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: first, by holding people accountable for unlawful practices; second, by redefining the erstwhile corrupt and unethical practices as ‘not so’. There seems to be no more tantalizing example of latter way of doing away with corrupt practices than the Indian media. From the outcry against the ‘paid news’ over past many years to the revelation of fake stings by the TV channels, the darker side of Indian media has been recurrently illuminated even though for brief periods.
In general, 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 fourmonth-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. In the sting, 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.
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? And most importantly, who sets the agenda, which are so crucial, for Indian media today? An answer to these questions also deal 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.
A long article by Ken Auletta in October 8 issue of New Yorker titled ‘Citizens Jain’ answers many of the questions. 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 a media house 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 Indian 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.” 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 an 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 scams benefiting the advertisers 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.
It will, however, be immense injustice to view the Indian media in black and white and assume that 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 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. They have been consistently calling for a genuine introspection in part of Indian media if the leftover credibility and respectability of the media as a fraternity is 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.
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 wary 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. The losers in the whole fiasco are not only the poor and the underprivileged whose stories are blacked out, but also 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.
A longer version of the article will soon appear in author’s personal blog ‘South Asia and Beyond’ as “Indian Media: Who will guard the guards?””