Corporate Media vs Free Speech

Or, journalism in the service of the highest bidder
Sukumar Muralidharan Delhi 

Awkard questions tend to remain subdued when times are good. Indeed, the mood of the times can be told by the persistence with which they present themselves in public discourse. The media is the means through which these questions are posed and the public seeks answers. But when the messenger itself becomes the focus of grave public disquiet, times must be especially bad. That indeed is where India is at, as 2010 draws to a close on a note of discord and disharmony.

There can be no monetary value placed on it, such as the mind-boggling and rather facile figure of Rs 176,000 crore that became the hallmark of the collusive deal between a discredited minister and the industry he was tasked with overseeing. Radia-gate, though, is a scandal of epic proportions, since it lays bare the subornment of the institutions of the State. It is a process that has been complete and especially potent since it has successfully recruited the media to its cause.

Radia-gate has only come to light because of the leak - unauthorised and still untraced - of a number of telephone conversations which were tapped by the law and enforcement authorities on a mandate that yet remains unclear. There have been vague reports that the lobbyist who was seemingly able to open doors at all levels of the State and the media - an Indian national of East African extraction - was suspected of serious economic crimes and espionage, but little that had been officially corroborated. 

The 'lobby' has, needless to say, remained the great unmentionable in the media construction that followed. The revelation of the Radia tapes, even with all the scandal and political drama that went before, had all the ingredients to be the top news story of the year. Indeed, for a news media that is often in pursuit of the lowest common denominator of audience taste, prone to suffer spasms of outrage over trivialities, this was a story that had sensation in authentic and abundant measure. And yet, with not more than a handful of exceptions, the story was consigned to a black-hole of media neglect.

When the media did finally discover its voice on Radia-gate, it was only in a spirit of self-extenuation. In the circumstances, the pretence that no serious wrongdoing had taken place, seemed not just shallow, but preposterous. There had been suspicions afloat earlier that the media had become the loyal and uncritical stenographer for those wielding power. That was a bad enough fall in public esteem for a media which still sought to strut its stuff as an active voice of dissent, of speaking the hard truth to power. The Radia tapes showed that the media was, indeed, an active and eager participant in the abuse of power.

The arguement over the Indian media losing its vision and commitment is at least as old as independence. It has emerged in diverse forms over the years and always been laid to rest since the media, uniquely among all industries, is also able to determine the tone of the public discourse over its own affairs. When the country's first significant effort to theorise on the role of the media in a democratic society - the Press Commission of 1954 - put on record its disquiet at ongoing developments in the industry, the media was quick to fire back. As The Hindu then put it: 

We must in all respect, contest the Commission's unsupported conclusion that the conduct of newspapers is no longer a mission... It is true that journalism is no longer a camp-follower in a subject nation's crusade for freedom. It has grown and developed, however inadequately... It is slowly becoming professionalised, even while on the economic side it is fitting itself, as it must if it is to survive, into the general industrial infrastructure. It has no need to be ashamed of the progress from amateurish and often inadequate idealism to responsible professionalism.

Though not particularly distinguished, this prehistory would now seem the golden age. There was a clear shift in 1991, when India entered into a policy of economic liberalisation and integration with the global economy, unleashing a new dynamic in the media industry. Today's media crisis compels a review of some of the strategic choices made over the last two decades. 

It should be asked, for instance, if the industry did the right thing by itself and its customers from about the mid-1990s, by tying its commercial success to advertising rather than circulation. In the process, the journalism function was devalued and its essential tenets and processes forgotten, because advertising - always the greater contributor to revenue - needed not just to be accommodated, but actively pampered.

There was, in the process, a dissolution of the relationship between the journalist and the audience. Since lifestyle and celebrity provided the best environment for advertisers, these became the staple of media content. Media organisations shifted their mission from one of providing authentic and reliable news and commentary, to one of bringing an audience to the advertiser. And individual journalists succumbed to the beguiling fantasy that they could themselves partake of the celebrity lifestyles they avidly promoted.

Few sectors of the economy in India have had the buoyant growth rates over the last two decades as the media has. Few indeed have had the same luxury of functioning in a regulatory environment almost entirely of its choosing. But deregulation as an economic model, even if it works for other industries, is thoroughly inappropriate in the market for news and information. This is simply because the model assumes, first, a competitive marketplace where easily measured physical attributes provide a stable baseline against which price becomes a reliable parameter for consumer decisions. It may be okay for soaps and detergents, for telephone services, or for air travel. But it does not really ensure an optimal outcome in the market for information, where various gradations of quality are involved. 

News in both the print and electronic variants, moreover, is a commodity that is always sold at a price below its cost. But, unfortunately, the news industry in India has evolved along a trajectory that makes it almost worthless. In the absence of public scrutiny, it was a short step from here to leveraging content itself as a revenue source. 

It was no State secret that individual journalists were often susceptible to material inducements to twist their coverage one way or the other. This form of individualised corruption was institutionalised through the years of liberalisation. By the early years of this decade, it was official policy that the media would sell space for favourable news coverage - much in the manner of advertisements - though without acknowledgment.

Individual journalists of some stature began speaking out against the abuse from about the middle of 2009. Yet, within the media itself, the wall of silence remained impregnable. The first breach, indeed, occurred after several months and was in all probability triggered by an aggravation in the relationship between some of the country's biggest media groups, after a dispute over leadership of the industry lobby.

Similarly, when transcripts of the Radia tapes began surfacing in April this year, without a clear identification of source, few media organisations showed the conviction or the courage to follow the trail that they laid out. There were suspicions that business rivalries and the thwarted ambitions of one of the country's largest industrial groups may have led to both the tapping of the Radia conversations and their selective leaks.

These are questions that may not be settled for a long time, indeed, may never quite be satisfactorily answered. But the picture of the lobbyist's domain that the Radia tapes lays out - a world of high intrigue, casual scruples and deep media complicity - will remain vividly etched in public memory for long. As with other junctures in recent years when Indian democracy has come up frontally against its deepest anxieties, this is an existential crisis that the citizens of this country would have to negotiate, though without great assistance from the media.   

The writer is former Chief of Bureau, Frontline, currently with the International Federation of Journalists

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2011

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