What Sonia Gandhi’s illness reveals about media

Congress president Sonia Gandhi, scooped by Indian Express photographer Anil Sharma, as she leaves her daughter’s residence in New Delhi on 14 September 2011.

Nothing has exposed the hollowness of so-called “political reporting” in New Delhi, and the fragilility of editorial spines of newspapers and TV stations across the country, than the Congress president Sonia Gandhi‘s illness.

Hundreds of correspondents cover the grand old party; tens of editors claim to be on on first-name terms with its who’s who; and at least a handful of them brag and boast of unbridled “access” to 10 Janpath.

Yet none had an inkling that she was unwell.

Or, worse, the courage to report it, if they did.

Indeed, when the news was first broken by the official party spokesman in August, he chose the BBC and the French news agency AFP as the media vehicles instead of the media scrum that assembles for the daily briefing.

Sonia Gandhi has since returned home but even today the inability of the media—print, electronic or digital—to throw light on just what is wrong with the leader of India’s largest political party or to editorially question the secrecy surounding it, is palpable.

Given the hospital she is reported to have checked into, the bazaar gossip on Sonia has ranged from cervical cancer to breast cancer to pancreatic cancer but no “political editor” is willing to put his/her name to it, taking cover under her right to privacy.

About the only insight of Sonia’s present shape has come from an exclusive photograph shot by Anil Sharma of The Indian Express last week.

In a counter-intuitive sort of way, Nirupama Subramanian takes up the silence of the media in The Hindu:

“That the Congress should be secretive about Ms Gandhi’s health is not surprising. What is surprising, though, is the omertà being observed by the news media, usually described by international writers as feisty and raucous.

“On this particular issue, reverential is the more fitting description. Barring editorials in the Business Standard and Mail Today, no other media organisation has thought it fit to question the secrecy surrounding the health of the government’s de facto Number One.

“A similar deference was on display a few years ago in reporting Atal Bihari Vajpayee‘s uneven health while he was the Prime Minister. For at least some months before he underwent a knee-replacement surgery in 2001, it was clear he was in a bad way, but no news organisation touched the subject. Eventually, the government disclosed that he was to undergo the procedure, and it was covered by the media in breathless detail.

“Both before and after the surgery, there was an unwritten understanding that photographers and cameramen would not depict Vajpayee’s difficulties while walking or standing. Post-surgery, a British journalist who broke ranks to question if the Prime Minister was fit enough for his job (“Asleep at The Wheel?” Time, June 10, 2002) was vindictively hounded by the government.

“Almost a decade later, much has changed about the Indian media, which now likes to compare itself with the best in the world. But it lets itself down again and again. The media silence on Ms Gandhi is all the more glaring compared with the amount of news time that was recently devoted to Omar Abdullah‘s marital troubles. The Jammu & Kashmir chief minister’s personal life has zero public importance. Yet a television channel went so far as to station an OB van outside his Delhi home, and even questioned the maid….

“Meanwhile, the media are clearly not in the mood to extend their kid-glove treatment of Ms Gandhi’s illness to some other politicians: it has been open season with BJP president Nitin Gadkari‘s health problems arising from his weight. Clearly, it’s different strokes for different folks.”

Read the full article: The omerta on Sonia‘s illness

Also read: Why foreign media broke news of Sonia illness

How come no one spotted Satyam fraud?

How come no one saw the IPL cookie crumbling?

How come no one in the media saw the worm turn?

Aakar PatelIndian journalism is regularly second-rate

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8 Responses to “What Sonia Gandhi’s illness reveals about media”

  1. Prashanth K.P. (@prashanthkpp) Says:

    A superlative bit of an article this is. The Media deserves a reminder of their ethics and dharma when it comes to their revered profession – impartiality. But here it has been the contrary and this has been very subtly pointed out by you. Kudos.

  2. prakash Says:

    Now when UPA has launched war on media churumuri becomes dare enough to talk the truth. This proves democrary works only on rivalrly.

  3. Arun Says:

    I do not think it’s necessary for general public to know about the illness of a public figure

  4. Angad Kumar (@angad_kumar) Says:

    She Deserve’s her privacy if nothing else.. i believe the kind of circus like Breaking News being showed by media these days.. we have somewhat half-accepted that they will report any trivial news.. though this isn’t trivial , but for sure is private.. I hope media showed some news re: the floods in Orissa than concentrating on the Waistline of Mr. Gadkhari or 3 day fast unto – nowhere of Modi..

  5. M Says:

    Self imposed restrain from reporting illness is an honorable deed. Every person is afflicted with some minor ailment which in no way impairs a person’s normal life. It’s respectable (irrespective of whether you like the person or not) not to focus on such frivolous issue.

    Such an honor system was in practice in USA till some time ago. Franklin D. Roosevelt who is considered to be among the greatest US Presidents contracted polio in his adulthood and moved around in a wheel chair. Throughout his presidency of 16yrs none of the media reported about this. All the pictures depicted him standing or seated in a normal chair. Most Americans weren’t even aware of this. Despite this illness he had the strength to bring USA out of ‘great depression’ . He was also instrumental in committing US resources to World War II and its ultimate victory. Infact it was his ‘March of Dimes’ program which mostly funded Jonas Salk’s work that lead to polio vaccine.

    But in recent times western media has changed. All of a sudden there is money being made in a person’s misery and in many cases even the victims are trying to encash on this. Most of these ‘great’ people break news about their health ‘exclusively’ to a particular paper/magazine for obvious monetary reason.

    in modern west bad behavior and misery sells better. So you have failed actresses going nude for PETA or releasing a porn and claiming that it was ‘stolen’ (stolen material cannot be broadcast on internet without legal consent which means the supposed victims were paid and their signatures obtained).

    I dislike Sonia G. However I would rather prefer media to bring her down for her political policies rather than for her health issue.

  6. Deepak Says:

    Naturally it is easier to target Gadkari for he sits in the opposition. But Sonia ma’m is the arbiter of our destinies and hence is in the position of doling out goodies to media. So, no one wants to antogonise her. We are really proud of our fourth estate.

  7. Anonymous guy Says:

    Aakar Patel on why India will be better off if Sonia Gandhi gets well soon:
    http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20110916&page=8

  8. akash1 Says:

    Indian media has no credibility. Even if untrue though it doesn’t seem so, the issue of huge black money in swiss banks in the name of this family needs open discussion. How Bofors probe was scuttled not for lack of evidence but lack of will to prove it or rather urgency to not let it be proved explains the quality and standard of Indian Journalism

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