Discourse on Indian mainstream media
This is in continuation to my earlier piece on”Role of Government“. In this part, I shall discuss the role of the mainstream media (Television in particular) in shaping the discourse in India.
Public Sphere and Structural Transformation
Any discussion on the evolution of media ought to be started with the mention of Jürgen Habermas. Habermas is best known for his work ‘Structural Transformation ‘where he analyzes the evolution of media in Britain, France and Germany from 17th Century until the early-20th century. His analysis and findings have interesting parallels in India.
The public sphere is an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. (Wikipedia)
In the feudal Europe, public sphere was essentially dominated by the aristocracy. As industrial revolution began to unravel, the increase in trade created the first need for news. The pre-cursor of media were newsletters circulated among closed networks of merchants. The technological developments in the second half of 17th century saw the emergence of ‘political journals’. This was the first time when news had become a commodity and it could be sold by using economies of scale. The news also ceased to be a private affair and not just for those whom it directly impacted.
By the early 18th century, it was common for newspapers to not just report information but also began coming out with opinionated articles. These editorials challenged those who enjoyed power in that era, namely state and church. The readers largely belonged to intellectual strata. Habermas described this as Bourgeois Public Sphere.
For Habermas, the bourgeois public sphere was, in principle, shaped by the values of egalitarian dialogue. It was free from state and church. Letters to the editor were accorded special status.
The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. (Wikipedia)
Destruction of Bourgeois Public Sphere
Nineteenth-century saw a public sphere expanding through the growth of media outlets and the spread of literacy and through the rise of working class, women’s movements. Addition to literacy and affordability was accompanied by de-intellectualization of content and was reflected in the popularity of penny press. Early penny press tried to maximize sales with de-politicization of its content. Human interest stories like celebrities were favored over complex stories. Ultimately this inclusivity brought degeneration in the quality of discourse.
The state also began realizing the power of the printed word. Print offered an efficient means of communicating decrees, proclamations and royal news. The Structural Transformation of the political public sphere is characterized by Habermas as a process of ‘re-feudalization’, where ‘the distinction “public” and “private” could [no longer] be usefully applied’.
Segmentation of the Indian Public Sphere
As per the National Readership Survey in 1999, the total readership of newspapers in India was 131 million out of which rural readership was barely 29%. By 2005, this increased to 200 million with a rural readership at 50%. This increase could be attributed to the rise in affordability and also in improvement literacy rates. This period also saw rise of TV media giving competition to the print media.
To fight the increased competition newspapers began localizing their news. Carrying more localized news meant special pages carrying city/town related news. Essentially it meant the size of the newspaper had to increase from 15-20 pages to 40 pages. Readers could not afford to pay for this additional cost and hence the need for several state editions.
The new segmented public sphere posed a new problem for the players in the political game. Chief Ministers of a state had to read at least 4-5 different editions just to keep him updated on the developments in the state. Excessive localization worked against the mobilization of a mass movement. A movement originating in one district remains confined to the nearby areas because it never gets reported in other areas.
‘A politician from Madhya Pradesh raised a question, how a rising politician would ever be able to build a statewide profile given the segmented nature of news coverage’
From the book ‘Headlines from the Heartland’
Now does that ring any bell? We constantly hear in the Television media that a certain politician is only a regional satrap and not a national leader. This is what I call the’Dilli media phenomenon’.
This Dilli media has taken upon itself the task of certifying politicians, who is a national figure and who is not. It is the Dilli media which decides which news the people should see. A kid in Gurgaon falling into a well would get more coverage than a flood in Orissa or a power crisis in Andhra. A riot in Assam would not get any coverage because the body count isn’t that much yet.
This is the Dilli media, largely limited to the municipal limits of Delhi/NCR. North-East or the Andamans probably don’t exist for the Dilli media, yet a shootout in the US gets live coverage on all channels. The biggest irony is that this segmentation is happening at a time when technology has made it easier for people to come closer.
It is not mere co-incidence that Arvind Kejriwal (the master strategist when it comes to media management) decided to launch his political party from Delhi elections. A good performance in Delhi would give him a permanent place in the Delhi studios and an influence disproportionate to the current political strength of his party.
Re-feudalization of the Indian Public Sphere
In April 2012, an Open Magazine article detailed how Bihar Government Nitish Kumar had misused Government advertisements to allegedly force newspapers to promote favorable advertisements. Bihar’s advertisements expense rose from Rs 4.5 crore in 2005-06 to Rs 34.6 crore in 2009-10.
‘In 2006-07, Pindar got advertisements worth just about Rs 1 lakh from the state government. In 2007-08, after Dr Ghani (a journalist who dared to criticize Nitish Kumar) was gagged at the start of that fiscal year, the paper was rewarded generously: its revenues from government advertisements soared to Rs 24 lakh. In 2008-09, it drew nearly Rs 40 lakh from such ads, and in 2009-10, about Rs 48 lakh.’ (Open Magazine)
Another recent article on Newslaundry points out that Indian Express got nearly 20 times the revenue as ratio of circulation when compared to Times of India. Interestingly, Indian Express is not even in the top 30 newspapers.
It threatens to erode the very edifice on which the worthiness of any newspaper stands: scrupulous objectivity with a pinch of anti-establishment. More and more government dole-outs can only take a newspaper in one direction, that of a mouthpiece. (Newslaundry)
Similar statistics for TV media are not available but I highly doubt if those would be any different. Forget first page coverage, it was shocking to see newspapers blacking out Kejriwal’s recent expose on Delhi electricity pricing. This is re-feudalization of the Indian public sphere, where it is not the people but Dilli media and its handlers decide what the viewers should see/read.
This feudalization is being done in many ways. It could be in the form of ads given to the channel, access to top ministers and party leaders in return of favorable coverage. Another typical way is giving National Awards like Padma Bhushan to selected journalists.
Parliamentary Discourse: Depoliticize it
Parliament is often called the Temple of our Democracy. Sadly, large sections of middle-class consider it is useless. How are the parliamentary proceedings covered by the Dilli media?
In 2009, Sushma Swaraj said the following at the HT Leadership Summit:
The entire Parliamentary reporting has been reduced to zero hour reporting. If we speak for 45 minutes on any issue of public interest, those are all filled with well research facts and figures, yet if one sentence gets printed next day, we consider ourselves to be lucky. If on the same issue, we get the house adjourned, media gives puts us on the headlines.
Let me tell you about the last Parliamentary session. It was the first session of the new Lok Sabha and BJP had put up a good performance. We received appreciation as well. I was sitting in the Central Hall of the Parliament along with some journalists. They said, “The speeches by you are all good, but the session is running smoothly. Kabhi to thaan thoon kijiye, so that we also get some news”.
This tendency that ‘thaan thoon’ is news, because negative stories are interesting but positive and rational stories are pale, this tendency of media has spoiled the discourse.
When opposition storms into well and Parliament is adjourned, media criticizes the opposition. I would like the media to analyze the adjournments. Has the opposition ever adjourned Parliament for increasing their salaries? You will find all those have been in matters pertaining to public interest.
If farmers are committing suicide or inflation is rising and we want to raise the issue but the Government does not allows up, what should we do? If the PM of India in joint statement with PM of Pakistan includes the reference of Balochistan, we as the opposition demands answers from the Government and Government tries to scuttle it, what should we do? I would want you to at least analyze those disruptions that you regularly criticize.
Except for high profile debates like Nuclear Deal or Lokpal, media largely does not cover the Parliamentary proceeding. Even when it covers the proceeding, there is hardly any coverage given to the broad arguments that are made in parliament, what gets printed or gets shown on TV are poetic utterances like Urdu couplets by Manmohan Singh. To paraphrase what Habermas said, Dilli media has essentially de-politicized the discourse. The facts that are given are usually ignored. Neither are there any follow-ups by the Dilli media on any of assurances given by the Government in Parliament.
Common rhetoric by Dilli media journalists suggests that it has been opposition that is responsible for policy paralysis. It must be noted that since mid-1990s, there has been a process of having Parliamentary Committees. These committees have representations from all-parties and the bills are usually tabled on the basis of the reports of these committees. Even when Parliament is paralyzed, many of these committees still continue to work.
Hence it is fundamentally incorrect to suggest that politicians don’t work at all. Their work, particularly those on Parliamentary reports is rarely given top focus. Nor is ever an objective evaluation of the performance of MPs and parties in the Parliament done.
Is it really surprising that a large section of middle-class is indifferent towards politics?
Development Discourse: “Negativity and Reactive Sensationalism”
A respected secretary in a state Government said the following about the journalists
“They have only one mantra, to criticize, to be negative, and to damn. It was not their job to attempt to understand issues.”
“When a new state is formed, the media will say ‘A new state has been formed, but nothing is happening’. So? Milk and honey will flow” It takes one year to just settle down. Five years is one plan period is a realistic period to judge performance. A local journalist is unlikely to buy such a logic, he needs stories to fill his pages If I am to spend time educating them I have to know that it is worth it. It isn’t. They only want to write stories such as ‘officers misusing air conditioners’. Not enough time is spent on a subject to understand it.”
Extracted from the book ‘Headlines from the Heartland’
One senior journalist when asked about the allegation that media is only there to be negative on governance, he replied “Khinchai to karni hai” (we have to find faults, after all)
Extracted from the book ‘Headlines from the Heartland’
Negativity sells better and is perhaps more likely to grab eyeballs. No wonder Dilli media is excessively focused on negative stories. Even the positive stories are more about private individuals doing some good work. Rarely are any positive stories done on political success stories. For instance:
- In a country marred with massive corruption, PDS in Chattisgarh has leakages of barely 5-7%.
- In a country with massive black economy, Maharashtra has witnessed silent revolution in sales tax revenue going up
- In a country where farmers commit suicide, Madhya Pradesh has witnessed an agriculture growth rate of 18%.
The above are a few of immense stories that are not given coverage.
Most newspapers in India are designed to be reactive. This is actually much, much cheaper than being proactive. Being proactive usually means sending out reporters to explore stories and regions and hunches. Mostly without fixed deliverables.
Reactive journalism is one of the biggest problems with Dilli media. Media in India only discusses the current issues. It rarely discusses futuristic issues, how to take India forward.
India has witnessed numerous protests in the last two years. This includes multiple protests by Anna Hazare and Ramdev (for Lokpal and Black Money) and also the recent protests. Almost all these protest have been covered 24/7 by Television media. But has media coverage really helped in shaping the public discourse.
A good indicator to test this hypothesis would be to analyze the recent protests in Delhi after the gang rape. While it is true that normally apolitical people did turn-up on the streets and braved lathi blows, I couldn’t help noticing one key failure, the lack of any substantive demands. Some of the main demands/slogans of these leaderless protests were ‘We want Justice’, ‘Hang the rapists’ and ‘Strong Laws’.
One couldn’t help notice that the government had already promised speedy justice and the rapists were also caught in record time. Those who spoke directly to the journalists on camera were too were mostly unable to say something substantive beyond the rhetoric. This lack of clarity even amongst the educated youth can be directly attributed to the fact that the mainstream media has failed in informing them about the issues and possible solutions. Media creates more noise where it is supposed to shed light.
- Conviction Rates: Our conviction rates of existing laws are so low, how can strong laws as demanded by common people change anything?
- Death penalty – In a large number of cases, the victim is known to accused. In many cases, it is the victim’s statement that helps in nabbing the accused. A death penalty may actually incentivize the accused to kill the victim. Yet there news channels and some politicians demanding this.
- Did you know that in India we don’t use modern techniques like Forensic science, except for High Profile terror cases?
- Did you know that Gujarat Government opened a University in Forensic Science in 2008, one of the first its kind in the world? We need more such long term investments to fight crime but there is hardly any debate in this direction.
- Police in most states is understaffed and under trained.
- Did you know that India barely has 13 judges per million of population while UK and US have 51 and 107 respectively?
- There is a wide gap between the salaries of a judge and that top lawyer make. A large number of talented lawyers therefore don’t take up judicial posts.
- One common demand has to setup fast track courts. Fast track courts were started in Rajasthan by the then BJP Government and were extremely successful. However these were closed recently by the present Congress Government citing lack of funds. Yet this mainstream media failed to take up this issue. Most of the Indian Main stream media does not understand what is the role of the government is and why Law and Order is the most basic role. (Source)
Did you know how Indian judiciary functions and the number of Holidays it enjoys?
- Supreme Court has a seven weeks summer vacation, two weeks winter vacation, one week each for Holi and Diwali apart from other national holidays. Saturday and Sunday is also holiday for court proceedings.
- Court proceedings starts at every day on 10.30 A.M. Monday and Friday. Most of the benches sit only up to lunch.
- It is very common that cases got adjourned on account of leave of the judges. Some days some benches do not sit if one judge was on leave.
Did any media house debate on role of the judiciary and need for larger Judicial and Police Reforms? Where will the money come from to fund the expansion and reformation of Police and Judiciary? Economic Reforms? Did any media house explain that?
Dilli media’s superficial coverage
What is your position on the coverage of media in important topics, don’t you think it does not go deep into a topic Asked by: Santosh Kumar Rath
Rajdeep: I agree, there is a growing superficiality in some aspects of media coverage, the quality of debates on many channels is sub-standard. We confuse news with noise, sense with sensation: we need to introspect and do a course correction. Areas like agriculture, science and technology, education, health are poorly served in most of the media.
Rajdeep Sardesai (On IBN Chats)
Sample this, in a TV appearance; a leading channel’s editor questioned Montek Singh Alluwalia on the policy paralysis in the government. Montek Singh replied that recently CRR rate has been reduced and more measures will follow. Of course, the anchor didn’t ask that decision was taken by RBI which is independent. Neither did anchor cross question how this will be sufficient when there are infrastructural bottlenecks.
The TV debate format is to be blamed here. The debate format is different from usual news reading. In the case of latter, the anchor merely reads the news which can be given by a research team but in case of the former, the key aspect is domain knowledge. A big problem is that most television anchors are unfit and unaware on most issues. They can handle political debates and those involving caste dynamics, but when it comes to Development and Reforms, most are unfit. Lack of domain knowledge of the anchors leads to politicians/bureaucrats on the debate getting away with their usual rhetoric.
There used to be a time when the only TV debates happened in the form of weekly show on NDTV called ‘The Big Fight’. A weekly show gives enough time to the anchor to research on topic. It also gives enough time to select their guests.
This is not the case today where debates have unfortunately become a daily affair. It is unreasonable to expect an anchor to be an all-rounder and be an expert on every topic. Common sense calls for separate anchors each specializing in his own area. The guests are also called upon based on instant availability and necessarily the most appropriate ones. So the likes of Suhel Seth gets called up for any topic under the sun.
Usually there are 4-5 guests along with an anchor debate on an issue in just 15-20 minutes. The issue could be as complicated as 2G or ChopperGate. That is barely 3-4 minutes per speaker, in which he/she is expected to not just give his opinion on the issue but also retort the other guests. Is it any wonder that most of the debaters across party lines are Lawyers who just compete in shouting their way?
There is a vast constituency particularly among urban youth who want change, who are unwilling to accept inefficiency. These set of educated and well-meaning youth need direction and leadership. However, the noisy Dilli media is keeping them disenchanted and frustrated from politics. The average middle-class urban India hates politics, and media is one of the key reasons for this, along with politicians of course.
Television has not helped, rather has had a deep negative impact in the discourse. Media is an enemy not an ally of the Indian middle-class. It merely uses the middle-class. Media is supposed to inform. The principle beneficiaries of economic reforms have been the middle-class. If they are indifferent to Economic reforms, blame the media for this which obfuscates every issue.
National Security Discourse: Dilli Media narrative “Nationalism equals to Jingoism”
Even a cursory comparison of India, a secular democratic nation with Pakistan, an Islamic Army controlled state will tell you the two are different and cannot be equated. Consider India, which has granted MFN status to Pakistan since 1995, India has offered aid to Pakistan after 2005 earthquake and also in 2010 after massive floods in Pakistan (less than 2 years after 26/11).
Surely India ought to be placed differently and a moral distinction ought to be made. Yet, as per the Dilli media (with the sole exception of Times Now) “Nationalism is a bad word and it must be equated with Jingoism”.
Lack of objectivity: Typical media narrative – While the BJP may be war mongering now, they were the ones to initiate the peace process with Pakistan.
Can the peace initiatives from 1999-2004 really be compared with those in 2013? India’s GDP was barely $500 billion while today it is more than $2 trillion. India is much stronger both militarily and economically, it has much wider international support than in 1999. Should we stick to the options that were used in the past and have failed to deliver peace?
India-Pakistan scenario may not be comparable to Israel-Palestine and hence the options to be considered have to different. Perhaps a South Korea-North Korea would be a more apt comparison. But debating on options would again require media to be pro-active rather than reactive.
In 2002, NDA Government ordered Operation Parakram after the Dec 13 attack on Indian Parliament. The aim of the operation was to assemble troops and launch punitive strike in Pakistan. However, lack of adequate infrastructure (like railways) and inadequate co-ordination meant India could not mobilize its troops quickly enough giving enough time to Pakistan counter mobilize its forces. The delay meant any attack launched now would lead to longer conflict. The delay also gave time to the international community to dissuade India. Needless to say, operation Parakram failed to achieve anything but nevertheless gave insight to India on its deficiencies.
Cold Start Doctrine: This doctrine was prepared by the Indian Armed Forces after the severe criticism it faced due to failure of Operation Parakram. This doctrine calls for building capabilities to launch punitive strikes into Pakistan within 24 to 48 hours of a terror attack. This requires keeping armored divisions to be located closer to Indian borders and close co-ordination between Army, Air Force and Political Leadership. This doctrine came up in 2004. The then NDA Government lost the elections and since then there hasn’t been adequate funds provided for this (Fund freezes Cold Start).
Unfortunately there hasn’t been any media debate on this issue. Likewise there was the Kargil Review Committee report that came up. It has been 10 years since the full report came out and this would have been a good time to review as to what all suggestions have been implemented.
For instance, the report calls for indigenization of defense equipment by involving private sector and FDI. When India is already importing 70% of its defense requirements, it makes little sense not to allow FDI (even up to 100%). Defense sector was opened in 2001 by NDA allowing 26% FDI but since then this hasn’t been revised upwards. Recently, UPA Government blocked a Joint venture between Mahindra and Israel’s Rafael.
As Swapan Dasgupta rightly said “India needs a prolonged period of capacity building before it can substitute angry frustration with meaningful action to hit the enemy where it really hurts”. This sort of capacity building can only be achieved if there is sufficiently high growth along with long term strategic vision and investment. The sad part is there isn’t any debate in the mainstream media and all that we discuss is candle burning and cricket/cultural diplomacies. This yet another example of reactive journalism as explained above.
Social Media could be the Bourgeois Public Sphere
Social media, namely Twitter, Facebook, blogs and group blogs like CRI come as close to the Habermas’s bourgeois public sphere as possible. Social media provides a platform to all, where people can come together and discuss issues that concern. Social media is closest to egalitarian sphere or as Habermas called it ‘Bourgeois Public Sphere’. Everyone is equal and has an equal voice.
Technology has made it possible for people come closer. It has made it possible for us to go beyond the segmented public sphere that has been imposed by the new feudal powers. Today we read multiple newspapers online. We can read different city editions of the same newspaper as well.
There are of course certain deficiencies in this medium. Most of the users are largely internet savvy, English speaking. Most of them perhaps would be living bigger towns. A disproportionate number of them would be from the upper castes.
For Aam Aadmi of India: US SC judge Felix Frankfurter, said that
“Active citizenry is an essential condition for democracy to succeed. Democracy involves hardship, of unceasing responsibility of the active citizen. Where the entire people do not take a continuous and considered part in public life, there can be no democracy in any meaningful sense of the term. Democracy is always a beckoning goal, not a safe harbor. For freedom is an unremitting endeavor, never a final achievement. That is why no office in the land is more important than that of being a citizen”.
If we as citizens desire for good governance, we have to keep ourselves informed. If we expect our politicians to honestly work for us, the least we can do is to continuously evaluate them. We need to take time out from watching Big Boss and spend time to get ourselves informed.
‘If you don’t read/hear you them, you are uninformed. If you read/hear them, you are misinformed‘
Mark Twain on media
Simply watching/reading Dilli media alone is more likely to leave you frustrated and misinformed. Modern Technology allows us to share opinions and interesting article, read multiple newspapers. Group Blogs like CRI provide alternate platform and viewpoint.
‘The real antidote to bad politics is politics, good politics, more and more politics’
Jayaprakash Narayan (Lok Satta)
As citizens we must join the internet activism. We must join hands and try to make others around us more aware. We must actively debate politics amongst ourselves. We must try and document our views and share with others. We must read others views and evaluate it against our understanding. Only then can we defeat the Dilli media.
For Kejriwal: While I don’t agree with many of Arvind Kejriwal’s ideas, I really admire how he has strategized his moves in launching his political movement. His strategy of starting with Delhi is perfect. Perhaps he overplayed his hand by dragging Ambanis too early and is now facing a media blackout.
For CRI: There are lessons for CRI as well. While CRI must try and expand and quest for wider readership, it must not fall into the trap of de-intellectualizing its content as a means to do so.
This article uses reference and quotations from the below sources.
- Headlines from the Heartland
- Jürgen Habermas – Democracy and the Public Sphere: Luke Goode