Governments around the world suffer from what might be termed the Shoot the Messenger Syndrome. Thus, it wasn’t altogether surprising to hear of the arrest of a reporter for a leading TV channel arrested in the wake of the near-riot in Bandra when migrant workers demanded trains that would take them back to their home States. Police said the reporter had wrongly reported that trains would be restarting again. This, they said, almost triggered a serious law-and-order situation.

The fact is we live in an era of ultra-fast communications and any one news report can be picked up by social media and sent around the world in a twinkle of an eye. For governments, this ups the stakes dramatically because an adverse report travels swiftly, giving denials a slim chance to catch up. Also, the mainstream news media is showered with blame for the fake news that’s most often spread by social media. Governments have always looked for ways to strike back at its tormentors in the media and ‘fake news’ has given them all the excuse to do so.

There’s no question the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been averse to the mainstream media. The Prime Minister does not take questions at press conferences. It was particularly noticeable that he refused to follow the example of President Donald Trump who addressed a press conference and took hostile questions even in New Delhi.

Govt briefing

This suspicion of the media, in fact, creates a fertile ground for fake news. If the highest functionaries of the government were to brief the media on a daily basis on ‘action taken against corona’, just as Trump and even some chief ministers have taken to doing, the populace would have been less restive. It would lay more store by such briefings than ‘news’ that circulates on the social media. Fake news can be a double-edged sword, benefiting the powers that be on some occasions and hurting them in others.

This does not by any stretch absolve the reporter or his channel of blame. But errors — of omission and commission, as well as failure of due diligence — do occur from time to time in the fast paced world of news. Most responsible media houses have systems of checks and balances to minimise such errors, and acknowledge and correct mistakes when they do happen.

Here, the reporter’s error assumed serious proportions because of the insecurity of Mumbai’s migrants, many of whom were in a desperate position due to job loss and loss of shelter. The media cannot be blamed for this.

The fact is that the media in our age of modern communications can reach a wider audience than ever before. That is triggering even stronger attempts by governments to squelch any news that is slightly negative. The government would do well to remember the example of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who censored the press during the Emergency. Because all negative coverage had ceased to appear in the newspapers Mrs Gandhi never learnt about the government-driven family planning excesses that took place in North India and which led eventually to her unexpected and massive election defeat. At the end of the day, the media is just a messenger.