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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 13, March 19, 2011

Fourth Estate or Fifth Column?

Saturday 19 March 2011, by N A Karim


The recent revelations of the role that a section of our press plays raises serious doubts whether Edmund Burke’s Fourth Estate has become Earnest Hemingway’s Fifth Column in the country.

It was Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Whig politician and renowned British parliamen-tarian, who used the term Fourth Estate for the first time to denote the realm of the press. During the course of a speech in Parliament he termed the Lords Spiritual (Clergy) as the First Estate of the realm, the Lords Temporal (House of Lords) the Second Estate and the House of Commons the Third Estate. Then seeing the scribes in the press gallery, he added with his characteristic flamboyant rhetorical manner: “And yonder sits the Fourth Estate, more important than all of them.” This was a clever political gesture of an ambitious politician to placate the press as all modern politicians generally do with all available means these days when it has become a powerful force in all democratic countries with a free press.

This power of the press, for both good and evil, has become a matter of serious national debate in the country, particularly after the dangerous role a section of it played during the Gujarat pogrom after the Godhra incident in which a few language newspapers published news in a lurid manner to whip up communal passions. The Press Council, the statutory body entrusted with the task of overseeing the maintenance of healthy ethical standard of its working, often becomes paralysed particularly in critical times like communal riots and other occasions when public opinion and watch are decisive. As a large portion of the press has come under big economic interests, the owners’ writ alone prevailed in their functioning. This paralysis was evident when the issue of paid news became a big menace to electoral politics. With the various dimensions and shocking examples of wide use of paid news through write-ups and even editorials brought out by the rural affairs editor of The Hindu and the winner of the Magsaysay award, P. Sainath, the matter has come to the centre-stage of national politics. The Election Commission is also seized of the issue as the development forebodes a serious threat to our electoral democracy.

Now more than eighty per cent of the people of the planet is under one form or another of democracy with various degrees of deficit in its content and essence. The freedom the press enjoys in all these countries also varies with the nature of democracy. India is a country with a comparatively free press and its potential therefore is indeed great. Hence a really indepen-dent and healthy press with high moral standards is vital for a vibrant democracy The tradition of the Indian press right from the days of the beginning of colonial rule has been generally good.

We had had eminent editors and ferociously independent newspapers with highly enlightened editorial policies. They clashed with the establish-ment on fundamental issues concerning the interests of the people, and often created history of unparalleled courage and commitment. The whole landscape of the press changed particularly with what is misleadingly called neo-liberalism in which market forces rule the roost with the state giving legitimacy to the good and evil things they do in their relentless pursuit of power and profit. This climate has affected all the democratic institutions including the judiciary. They are now like the proverbial Curate’s egg, good only in parts. A large section of the press has also been affected by this economic climate change in the national life and democratic ethos.

THE Radia tapes have shockingly brought to light the extent to which the rot has spread to all vital organs of democracy. Not that the entire print media has fallen victim to this new dangerous trend. Corruption has always been here. People used to go to centres of power, big and small, to get things done by fair or foul means. From the Prime Minister’s Office to the petty village officer they used to go to for legitimate purpose and illegitimate favours. Among those they visited were those who could be influenced by bribes or other means. But there were also men and women of great integrity and probity.

The first Prime Minister of independent India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, was one on whose sherwani not a single drop of the dirt of corruption had fallen in his long tenure. Our present Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, is also equally uncorrupt and incorruptible. So also there are poorly paid petty village office clerks who never yielded to the temptations of money or the brow-beating of the high and mighty. But alas! Both of them did nothing to prevent various forms of corruption growing in the system. This indulgence of both has done great damage to the moral standard of the life of the nation as a whole which has now fallen to an irretrievably low level as evidenced by several mega scandals with which the names and offices of the high and powerful are associated. Still the govern-ment refuses to disclose the details of huge secret bank accounts of Indians in foreign banks to the surprise of all including the Supreme Court.

This indifference to the rapidly growing corruption, and in Nehru’s case the extreme indulgence shown to those who were openly corrupt politicians, Chief Ministers and Ministers, is something that passes understanding. Perhaps they wanted to glorify themselves with their incorruptibility even in the midst of an adverse dishonest environment. There is no other explanation to their strange attitude to this great social and political evil that has now engulfed the national life at all levels. There is a more fundamental difference of the times of these two Prime Ministers than the make-up of the personalities of the two.

In Prime Minister Pandit Nehru’s time the industrialists and businessmen used to go the political ruling class and bureaucrats for various kinds of favours. In the present neo-liberal economy the same classes go to big corporate houses and industrialists to get a share in their loot. Liberalisation began in India in a big way during the Prime Ministership of P.V. Narasimha Rao who appointed. Manmohan Singh as part of the deal with the World Bank to tide over the mid-1991 balance of payments crisis as reveald by Ashok Mitra in his autobiography. Dr Singh was an economist with a long association with the World Bank, UNCTAD and International Monetory Fund and a radical reform of the country’s economy was a foregone conclusion.

Perhaps it is an irony of fate that the very same person who introduced neo-liberal economic reforms was the first celebrated victim of the irresistible temptations of corruption. The clever share market manipulator, Harshad Mehta, later revealed that he gave one crore in ready cash to the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, and even displayed the large suit cases in which he carried the bribe money. Rao, who was heading a minority Congress Government, was later caught in several other cases of corruption. He spent the rest of his life going in and out of courtrooms and made his inglorious exit from life leaving a trail of doubts about his dubious role in the criminal destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.

As corruption became an integral part of the neo-liberal economic development projects on the basis of market fundamentalism reducing the state to a mute witness of the goings-on in the corporate world with the collusion of greedy politicians and unprincipled bureaucrats during the NDA Government of the Atal Behari Vajpayee and the first UPA Government of Dr Manmohan Singh, flood gates of the accumulated filth of two decades are now burst. The stench of the filth has become unbearable. The perfume of the whole of Arabia cannot prevent it from spreading worldwide.

The most shocking part of this is the obnoxious role of the press in several sinister forms and the part played by a few senior journalists, who are supposed to be the guardians of the Fourth Estate which Burke considered as the most important realm of the other three ones. These journalists had no moral qualms in joining hands with lobbyists like Niira Radia whose tentacles had brought within its grip Ministers, senior bureaucrats, and top journalists and used all of them in the service of unscrupulous corporate giants. This no-holds-barred approach of Niira Radia and ganging up of all the mighty has reduced a great country to a banana republic.

This tragic state of affairs of all realms of government, including the celebrated Fourth Estate, brings to mind the Fifth Column that was formed by the Fascist General Emilia Mola of Spain in 1936 which he called Fifth Column for infiltration in the enemy ranks, spying, rumour-mongering and disinformation campaign. Later the famous American novelist, Earnest Hamingway, who fought on the Republican side wrote a play Fifth Column which gave currency to the term. I suppose a section of the Fourth Estate in our country is now doing the work of Earnest Hemingway’s Fifth Column.

Dr N.A. Karim is a former Professor of English and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

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