Media advocacy can be used for a host of subjects ranging from awareness to fund raising.

Making GST work Media advocacy has an agenda and it is a part of journalism
Voices Opinion Sunday, August 07, 2016 - 17:44

This is a question I get asked often. If a journalist is advocating for something, does s/he have an agenda? The short answer is no and I will work with the example of the recently passed Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill to show where advocacy stops and agenda begins.

 Journalism is a public good that must be accounted for publicly. I wrote about this recently

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said the GST will be approved in 15 states in the next 30 days and the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has set himself the target of rolling out a single tax to replace multiple indirect taxes by April 1, 2017. We in the media have work to do, from reporting to challenging, writing opinion pieces and advocating. 

Media advocacy can be used for a host of subjects ranging from awareness to fund raising. In the case of the GST, we are looking at this robust tool for economic change which holds out the promise of making India the world’s largest free market. Advocacy assumes that people have rights. It works best when it is focussed on something specific and it is primarily concerned with benefits to which people are entitled. Media advocacy also needs to ensure that institutions keep pace with the desired ambition. The GST gives India and Indian companies the right to grow in a fair and transparent way. 

 In my view, we in the media have to work with our lawmakers to make GST work, however long it takes and whatever be the difficulties. There are numerous hurdles, beginning with most people including journalists not grasping the political vision and economic depth of this unfolding legislation. I count myself among the partially informed on the economic intricacies. Together with the doubters and the votaries we have to deep dive into issues questioning the government, supporting it, challenging it and backing it. 

The news part of this story is behind us for the moment. Next steps include a careful construction of facts influenced and guided by professional standards in editorial rooms. For and against GST is not at issue. Personally I am a backer of a single market, but I have to engage with intelligent opposition failing which I will fall into the agenda track. This is where media advocacy I respect differs from NGO activism.

Media advocacy is a blend of science, politics and activism (opinions, editorials) driven by facts that will stand up to scrutiny in any court of law. It has a deep understanding of what moves social, political and economic conversations and it is pinned on realistic hope. Five actors – governments, the private sector, civil society, academia and the media – have to work together to take data to decision i.e. policy and then legislation. Once the legislation is through, the same five actors have to return to where it all started – with people in a democracy. This back and forth process is where final texts get their polish. 

Facts are sacrosanct in media advocacy. In public health for example, the advocacy has to be rooted in epidemiology, travel to the next step which is economics (cost, scale, models, simulation etc.), move on to the legislation and where necessary, litigation. Together with colleagues at the World Health Organisation (WHO) where I headed-up the policy analysis and communications work of non-communicable diseases, we developed this SELL model (science, economics, legislation and litigation). We tested it successfully in the global tobacco control programme which led to the adoption of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). My study and commentary of the GST will follow this discipline.

For GST, the ‘science’ will be the economics and how systematically it is explained to Indians who will be its ultimate beneficiaries. The GST is their right, not a gift from the government. The BJP will obviously go out aggressively to ensure its plans are not subverted and at time of writing that seems unlikely. But it must also build in rigour and discipline in the way it tells a story leaving nothing to chance and ignorant interpretation.  

State governments have supported the GST because it will give a fillip to their share of taxes and make cross border trade easier. States that produce goods have been assured compensation for five years by the central government since they will incur losses applied on consumption.  Facts, as and when they become available must be placed before the people of India because the GST is about us and for us.

Most of the NDA governments have called for a special session to pass the GST.  Opposition states have also offered to do the same but between promise and delivery falls a vast body of work. If I were to suggest something it is this. The government should send out foot soldiers right down to the ground level across India where the benefits of the GST must be internalised. It will not be easy, but it has to be done so that 1.27 billion people own it and see it as their story to progress. 

Here I want to dispel one myth about civil society. Not all NGOs are irresponsible. In fact, in policy work, they are expected to be at the forefront of the debates. They are ‘allowed’ to let emotion get in the way of facts and I expect some of this in the months ahead. Journalists cannot take that path. Neither can journalists speak for governments. It’s not a fine line – it’s a firewall that becomes obvious when intentions are clear and commitment to the cause remains on the straight and narrow. How I approach an issue as a reporter is an indication of my integrity. If I err, I expect to be called out.

In my mind, there is no confusion about my next steps. I will read, seek information, speak to people including politicians and experts, question and challenge and start all over again. Before I write a10 words, I need to understand a 1000. That is the only media advocacy I understand. My Swiss friends quip that say if something is explained to them slowly, they get it quickly. Additional help that will be in my understanding and writing about the GST and its entry into force.

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