By Sushil Kutty
Arun Shourie was proof of ‘journalism of courage’, the ‘fearless’. One of those who when asked to ‘bend’ did not ‘crawl’. They did not make movies on him but he was the closest to a ‘hero’ to many a young journalist when 24/7 television journalism was yet to come and there were no gabbling celeb journalists. Then, sometime after 1995, he became a ‘politician’ – not ‘didheerna’, like they say of ‘suddenly’ in Tamil, but taking his own sweet time.
On April 3, 2018, Arun Shourie was on a TV news channel, primetime, talking like a journalist but sounding like a politician. He was like that in 2017, too, after the ‘Modi government went after a particular TV news channel’s promoters, speaking his mind, which even at that time betrayed a certain anathema to the man who became Prime Minister on May 26, 2014.
They say once a journalist always a journalist. But they also say that once a politician, always a politician. And Shourie doesn’t sound the journalist anymore. Lots of journalists wouldn’t say that of him but that is how it is – Arun Shourie along with Yashwant Sinha and Shatrughun Sinha are three BJP leaders who have no love lost for PM Modi even if they remain BJP members though assigned to political wilderness.
Would the trio have been in ‘another BJP camp’ if Modi had made them ministers? That is sneaking feeling a journalist gets when they turn up to speak, which is always at the time when the Modi government is tottering on the brink of soup.
On April 3, the Modi-led NDA government was in a hot-and-sour soup, spicy to the tongue of Modi detractors like Shourie, thanks to Information & Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani, who overnight sought to bring “some order” to journalism in the name of punishing fake news, telling journalists that they were not in any obligation to report the truth but if they peddled fake news they would be warned twice and then be third-time unlucky. Go figure.
By 11 am on April 3, the government figured it: Irani’s directive to regulate news was a no-go, wouldn’t work, self-goal blah blah. Journalists closed ranks and dug heels in concrete lawn of the Press Club of India and government pulled back. Earlier, in the morning, a national newspaper reported that the ghost who wrote PM Modi’s book, the ‘Exam Warriors’, was not the ghost who wrote the book! It was not fake news.
So Prime Minister Modi, when told of the Smriti-circular, dust-binned it. Everybody clapped except Smriti Irani. Arun Shourie also did not. He would not believe the PM was in the dark when Irani shot off her now-infamous circular. ‘How can God not know where each leaf falls,’ Shourie asked the TV news channel’s primetime host, who was properly obsequious – Uriah Heepish! And why not? After all, Shourie was speaking her language.
Arun Shourie, one-time journalist and consummate politician, piled on the Centre like a ton of bricks, a little unhappy with the paper he once edited but full of praise for Alt News, that fact-checker website wedded to truth, so delivers only the hard truth on fake news. Prime time Shourie plugged for Alt News like he was on a mission and all but came down on his knees to tell the TV news channel to spare “two-three minutes to Alt News” every night so that viewers could be up to speed with truth, so ‘help me God!’
Asked what could have made Modi take a ‘U-turn’, ear-to-ground Shourie divulged the ‘raaz’ that nobody was in awe of Modi anymore and that the government was in all sorts of trouble, maybe hiding something. So, it was time for journalists to dig in and dig out what the government was hiding, afraid of. If the prime time TV host could not believe her ears, she did not show it. This was music to the ear – patented Shourie.
And so the evening dragged on. After Shourie left, another former editor took over: Shourie’s friend N Ram, who while agreeing with ‘friend Shourie, wondered why some journalists did not show the finger to Smriti Irani when she appointed them to the revamped PIB. Did somebody say that Ms Irani looked like possibly she had an agenda when she issued her circular and that just because PM Modi rescinded her order doesn’t mean she will sit quiet? Yes, April 3 also saw her ministry giving some finishing touches to the PIB and the Press Council of India. It was like Irani had the last laugh!
So, a certain ‘Swarajya Jaggi’ advised that journalists should self-regulate and ensure that no fake news crept into newsrooms and lulled journalists to believe. There was also talk of not falling for the Donald Trump definition of fake news, which according to the journalists on the show, was to brand any anti-Trump news fake news. New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN stood vindicated –
Journalists of the world unite!
At the end of the show, the two most FAQ were: Why was Irani’s circular issued in the first place? And why did PM Modi take it back? Shourie provided one answer: The government was scared, so the knee-jerks and the U-turn. Nobody dropped the jaw. It was a test balloon, and it sounded possible. The TV host asked if Irani’s circular was a test balloon, and every talking head on the show agreed it could be except the one who had made it to the Irani-revamped PIB.
It did not drop on anybody that maybe the government in its zeal to come out as shining knights in the war against fake news erred: Instead of targeting PIB accreditation and the mainstream media, it should have said that freedom of information was at stake and that journalists found peddling fake news would be punished. Period. The Irani-circular had an edge to it: It targeted mainstream media. So the U-Turn, and the boomerang. (IPA Service)