The United States President Joe Biden in presence of Indian Prime Minister Modi praised the Indian media, “Indian press is much better behaved than the American press.” Expectedly, there have been various reactions from India as well as from the US. The simple truth is that one should take Biden’s remark with a heavy pinch of salt at least for two reasons. Biden is proving to be more unpredictable and mercurial than his predecessor Donald Trump. Secondly, the comment was perhaps impromptu, not well thought out.
A comparison between Indian and American press is, however, in order since the comment has come from the President of United States which is considered ‘the greatest democracy’ in the world and India, by dint of its size, is the biggest democracy. It is another matter that after the political antics displayed by Donald Trump just before he was demitting office American democracy began to be called a ‘frail democracy’. At the same time, the international organisation called Reporters Without Borders has rated Indian media 142nd in its rankings.
What did Biden say actually and when? Biden was hosting Modi at the Oval office in the White House for the first in-person bilateral meeting after he became the President in January 2021, and significantly in the wake of the pandemic. Remember, Prime Minister Modi was in United States to address the United Nations and participated in the important meeting of Quad.
As soon as they finished the pleasantries Biden alerted Modi, “I think what they are going to do is bring the press. The Indian press is much better behaved than the American press…. and I think, with your permission, we should not answer questions because they would not ask any questions on point”. This would have been almost music to Modi’s ears as he hardly holds any press conference in India. That is why Modi instantly replied to Biden that, “Completely agreed”.
On the comparison, as said, Prime Minister Modi has not held a single press conference except just one in 2019 where he refused to field any questions. Much as it is unprecedented in Indian democracy, Prime Minister Modi has a one way communication with the Indian public. He has a radio programme called ‘Mann Ki Baat’ (Speaking from the Mind); that too to the school children. Second, another unique trait being seen is that, currently, under the present dispensation, the Indian press largely interrogates the Opposition not the government.
In any democracy, the party-in-power, called government is accountable for omission and commission of political acts – policies, ordinances, administration decisions, and so on. The Indian press puts the blame entirely on the Opposition for what they have done years ago when they were in power. To be fair, the Indian press has been very vocal throughout since Independence except during 1975-77 when internal emergency was imposed.
Recall the veteran BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani had famously said, “When the press was asked to bend during emergency, it began to crawl”. Now Advani’s party is in power. It has a subtle way of twisting the arm of the press by selectively patronising them through government advertisements. Those who do not toe the government line, are deprived of the government largesse.
There is also cliques around the management of the press. Only the select few, on the right side of the government get published. Those who have contrarian view do not find any space in the media, whether talk time or in print form. The print media is by and large objective, but it can be perceived to be following an agenda.
On the other hand, American press is highly critical of the government. President Donald Trump ran his entire term by being antagonistic to the press. In 2019, in presence of Modi, interestingly, Trump had similar remark on the Indian press. He had said to Modi, “You have great reporters. I wish I had reporters like this”. He also had said, “You have a friendly press”, during Prime Minister’s visit to the White House. Little did people realise that press being friendly or better behaved is not a compliment to the journalists. It could be snide.
Obviously, both American Presidents in reference here have had lack of knowledge of the Indian press environment as well as their poor ranking in terms of press freedom. And Biden’s remark was out of context and not in line with his attitude towards press. His Press Secretary, Ms. Psaki clarified that Biden has been taking questions from the press all the time and will continue to do so. She asserted, “I think that should speak of his commitment to freedom of press around the world.”
In this visit of Prime Minister Modi, he did not address the press in the United States as well. Unusually, a bureaucrat, Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla held two on the record briefings. Whereas, following the Quad meeting on Friday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a press meet at the White House; so did the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
It goes without saying that the press is by far the most important pillar of democracy. It is the press that takes and gives news to the people which help enhance democracy through information sharing and sensitisation. If the press is either manipulated or stifled, democracy suffers. The Indian press is falling short of being impartial and critical.
We might pat our backs on the remark made by Biden. But instead of chest thumping on this superficial praise, it is high time for serious introspection. Indian press has done spectacular and remarkable job in exposing corruption, misdeeds of the governments of all hues, it should continue to do so. If India is being recognised by the world, it is primarily for its diversity of culture and political democracy. In both these national heritages, press has played a significant role, certainly in upholding these.
Since Indian press has been commented upon by two successive Presidents of the United States, the press should sit back, ponder over these comments and make course correction both to secure their credibility and in the interest of the nation.