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Monday, March 18, 2013

Indian Media: Who will guard the guards?

(A shorter version of  this article appeared in Foreign Policy Journal as 'The Rot Behind the Facade of Free Media in India' on March 17, 2013)

Even as the months-old scandal related to a media conglomerate in India recedes in public memory, the questions related to the long term implications of collusion between the corporations and the media houses persist. With some respectable exceptions, the future of journalism at its essence looks grim in India given the philosophy and the clout of the agenda-setters.
There are two ways of cleansing corrupt or unethical practices: one, by forcing the people to abstain from them; the other, by redefining the erstwhile corrupt and unethical practices as 'not so'. A cursory examination at the way many societies deal with such practices makes it very clear that the latter of the two is often more feasible and in many instances the only possible way of dealing with the issue.

 World Map showing the percent of national populations living on less than $1.25 per day. UN Estimates 2000-2007: With India ranking next to few African countries from the bottom with a value of 41-60%, news related to poverty are not just worthy of contemplation by the 'leader's in Indian media (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons). Contrast this with the glamorous news item about the Indian billionaires below.
Probably, there is no more tantalizing example of such kind of adaptation to corrupt practices than the Indian media. From the outcry against the 'paid news' over past many years to revelation of fake stings by the TV channels, the darker side of Indian media has been recurrently illuminated even though for brief periods. Past two years have been boom time for the Indian media as the sensationalism around the multitude of massive financial scams has ensured that people are glued to the TV channels or the newspapers and magazines. While the corrupt activities of politicians are gleefully covered, the issue of corporate corruption remains a near-taboo and introspection into the state of media industry itself is nearly missing, particularly among the 'leaders' of the Indian media world. 

As expected, the by now five-month-old scandal related to a sting by a business tycoon against a TV conglomerate is being forgotten as if no such thing had ever occurred. Apparently, agents of one of the prominent TV channels were secretly videoed while trying to extort large sums of money from a business group (through an arrangement by which favorable coverage would be given and damaging stories avoided in exchange for a lucrative advertisement deal). While one commentator or the other deplores the collusion between the business houses and the media in which backdrop the sting took place, most media outlets are now desperately trying to break some fresh news, catch some new scam or orchestrate a new sting as opposed to following the stale story.

A facsimile of The Times of India’s August 28, 2011 page with the ‘marketing feature’ on Bt Cotton. The same stories, word-by-word, had appeared earlier as real news on Oct 31, 2008. (Source: The Hindu article by P. Sainath). Contrast this with the grim data of Farmer suicides below, taken from National Crime Records Bureau, that also includes the state depicted to 'reap gold' in the TOI feature
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This raises some fundamental questions about the nature and relevance of media as an important vehicle of social discourse in India. What is journalism really set to accomplish? Does it have any responsibility towards society other than enriching the media houses and employing a sizable workforce of journalists?

Ordinarily, journalism is supposed to be one of the important checks to the power of the rulers and the powerful elites in any society. Indeed nearly every functioning democracy in world today boasts of a 'free and independent' media and even the dictators try to give an aura of press freedom. (Incidentally, in a ludicrous interview with the film crew behind the revealing documentary 'Who killed Natasha?', Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechen Republic, says something to this effect: so long as Natasha Estemirova was there, she would write all nonsense against us and we would be able to say to our critics 'here, see we have democracy and space for dissenting voice'. Now she is no longer there and we cannot say that. So, why would we kill her?)

The perilous journey that the journalists have to undertake in dictatorships apart, journalism as a profession in democratic world with liberal economies, where there are little prospects of outright government interference or repression, also face different but by no means less serious challenges. Also, they are remarkably different from the challenges posed by a dictatorial regime. It is in this context that Indian journalism and media industry, as the guards of most populous democracy in the world, form a subject for a relevant case study.  

In contrast to western democracies where the print journalism is facing a formidable decline with increasing diversion of audience traffic to online outlets, a combination of low internet penetration and increasing literacy in India has enormously blessed the newspapers and magazines. And this advantage is expected to remain for at least a decade or two to come. Together with the TV channels which have an even more impressive track record of building and sustaining audience, these media play an increasingly prominent role in shaping the social and ultimately national discourse in India.

Especially during the times of turmoil and turbulence (like, after a terrorist attack or a communal pogrom, when a war with Pakistan is supposed to be imminent or when China is believed to be planning a military aggression), when the air of commotion blows, people look up to the media to get insights on what is happening as well as how to look at the developments at a particular moment. Moreover, for a whole generation of urban youth with little direct exposure to the rural hinterlands, media are often the only means of getting the overall picture of India as a state. The positions of the popular media in the issues ranging from rampant poverty and corruption, violence and terrorism, severely strained ecology and raging economic inequality to national security and foreign policy of India are thus very important in shaping attitude of the people to those issues.

The name of TOI appeared frequently on this sub-committee report on 'Paid News' by Press Council of India. But thanks to the clout of the big media houses, this report never saw the light of the day even though it could reach the web somehow
So, who sets the agenda, which are so crucial, for Indian media today? An answer to this question also deals with the way Indian media outlets prioritize the issues for coverage as well as the way in which the media houses deal with the journalists, the readers/viewers and the advertisers. In a long article in October 8 issue of New Yorker titled 'Citizens Jain', Ken Auletta answers the question rather successfully. It is indeed the owners of India's dominant media conglomerate, Bennett, Coleman and Company, Ltd. (BCCL), who have been setting the agenda. From fine-tuning the relationship between the advertisers and the media (disproportionately in favor of the former) to redefining the erstwhile unethical practices like paid news (items appearing as news actually being promotional materials being paid for by the person/institution buying the space) and private treaties (under which the paper accepts ads in exchange for equity in a company) as acceptable practices, this giant has been pretty much shaping the contours of journalism in India.

The details of how the India media has been in a process of generalizing and amplifying the invincible model of Jain brothers at BCCL apart, the very philosophy behind that sort of journalism seems to permeate to the bottom of Indian journalism. Take, for instance, this statement of Samir Jain, the vice-chairman at BCCL, again from the New Yorker article: “I think history doesn’t exist, and if I were Prime Minister I would ban the study of history.” (Interestingly, the witty novelist Namita Gokhale responded to this:  “What I’ll do is give you two tight slaps and a kick, and if you can’t remember it I’ll agree there’s no history!”)

Many issues including the agenda of social justice are based on the assumption that the historically disadvantaged people from various groups need some sort of positive discrimination from the state, and role of journalism is supposed to be crucial in bringing the plight of such people to attention of the authorities. When the media leaders make an overarching denial of history itself that makes a perfect philosophy for amassing wealth through a process of symbiosis with the small number of people at the top of prosperity hierarchy.

Thus the journalistic theme of the agenda-setter Times of India (TOI) and other media outlets owned by BCCL, expressed explicitly by the Jain brothers in the article, is this- promote consumption so as to benefit the advertisers; their success and growth is the media's success and growth. Obviously, there is no role for the pious things such as learning things from the history, ensuring the well-being of the under-privileged and the downtrodden and advocating a ecologically sustainable model for growth and expansion of industrial activities. With history gone and stories of nearly two thirds of Indians surviving on a meager less than US$ 2 jettisoned, the mammoth financial scams benefiting the advertisers at the cost of public exchequer misrepresented and the exponential devastation of the biosphere altogether ignored, TOI embodies an ideal vehicle for advertisements among which some scanned news and superfluous views can be sprinkled here and there.

The alternative section of Indian Media: This illustration speaks for itself (Tehelka)
It will, however, be immense injustice to view the Indian media in black and white and assume that every member of the fraternity necessarily embodies the philosophy of Jains at BCCL. They have obviously forced many of their competitors to emulate them secretly and partially if not openly and totally. But there are people doing an honest and brave journalism while consistently pointing fingers towards the multiplying maladies inside the fraternity.  And fortunately, they are not difficult to spot in the crowd. The so called Jindal-Zee scandal mentioned above was the latest instance when they synchronously called for a genuine introspection in part of Indian media if the leftover credibility and respectability of the media as a fraternity was to be preserved. But in a situation where an advertiser rather than the reader or viewer determines the fate of a media outlet, a strictly ethical and responsible journalism stands little chance of upsetting the established order. 

So, where do the Indian media move from here? And how does the kind of journalism promoted by the owners of BCCL impact Indian society? This story covered by Ashish Khetan for the Sept 29, 2012 issue of the Tehelka weekly speaks pretty much about the consequences of an increasingly powerful and opaque symbiosis between the media and business houses:

As is the case with most of the resource-rich states, corruption rules the roost in Chhatisgarh state of India and media there has two options: confront it and risk collapse or closure; or collude with the stakeholders and flourish. Patrika, one of the newspapers in the state was reportedly penalized for critical coverage by the state government by withdrawing all government advertisements to the newspaper (a lifeline for newspapers in a state where the Department of Public Relations’ annual budget is roughly Rs 40 crore). Now, how could this paper compete with the rival 'Dainik Bhaskar', the state’s largest circulated daily, whose promoters have a mining lease for 91.6 million tonnes of coal reserves in Raigarh district of the state?

The reality now is, even when it brings all the fudged stories about the imminent transformation of the rural hell into paradise by extraction of coal and its utilization and orchestrates the vilification campaign against the villagers protesting against the land acquisition for coal mining (a real scenario), Dainik Bhaskar remains the most read paper in the state today (as expected, Hari Bhoomi, also owned by another big business, comes second in the rank). Patrika, or any other paper, even if they cover the environmental degradation and the misery of displaced people objectively and meticulously, fail to make it to the top 5 list of most read papers. And the failure to forge 'cordial' relationship with the other corporations and business in the state is the perfect recipe for the collapse of any media venture.

Quis custodiet ipses custodes? Or who will guard the guards themselves? This Latin phrase poses a perfect question to the Indian media today. If the current trend continues, while the limited outlets batting for responsible and ethical journalism will keep getting attention from and applause of the small number of people weary of unlimited corporate power, the larger picture of media industry will continue to be dominated by the larger players whose fortunes can only multiply over the years to come.

Beside journalists who believe in ethical and responsible journalism the other losers in the whole scheme are the vast majority of poor and underprivileged people whose issues and stories are blacked out to facilitate the drive of the wealthy to multiply their wealth. With India projected to the world as the invincible democracy marching towards glory with mushrooming billionaires, the other side of the coin is being deliberately obscured.

Now, with innovations like paid news ensuring that the coverage in popular media (rather than the actual performance of a candidate in terms of addressing the voter's concern) is likely to decide who will win and who will lose, the last pillar of democracy is under imminent threat. After that, there is little to loose for people in this land where estimated one third of world's poor reside. The bigger losers in the game are, however, the young men and women who choose a career in journalism hoping to help people but end up serving a nexus of super-rich people inside and outside the media industry. 

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