Business Standard

Seema Nazareth Award: Media, diplomacy relationship evolving, says Menon

"I first became aware of the role of journalism in diplomacy in Beijing in the early 1970s during the last furious, or rather hectic, days of the Cultural Revolution," he recounted

Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon (Photo: PRIYANKA PARASHAR)

Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon (Photo: PRIYANKA PARASHAR)

BS Reporter New Delhi
The shift in the relationship between journalists and diplomats, and how politics and technology might be affecting it. This was the question that Shivshankar Menon, former national security advisor and foreign secretary, explored on Wednesday in his keynote address at the 25th Business Standard-Seema Nazareth Award for Excellence in Journalism 2023 .

The award is given each year to journalists of Business Standard under 30.

Peppered with anecdotes from his stint in China, where diplomats and journalists collaborated to get past the great Chinese information wall, Menon said, “In scarcity and adversity, we all worked together, and shared information.”

“I first became aware of the role of journalism in diplomacy in Beijing in the early 1970s during the last furious, or rather hectic, days of the Cultural Revolution,” he recounted.

This trust between the practitioners of foreign policy and journalists remained strong, he said, when he returned to New Delhi after the Emergency. Confidences were respected, and there was an understanding that we were on the same Indian side, dealing with a complex, and sometimes hostile, world, Menon said. 

In the 42 years of speaking to the press, he said, it was only twice that something said in confidence was attributed to him in public. “That is a remarkable record of trust and professionalism,” he said, clarifying that this did not amount to collusion or to a media that didn’t do its job of speaking truth to power or exposing inconvenient truths or reflecting objective reality. The media, he said, was ready to hold the government to account, especially in the days after the Emergency.

Besides, the government and politicians back then were less sensitive about criticism, Menon noted.

“This sensitivity on the part of the government to journalistic opinion was also due to the fact that many politicians on both sides of the aisle had been journalists themselves – Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani, PV Narasimha Rao,” he said.

Today, most of them are full-time politicians with no experience of other real-world professions, he said. “The previous generation of politicians had been journalists, professors at universities, practising lawyers... Today, politics requires all their time, energy and effort.”

As a result, Menon said, politicians are now much more sensitive to criticism, and less able to engage in the rough and tumble of public debate and argument. “The argumentative Indian now exercises his or her skill in private,” he observed.

Looking back, he said the media was also the platform on which ideas were debated and refined, where policies were explained, consensus was built and where diplomatic signalling to both friends and adversaries abroad took place.

“The media played a significant role in policy formation, opinion building and public debate,” he said, adding that things had now changed.

“...two factors explain that change. One is the changing nature of our politics,” he said. It has become steadily a more top-down process and the political centre has moved to the right over time, he added. “...politicians themselves are less secure in their career prospects,” Menon noted.

Diplomats’ dealings with journalists today are channelled through an official spokesperson, and journalists’ exchanges on diplomatic issues with top political leadership are controlled, Menon said. 

What has not changed much is the use of public statements in diplomacy for signalling to friends and adversaries, he added. “But even here, the number of other non-journalistic channels available for that has increased manifold,” he said, drawing attention to how technology has changed the game.

“Previous rounds of technological change, such as when television came in, provided additionality to print rather than alternatives,” Menon said. “But the revolution in information and communications technology (ICT) was both an addition and an alternative” – providing politicians and diplomats with alternative channels for communicating with their intended audience.

ICT, he said, has reduced the need for public signalling to other external actors as part of diplomacy, thereby reducing the traditional media’s role in diplomacy.

The current, technology-driven media landscape has created silos and echo chambers, and “led to a concentration of ownership in the hands of those who have other, more significant, business interests to protect,” Menon said. 

“The combination of polarised politics and ICT technology has really weakened the role of institutional intermediaries in our polity and society,” Menon observed.

Paradoxically, while information is not scarce anymore, meaningful commentary and the media’s effect on policy have diminished, he said.

What this has meant for foreign policy practice is that foreign officers now spend considerable time crafting narratives and spreading their version of reality, Menon noted.

He said while it is hard to see the present situation changing until politics or technology shifts significantly, “the past shows that change is inevitable and will come, and all the changes have not reduced the relevance of or the need for good journalism.”

Noting that the economics of journalism may have changed, he said, “I am hopeful that we will find ways of meeting man’s need for news that is free and fair”.

To be a developed country, Menon said, “we need to move from the problems in politics of scarcity, including the scarcity to do good journalism, to those of plenty”. 

Earlier, the Business Standard-Seema Nazareth Award for Excellence in Journalism 2023 was presented to Assistant News Editor Sarthak Choudhury, who is based in New Delhi. The award carries a prize of Rs 50,000, a silver pen, and a citation. It has been instituted by Business Standard and the Nazareth family in memory of Seema Nazareth, a young Business Standard journalist who died in March 1999. 

The jury commended Choudhury for sensitively and impactfully highlighting “policy’s impact on common folks across a multitude of sectors and occupations”. It noted his depiction of farmers’ travails with crop diversification, of the micro, small and medium enterprises’ struggles with Net Zero, and of middle-class India’s many sacrifices to educate its young overseas.

This year, in the ceremony held virtually, the Special Mention award was conferred on Mumbai-based Correspondent Ajinkya Kawale. This award carries a citation and a prize of Rs 10,000. The jury noted that Kawale, though still young in his journalistic journey, “shows an instinct for stories with impact, and his range is wide”. The jury also highlighted some of Kawale’s works that had drawn its attention. These included his reports on the ingenious tricks used by digital scamsters that people need to be cautious about, training-related issues that are resulting in a shortage of pilots capable of fog landings, problems of water-starved farms, and the plight of Dharavi residents faced with redevelopment.

While presenting the vote of thanks on the silver jubilee of the award, Seema Nazareth’s father, P A Nazareth, recalled how the first award was conferred at Rashtrapati Bhavan on his daughter’s birthday, which falls on February 21. On the subject of diplomacy, he said it was important for diplomacy to be objective and give the best possible assessment to the respective government.

Nazareth Award

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First Published: Apr 03 2024 | 10:56 PM IST

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