All in the name of news

Print edition : August 05, 2016

On the sets of a television channel's reality show. Photo: Vipin Chandran

Outdoor broadcast vans of TV channels block a main road while waiting for a political "news break", a scene in Hyderabad in 2013. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

In the out-and-out corporate media environment that exists today, market-friendly value systems are a natural consequence and crony capitalist behaviour by media luminaries is par for the course.

IN the first flush of independent cable and satellite television in the early 1990s, there was the buoyant expectation and excitement of liberation from state control. A clear departure from the monotonous, drab, cliched, hortatory, government-extolling, politically cautious, socially prescriptive and culturally ritualistic programming was an end in itself. This break came close on the heels of a brief phase of euphoria—what could be characterised as the glasnost and perestroika years of Doordarshan towards the latter part of the 1980s—when a Reithian public interest temper seemed, unimaginably, to capture the imagination of the state broadcaster and yielded a season of bold and critical television fare, even if it was produced and delivered, for the most part, by producers contracted from outside to give Doordarshan a credible current affairs visage.

That interlude was to prove a tantalising but elusive possibility of what Doordarshan could itself deliver if the government of the day would allow it professional freedom. The opportunity slipped away, or was frittered way, and the initiative swung all the way the other way, from the patronising arms of the state into the grasping ones of the market. The process began when maiden private ventures like Zee in Hindi and Asianet in a regional Indian language (Malayalam) set out to push the established frontiers and laws of broadcasting and create the market for private television in the country. The air was expectant, when these tentative steps towards an independent electronic media regime were taken, with the promise of choice and variety and diversity, and a virtual renaissance in the electronic media. The market was a means to carve out a public viewership.

Asianet, for one, in the early years and for well up to a decade from its inception, managed to maintain a healthy mix of the enlightening and the entertaining, cross-subsidising the more refined knowledge-driven programmes, which would not in the normal course be underwritten by advertisers, with the frivolous, frothy, gushy or tearjerker types that found easier commercial sponsorship. But this was clearly against the grain of market practice and competition, and it was becoming increasingly daunting, with each passing year, to continue to resist the logic of surrendering the prime time slots, and then the non-prime time as well, to the formulaic money-spinners—the soppy serials; the game, chat and so-called reality shows; the movies and movie spin-offs. (By way of disclosure, this writer founded and ran the Asianet channel during this period.)

Within a decade the market was consolidating along the lines of the television business sector in the advanced capitalist countries and programme imperatives were dictated not by considerations of a general benign public interest, but by selecting particular publics, or demographic categories, identified by the all-powerful advertiser in the order of importance of their purchasing appetites and power. The viewer had been reduced to the consumer. Free media had, simplistically and dangerously, been equated with the free market.

But the proliferation of channels did not mean pluralism or diversity, or a fillip in terms of democratisation of the media. What ensued was a process of homogenisation whereby every channel began to look and feel like every other channel. As Pierre Bourdieu has pointed out (in his prescient work On Television and Journalism), free market competition would imply product differentiation. What we, instead, got across market-centric-and-driven TV channels was a blighting sameness. Even the journalism, or the journalism in particular, was uniform. The packaging, the look and feel, varied to give a delusion of difference when actually they were dealing with the same narrow set of stories or issues. It would seem that the consumers switched channels more for reassurance that they were all dealing with the same story, often with the same experts and commentators in tow, and that therefore they were not missing out on what was the most important news happening or event of the day. A make-believe world of urgent-sounding news and incessantly dramatic or sensational developments—the “breaking news” syndrome—has been woven around the viewing public, preventing it from looking at the issues that really matter and make a difference to the lives of the overwhelming majority of the people.

Spurious public connect

The practitioners of this kind of essentially narrowly commercial, non-journalistic and undemocratic commodification of news seek to vest it with a spurious sense of public connect and interest by frequently invoking devices that suggest the popular, as represented through facile, routinised surveys and polls whose sampling sizes and methodologies are invariably non-transparent and suspect. Jurgen Habermas was perspicacious in detecting this corporate appropriation and falsification of the public sphere. As Douglas Kellner, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, succinctly summarises it in an essay on Habermas in 2000, “Habermas describes a transition from the liberal public sphere which originated in the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions to a media dominated public sphere in the current era of what he calls ‘welfare state capitalism and mass democracy’. This historical transformation is grounded… in Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis of the culture industry, in which giant corporations have taken over the public sphere and transformed it from a sphere of rational debate into one of manipulative consumption and passivity. In this transformation ‘public opinion’ shifts from rational consensus emerging from debate, discussion and reflection to the manufactured opinion of polls or media experts. Rational debate and consensus has thus been replaced by managed discussions and manipulations by the machinations of advertising and political consulting agencies. For Habermas the functions of the media have thus been transformed from facilitating rational discourse and debate within the public sphere into shaping, constructing, and limiting public discourse to those themes validated and approved by media corporations.” This market model of the news media is only all too familiar to us, particularly on the nightly charade of prime-time television news hour.

The rampant growth of media monopolies that has accompanied this phenomenon described by Habermas is bad enough. We are now, if anything, into a dubious and disturbing situation where the demonstrative power and influence of the media, not necessarily their business potential or profitability, lure the investment or intervention of big capital—investment, of the size and scale of Reliance in the media sector, often with the sure knowledge that there is little profit to be made; and intervention, by sundry corporate giants sitting on humungous surplus funds, in the form of vast philanthropic grants that seek to reconfigure the media landscape. Whether the latter, howsoever well meaning, will redeem the media ventures they support from the stranglehold of the market and nudge them towards greater public accountability or end up reinforcing the market stereotype remains to be seen.

The odds are impossibly stacked against the small and medium players in the mainstream news media. Entrepreneurship in this field is now almost exclusively restricted to the Internet. Strong entry barriers in the form of prohibitively steep licence fees, exorbitant and whimsical distribution costs, and a host of accompanying conditions and restrictions are in place to ensure that none outside an incestuous rich cartel can launch a new TV channel. The exceptions are the politician and the godman or godwoman, who have shadowy financiers and unscrutinised money inflows and who unleash channels at will with narrow sectarian political and retrograde, divisive religious agendas. Greater and greater concentration in the private control of the media has meant that they are more and more alienated from the public interest and function as quislings of international finance capital.

The systematic universalisation of the market paradigm has rendered multilateral international bodies of the United Nations and even sovereign governments effete in devising or implementing policies relating to media and communication. We already know about the shabby treatment meted out by the Reagan administration in the United States to the UNESCO initiative for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) which was meant to correct the distortion and imbalance in the flow of news from the North to the South. A renewed bid in 1995 by the same U.N. body to address the issue of the skewed concentration of the media met with a similar fate. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is a global governing body in telecommunications only in name. Real and effective power vests not even with sovereign governments but with a proto corporate institution like the World Trade Organisation, which acquired immense clout with the signing of the TRIPS agreement (Trade-related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) in 1995. A similar body, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), plays a crucial and potentially decisive role in what we believe to be the freewheeling and uncontrollable realm of cyberspace.

In this out-and-out corporate media environment, market-friendly value systems are a natural consequence. Crony capitalist behaviour by media luminaries, or, to put it more bluntly, if inelegantly, famous and influential journalists brokering arrangements or deals between business tycoons and politicians, as was evidenced in the Radia tapes, is to be seen as par for the course in this setting. Our pristine sense of journalistic dignity and ethics appears to be anachronistic in this newfangled practice of the profession. Paid news—the practice of public deception whereby the news space, as against the designated advertisement space, in a newspaper is misused to promote a person (a politician), a product or a service in exchange for monetary consideration; or, as we saw in a reverse sting operation on a Hindi TV channel, just plain blackmail whereby the channel promises to go soft on a damaging story (real or concocted) on a businessman or a business house in return for a demanded quantum of advertisement revenue—was shocking when it first came to light. But as we grow wise to the milder forms of paid news practised in newsrooms across the world to shore up their fortunes in these recessionary times, we begin to wonder whether our indignation is naivete out of sync with the market realities.

None of this would rankle or jar so much if the news media are seen for what they are today, a product, process and service of, by and for the market. It is the extraneous public interest concern that inconveniently crops up and makes a mess of things. But there lies the rub. There is in our subconscious a social construct of the press, as the fourth estate, the fourth pillar of democracy entitled to, and enjoying, constitutional high ground. We implicitly assume it is free media, the dynamo of democracy. We are ever so constantly and tiresomely reminded of it every time the sales anchor of a TV news channel charges anyone on the show daring to question any lapse or impropriety by the media with attempting homicide—Don’t shoot the messenger, is the threatening refrain. But a press mortgaged to the market, even while it pretends to be free, has a whole lot of unfreedoms to hide, or deal with. The free market is not the same as the marketplace of ideas. If the fourth pillar stands not on its own leg but on that of the market, it can hardly be expected to fulfil its putative, if extraconstitutional, role of being a check and balance—along with the other three pillars, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary—in the larger scheme of separation of powers.

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