IT is best if the fourth estate and the government maintain a healthy distance, because when members of the media get too close to the corridors of power, independent journalism suffers and the narrative of those in government can trump the truth.

The recent scandal involving ultra-hawkish Indian anchor Arnab Goswami is a case in point. Mr Goswami, not exactly known for subtlety, fairness and accuracy in reporting, has been accused of having advance knowledge of the Indian strike on Balakot in February 2019. The scandal erupted after purported WhatsApp messages between the anchor and the head of an under-investigation ratings company were made public.

In the messages, Mr Goswami appears to be telling the other party that “something major” would happen vis-à-vis Pakistan, going on to mention a “bigger than normal strike”. Of course, the strike did occur, and India was given a befitting reply for its adventurism by this country. However, the leak illustrates the dangerous nexus that exists between right-wing Indian media outlets and the Hindu chauvinist BJP that rules from New Delhi.

While ‘embedded’ journalism is not new and some media outlets in this country are also seen to be close to those who call the shots, the recent scandal in India reveals a far more dangerous reality. In the Goswami case, sensitive information was shared with a news outlet seemingly to help the BJP’s election prospects and boost the rightist media outlet’s ratings in the process. This is a dangerous game which, if not nipped in the bud, can have many negative consequences. The first casualty in such situations is of course the truth, while media outlets such as the one in the midst of the scandal end up radicalising the public through their non-stop jingoistic broadcasts.

Common sense, factual reporting and ethics are all chucked out the window in the maddening race for ratings, influence and power. Instead of promoting peace, such an unholy nexus between powerful media outlets and the state only serves to amplify the shrill cries for war in a volatile region. Saner media outlets and moderate political elements in India need to address this unhealthy trend before brinkmanship, fuelled by a pliant, cheerleading media, leads to a potential disaster in South Asia. Last time war was averted thanks largely due to Pakistan’s firm, mature response. However, such shenanigans should not be tried again simply for a few ratings points and votes on election day.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2021

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