The need to ask questions of those in power is fundamental for the “preservation” of the nation, especially at a time when those who make the loudest noise drown out those who disagree, President Pranab Mukherjee said on Thursday. He was delivering The Second Ramnath Goenka Lecture. “…the need to ask questions of those in power is fundamental for the preservation of our nation and of a truly democratic society. This is a role that the media has traditionally played and must carry on playing. All stakeholders in the democratic system, from parties to business leaders, citizens to institutions, have to realise that asking questions is good, asking questions is healthy, and, in fact, is fundamental to the health of our democracy,” said Mukherjee.
A lecture series started last year by The Express Group and dedicated to its founder in the 25th year of his passing, The Ramnath Goenka Lecture, in the spirit of the founder and the newspaper, aims to enrich and shape public discourse through the power of ideas. “To my mind, while the press will be failing in its duty if it does not pose questions to the powers that be, it will have to simultaneously judge the frivolous from the factual, and publicity from reportage. This is a tremendous challenge for the media and one that it must stand up to. It must resist the temptation to take the path of least resistance, which is to allow a dominant viewpoint to prevail without questioning it or allowing others the opportunity to question it.
Media must learn the art of withstanding pulls and pressures without sacrificing its commitment to free and fair reportage and always remain on guard against conformity,” said Mukherjee. He emphasised the need to keep an open mind to accommodate all points of view in the media space while doing rigorous fact checks to ensure accuracy in an era of “alternative facts”, where extreme opinions to the left and the right abound.
“I have always believed that the bedrock of Indian civilisation has been its pluralism and its social, cultural, linguistic and racial diversity. That’s why we need to be sensitive to dominant narratives, of those who make the loudest noise, drowning out those who disagree. That’s why social media and broadcast news have seen angry aggressive posturing by state and non-state players literally hounding out contrarian opinions,” said Mukherjee.
Technology, he said, has opened the floodgates of a one-way unfiltered communication from the privileged to those who are less so. It is in this backdrop of unfiltered information that the media has an important role to play, he said. “People in power, across the spectrum of politics, business or civil society, by virtue of the position they enjoy, tend to dominate the discourse and influence its direction. Due to technological advancement, they can now reach out directly to their audience, completely bypassing this crucial process of filtration and mediation. This often becomes a one-way only communication from the powerful to the less privileged, in an effort to push the narrative in one direction.
Indian civilisation has always celebrated plurality and promoted tolerance. These have been at the core of our very existence as a people, binding us together for centuries despite our many differences. We must continue to ‘throw open the windows for fresh breezes’, as Mahatma Gandhi observed, without being blown away,” said the President. Talking about the phenomenal growth of the media, Mukherjee said it has led to a situation where the shrillest voice makes itself heard and the competition forces a dumbing down of news.
“This abundance of media outlets has led to a highly competitive media environment which often results in the survival of the shrillest voices rising above the others to be heard. Dumbing down the news to attract an audience is another consequence of the phenomenal growth of the media. Together, these compulsions have led to complex issues being reduced to binary opposites which, in turn, create a polarity of views and distort the facts.” Mukherjee said Ramnath Goenka embodied the finest virtues of journalism—fiercely independent, fearless and always determined to stand up to the powerful and fight against abuse of power.
“There was nothing he enjoyed more than a fight to protect the right of The Indian Express to publish and be damned, if it came to that. He was a fighter. In the face of attempts to control the press during Emergency, he exemplified his willingness to stake all for his principles and to set the highest standards for press freedom in India. The blank editorial published by The Indian Express at that time, under the leadership of Ramnathji, was perhaps one of the strongest protests ever published against censorship in India. It spoke more loudly than any words could have. It still speaks loudly,” he said.
In his welcome address, Viveck Goenka, Chairman and Managing Director of The Express Group, said, “President Mukherjee is a public figure like no other, his range is staggering. At a time when black and white seem to be the only colours in our palette, the spirit of Ramnath Goenkaji called upon us to hold this lecture series.” Speaking on the occasion, Jaspal Bindra, Executive Chairman of the Centrum Group, talked about his long association with Mukherjee, since the latter”s days in the finance ministry, his preference for the number 13, and his devotion to Durga. The First Ramnath Goenka Lecture was delivered on March 12 last year by Raghuram Rajan, the then Governor of Reserve Bank of India.