Image: Rediff.com, Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and Mukesh Ambani
Larger Processes At Work Destroying Journalism Today: P. Sainath
The commercial interests of these (business-controlled) channels represent the commercial interests of the largest corporations of the country.
“One problem with the fourth estate of democracy i.e. the media, is that of the four it’s the only one that is profit seeking. And in this city (Mumbai) it is very difficult to tell the difference between the fourth estate and real estate. India has a society that is incredibly diverse, heterogeneous and complex, reported by a media that is shrinking to narrower control.
The more your society is heterogeneous, the more your media is getting homogeneous. That is an incredible, irreconcilable contradiction. Look at the nature of panels and debates on Television.
What is their social composition? Who are the columnists in newspapers? It’s an extremely small, incestuous circle. The most sympathetic response to farmer suicides I have received, have come from institutions associated with the armed forces.
Why? Because many of our jawans are kisans in uniform. A senior officer at a training institute for soldiers once told me that he was worried about the boys from Maharashtra. They fear a call from village. When they call their families they are happy but not if they get a call from home. They don’t’ want to know what happened to whom. There is such a close relationship between a jawan and kisan.. they are practically the same class.
Where does the national vs. anti-national debate come from? From people whose ideological forebears never participated in national struggle, who gave whining apology to the British to be let out of prison while others died.
People who assassinated the father of the nation will now teach you nationalism. Today you have an entire generation robbed of its history. They have no clue what happened in the national struggle, who did what, who were the nationalists and who were the collaborators of British imperialism. Major changes have taken place.
Angry though I am at individual editors and anchors, I think there are much larger processes at work destroying journalism. Without addressing these, just changing anchors won’t help. These anchors are there because they are allowed to be there.
In the last 20 odd years we have reduced journalism to a revenue stream. This has happened because of the corporatisation of media. Entities controlling the media today are larger, more powerful than we have ever known.
In the last 25-30 years the concentration of media ownership has taken place rapidly and massively. Take the case of the largest network: Network 18. It is owned by Mukesh Ambani. All of you know the many channels of the ETV network. How many of you know that except the Telugu channel, all others are also owned by Mukesh Ambani just as he owns many other channels across the country?
If we all remain in journalism for five more years, we could all be owned by him. He does not know the names of all the channels he owns. Yet he could issue a fatwa stating that Aam Aadmi Party will not be covered during elections and it will be done. The commercial interests of these channels represent the commercial interests of the largest corporations of the country. So you are going to have extreme tightening and control of content.
In the last 20 odd years, the owners of the corporations that own and control media have been the biggest beneficiaries of neoliberalism and privatisation of public resources. Everyone seems to forget that Manmohan Singh was treated like a god for the first five years.
All those great anchors in 2009 had said this victory was not of the Congress party but is Manmohan Singh’s victory, that it is the victory of economic reforms. Now keep watch, the next round of privatisation is on the anvil. And who would gain from these?
If mining is being privatised - the Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis, Adanis all of them will be the big beneficiaries. When natural gas is privatised, Essar and Ambanis will benefit. And from the Spectrum - Tatas, Ambanis, Birlas.
Your media owners are poised to be the biggest beneficiaries of policies of the privatisation of public resources. They will get into the banks as well when those are privatised. Now here’s the bite.
They invested a few years in building up a fuehrer like figure called Narendra Modi, reducing all his rivals to dust consigned to the dustbin of Gujarat and Delhi. But he has not been able to deliver. And they don’t know what to do. He has not been able to push his land acquisition bill. He has not been able to do a lot of things you have been salivating for. They are angry with Modi but they don’t have a replacement.
What do they do? So finally we are seeing some amount of leeway in the media, a little bit of whining now and then. I say again that the Indian media is politically free but imprisoned by profit. That is the character of Indian media. I am not so impressed by the turnaround of the media on Kanhaiya. Remember they got millions of eyeballs by carrying his speech. Their viewership went up fabulously.
Despite the turn, many of them accepted the terms of debate of the BJP where they would claim that what was done to Kanhaiya was wrong but you have to begin it by saying that they are against the antinational slogans. You apologise in advance and you have accepted that framework and slotted yourself into that framework.
Corporatisation of media is not new though it is faster in India than in many other countries. In USA and Australia it has already reached saturation point. Look at journalism in the last 10 years. Of the three greatest expose that impacted journalism, shaken it to its core, not one has come from mainstream professional journalism. These three are Assange and Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.
Why did none of them come out of the so called professional news organisation? Because they are not pro establishment or pro big business they are big business they are the establishment. They are too heavily invested in the market to tell you the truth about it.
Their shares will suffer in value if they start examining the share bazaar in any critical way. So don’t ever invest your money based on tips of newspapers. They have got millions of shares out there and they are never going to tell you the truth about it. Because of revenue becoming the chief criteria of journalism, you have private treaties whereby if you are a mid-sized corporation wanting to make the big leap and you come to me who is the biggest English newspaper in the planet, I will tell you to sign a private treaty. This will give me 10% shares in your company. But if I do that, there can be no negative reporting of your company in my newspaper.
Now when a newspaper develops shares in 200 companies, is that a newspaper or an equity firm. Good journalism is a society in conversation with itself, a nation in debate and argument with itself. It’s a public service and when we talk of monetising this sort of a public service, you pay a terrible price for it. Let me give you a glimpse into the size of rural India – 833 million people, 784 languages, 6 of them spoken by more than 50 million, 3 of them spoken by more than 80 million.
Now according to latest report of Delhi based Centre for Media Studies, rural India gets only 0.18% of space on the front pages of the top 6 newspapers in the country and only 0.16 percent of space on the prime time of six major news channels in the country.
I started the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) to try and capture some of the gigantic transitions that is on in this rural India where one third of us who live in urban India have our roots. But everywhere I go, people ask: what is your revenue model? I say I don’t have one but what work of art or literature would be in existence today if the creator had to have a revenue model.
What if Valmiki had to get an approval for his revenue model before writing the Ramayana, or Shakespeare before writing his plays? To those who ask for my revenue model, I say that I know one guy who had a very good revenue model and it worked for 40 years, his name was Veerappan. There were attendant risks in his work, but what is entrepreneurism without risks?
High risk, high reward. To this day, the media has done a very poor job of covering the fallout of the beef ban in this state with one or two great exceptions and I must say Times of India of all papers, was a fabulous exception. The beef ban has not just destroyed Muslims who it is supposed to destroy, it has destroyed the Dalits and the Kolhapur chappal industry, it has smashed the hell out of the OBCs who control the cattle markets, it has just about smashed everything in the countryside.
You have a bunch of urban, lower middle class or upper middle class people who know nothing about agriculture or centrality of the cow to the rural economy but have taken decisions. Has the media done any serious, hard-hitting investigation on the murder of the three rationalists - Comrade Govind Pansare or Narendra Dhabolkar or Kalburgi? The courts are scolding the police and the government for dragging their feet but there is no serious investigation. All the three were killed by the same method by the same young men in a motorcycle. By the way, Haren Pandya in Gujarat was killed the same way as well.
What is the difference between this rule of BJP and the previous time? I believe this political situation is unique in our history and for the first time in our history an RSS pracharak is PM with a majority. The earlier pracharak was quite jaded and there had been 40 years of softening between him being an active pracharak and being prime minister and he did not have a majority.
A lot changes when you have a pracharak with a majority. And the media is negotiating space with this. I believe this country is ruled by a coalition of social-religious fundamentalist and market-economic fundamentalist and they need each other. So what are the things that you can do?
There is a very strong case for fighting for democratisation of media; by law, by legislation and by popular movement. Literature, journalism, storytelling, these did not come out due to investments of corporations. They have come out of communities, of people, of societies. Let’s try and take it back to them.
When Bal Gangadhar Tilak was imprisoned for Sedition, people came out on the street and died to defend his freedom as a journalist. That was the working class of Mumbai. Some of them were people who could not even read. But they came out to defend an Indian’s right to freedom of expression. There was once a great organic link between the Indian media and the Indian masses.
You need to fight for the democratisation of the media, for strengthening of the public broadcaster; you need to be able to break monopoly – monopoly se azaadi - over media ownership. You need to increase diversity in ownership of media, increase the public space in private forum that the media has become and believe me we need to fight for that space. It won’t be easy but it can be done.
(Video Recording by Satyen Bordoloi at the Mumbai Collective, March 5, 2016 This is a version of the speech delivered by Senior journalist P Sainath on the March 5, 2016, Mumbai Collective. The full version can be heard on the Video Below)
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