did not go down well at all with the new Chief Minister. She saw a “conspiracy” in every criticism and accused a section of the media – this time including some of her earlier favourites - of spreading “canards” against her government. There ended the honeymoon.
Being pro-establishment is bad for media business. When certain media houses realised this and returned to the job of criticising the government, the political mentors were not pleased. Bad enough but tolerable, because circulations steadied. But now, with 2460 government-aided libraries, 12 State libraries, and 7 government-sponsored libraries not buying even a single daily copy, it’s a minimum daily loss of sale of 2470 copies, amounting to a monthly loss of approximately Rs. three lakh for a paper selling at Rs. 4 a copy on weekdays and Rs. 5 on weekends. The pocket pinch is definitely hurting.
As things stand, the Ananda Bazar Group is no longer in the “selected” list of the State government. Special interviews are denied to the paper or those who were not in the Chief Minister’s list earlier. Those toeing the line, listening without questioning and paying due obeisance still continue in the “core media group” and are reaping the various benefits up for grabs – political or otherwise. West Bengal has a Chief Minister who has made it clear that all-out efforts would be made to curb any public voice of dissent through any means possible at the disposal of her government. The next target is government advertisements.
And for the news organisations, here is a thought: would those opposing the government circular’s “selected” list have done so if their names had figured in it? And for those on the list, is their silence or justification of the list an indication of how much they stand for the fundamental democratic principle of freedom of speech and expression for all?
The lesson here is: compromise ethics and lose credibility, be divided and be ruled.