Saturday, March 15, 2008

Indian media -- beyond bias

Article written for The Post

More than a week ago, the Indian finance minister released a much talked about annual budget. The budget included a loan waiver of about Rs 65,000 crore for farmers in the country, reeling from a tremendous agrarian crisis. The waiver was made the talking point in the predominantly corporate-owned print and mass media in the country, most of whom were critical of the ‘dole’, calling it a gimmick meant for the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

As such, after the details of the waiver scheme were released, it was established by agrarian experts and rural India watchers to be some form of a breather for the much traumatised farmers in the country. Agrarian India is in the throes of a severe crisis that has forced thousands of farmers across the country to commit suicide owing to a variety of reasons. Agriculture as a profession has virtually become non-viable because of high input costs and a quirky globalised market. Farmers, running out of clear cut financial options, have depended upon credit from unscrupulous money lenders and the debt trap has only made their situation worse. The worst sufferers of the agrarian crisis, farmers who have committed suicide, have an amazing geographical spread: from Punjab in the north to Chattisgarh in central India to Vidharbha in the west to Kerala and Andhra Pradesh in the south of the country. This full-fledged crisis situation has dragged on for nearly a decade now in the country.

Yet the response to the one-time measure of a credit waiver from public sector banks for farmers has been treated with scorn by the media, be it ‘pink paper’ business press or broadsheets or the ubiquitous mass media news channels. No such angst or derision was witnessed when similar waivers were given to large private-owned corporations and debt written off as ‘non-performing assets’. Estimates of such written off bad loans are in the range of staggering number of lakhs and crores, but not even a crocodile tear came out from the press on the burden over financial institutions of the state, which had to bear the waiver loss in these cases. The obvious question one would raise is: if fiscal health is indeed the concern, why is there a selective angst among the so-called ‘fourth estate of Indian democracy’, the media? The answer is very simple, the Indian media as much as any other elsewhere, suffers from class biases. The only trouble is that the coverage of events in the Indian media goes beyond class biases and suffers from an acute form of status quoism, elitism and pro-establishment opinionating. The fact that the agrarian crisis has virtually been given a short shrift with neither the farmer suicides nor the agrarian distress being given any sort of priority coverage is galling.

Ever since substantial economic liberalisation in the country, the media has taken a sharp turn toward uninhibited commercialisation and sensationalism (with honourable exceptions of course). The English press in particular has devised a formulaic way of conducting ‘news business’ making the traditional role of acting as the guardian of the fourth estate of democracy to be a secondary one. The coming to town of the energetic and privately-owned TV news channels has exacerbated this trend. These channels thrive on a business model that is advertiser-driven and hence, relies on a competition that tries as much as possible to pander to the lowest common denominator of tastes to enhance viewership. Coverage of issues that do not quite resonate well with the upper middle classes in the country, who never had this better a life in all the years after Indian independence, is virtually nil. Thus what dominates television and print media (except for some honourable exceptions) is news that is ‘sellable’ and that which has a ‘commercial value’, is sensationalist and opinion that is clearly anti-labour, anti-poor and pro-nouveau/established rich. On every issue, where there has been a direct clash between forces of non-elite (blue collar labour, rural peasantry, unorganised labour, marginalised sections) and the elite (corporate big businessmen, foreign investors, ‘celebrities’), the media has taken the side of the elite.

That the arena of contestation where the poor have hit back (electoral democracy) sits uncomfortably with the elite, for whom ‘politics’ is nothing about merit or ‘class stature’ means that the media rubbishes politics and brands the entire ‘political class’ under the same brush. Of course, there are exceptions – those politicians who sit well with policy-making that favours the elite are given place of pride in coverage and given titles of ‘messiahs’ and ‘visionaries’. One only has to witness the adulation that the current finance minister, P. Chidambaram (a compulsive votary for neo-liberal reforms in the country) enjoys among the media along with other pro-big business and pro-elite politicians, to see this in action.

So cloistered is the media in India today in a territory that is very much cut off from the reality that governs the majority of the third world nation’s population, that it gets its political prognostications serially wrong. In 2004, when Indian voters brought down a right-wing government, which announced that India was ‘shining’ (even as the agrarian crisis was in full flow and the march of inequality was on), the media were gung ho about the existing establishment retaining power. Its coverage of politics is not highlighted by an anti-establishment role, but by a derision for ‘politics’ itself. Witness, for example, the coverage (or the lack of it) of the parliament.

The parliament is only in the news during disruptions and bedlam. Question hours, discussions, policy positions are either given the short shrift or are ignored in toto.

The derision for politics is accentuated especially when it comes to the coverage of the policy positions of the left space in the political spectrum in the country. Instead of analysing and critiquing positions taken by the Left, the tendency is not just to dismiss and disregard, but to subject leftist politicians to unfiltered abuse. A sample of this was available extensively during the Indo-US nuclear deal coverage. From calling the leftists traitors to the national cause, to insinuate extraterritorial loyalties and to excoriate any reasonable opinion that divorced from making a common cause with the Americans on every issue, the media clearly went overboard in maintaining its coloured credentials.

Even the credit waiver issue was given a new spin: the government had embarked upon this waiver as a populist move in lieu of snap polls. For the elitist media sections, the nuclear deal must be signed despite the leftists’ opposition (and even if there was a majority consensus against the deal in parliament), even if it meant that the government would fall in doing so. And the reasoning: some senators from the US had warned of an expedient timetable that had to be adhered to, in the ‘national interest’. As yet, the government is still strained to answer some of the legitimate concerns over the deal that has been signed with full cognisance of its positioning within a strategic partnership with the US. But this was not a problem for the custodians of the media as it sat well with the perceptions of the elite on the necessity of the nuclear deal.

Such a pro-elite shift in the media can only be explained by the fact that the larger part of the media is owned by corporate bodies, in partnership with foreign-based news channels themselves under corporate thrall. The ownership cuts across different segments in the media space from print to mass media and opinionating suffers from the fact that the proprietorship gets precedence over independent editorial control. In the print media for example, because of the predominance of commercialism over objectivity and analysis, the proprietor determines editorial and news content, with the editor (once an all powerful entity in the press) playing a subservient role. As for the TV news channels, the considerations of instantaneous gratification of the viewer requires that opinionating and news reporting are tuned to dubious rating principles that give precedence for quantity over quality. The only way of getting back the normative nature of the fourth estate in the country would be to regulate the content in the media, primarily through self-regulation and by setting a code of conduct. The preponderance of commercial and corporate interests in the media must be curtailed through stringent norms on cross-ownership and foreign control over the media. Freedom of the press must not mean a negative liberty, which misinterprets freedoms that were established in the form of a social contract between the people of the country and the ruling classes and that were instituted in the constitution.

No comments: