July 27, 2014

AB(Lo)P... And the award goes to...

West Bengal’s politics offers a strange predicament these days. The opposition space is so empty, even the biggest media company in the state is competing for it. The CPI(M) has collapsed. The Congress is a rump, limited to 1.5 districts. The BJP is overhyping its 17 per cent vote share in the recent Lok Sabha election, which was an improved performance but way behind the Trinamool Congress’ 40 per cent.

Into this vacuum has stepped the Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP) Group, which publishes the Bengali-language newspaper it is named for as well as The Telegraph (English language) and runs news television channels. A news media organisation is many things. It is a commercial entity, which needs to make enough money to sustain itself. It is also a guardian of public interest, a promoter of ideas and policies it believes in, and a monitor of the government. These are high-minded tasks. Sometimes, in our trivia-driven, TRP-chasing, prime-time folk theatre days, they are conveniently forgotten. Sometimes, even supposedly serious newspapers and media editors become nit-picking gadabouts.

When this happens, criticism of a government does not follow reason – it simply seeks a reason. As such, the ABP Group is running a campaign against the West Bengal government for instituting and giving away awards to eminent citizens and achievers of the state, in various fields. The fields the West Bengal government recognises achievers in range from medicine to teaching, from culture to sport (including from non-glamorous sports). Even media-persons are applauded for a distinguished career.

Other states, as well as the Central government, routinely give similar awards. It is considered one of the mandates of a government, but it is only in West Bengal that the largest media house treats it as a sin. It excoriates the chief minister, accusing her of wasting money and neglecting those in poverty.

Is this an “either-or” situation? Should a government focus on poverty uplift and social development to the exclusion of recognising cultural benchmarks and achievers who are public models? If it should, can one extend this logic to newspapers and media houses.

Should they be asked to reduce (or nullify) their budget for social-butterfly stories, page 3 parties and film-industry gossip and pay for more journalists to cover the problems of rural Bengal? Should be asked to stop sending journalists on expensive trips to England to cover a cricket series and send the same reporters by train to Birbhum, to pluck an example, to cover a district sports tournament?

ABP gives a whole host of awards itself. Here’s an incomplete list:

• Ananda Puruskar, Suresh Chandra Majumdar Award and Prafulla Sarkar Award – for literature.

• Sera Bangali – for Bengali achievers in music, films, art, politics, science, literature.

• The Telegraph School Awards for Excellence

• Best City Awards 2014 – organised by ABP News

• Sananda Tilottama – a model hunt for fresh faces

• Snowcem-Anandabazar Sharad Arghya – Durga Puja Awards

• ABP Ananda Puja Samman – Durga Puja Awards

Telegraph Food Guide Awards – honouring the best eateries in Kolkata

• Unish Kuri Fresh Face – another model hunt for fresh faces

• ABP Majha Sanman Puruskar – for outstanding Maharashtrians

• ABP News National Education Awards

• Ebela Ami Amar Moto Samman Award – for social work

Until 2013, Businessworld magazine was owned by the ABP Group. It gave away the Businessworld Best Bank Awards and the Businessworld Young Entrepreneur Awards.

Could the money used for these awards – as prize money as to organise gala award functions – not have been spent on poverty alleviation, helping the downtrodden, putting in place a charity or CSR framework, or donated to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund or the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund?

Is there a hypocrisy and a contradiction here? Or do the ABP Group and its editors believe of themselves, to borrow Boy George’s lyrics: “I’m a man without conviction / I’m a man who doesn't know / How to sell a contradiction / You come and go / You come and go...”

The media has a karma. It is not to be chameleonic.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress