Media and governance

MUKUL SHARMA

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MODERN politics is largely a mediated politics, experienced by most citizens through their broadcast and print media of choice. Any study of democracy in contemporary conditions is, therefore, also a study of how the media report and interpret political events and issues, and how media itself influences the political processes and shapes public opinion. Thus, media has become central to politics and public life in contemporary democracy.

Access to media is one of the key measures of power and equality. Media can shape power and participation in society in negative ways, by obscuring the motives and interests behind political decisions, or in positive ways, by promoting the involvement of people in those decisions. In this respect the media and governance equation becomes important.

Media occupies a space that is constantly contested, which is subject to organizational and technological restructuring, to economic, cultural and political constraints, to commercial pressures and to changing professional practices. The changing contours of this space can lead to different patterns of domination and agenda-setting and to different degrees of openness and closure in terms of access, patterns of ownership, available genres, types of disclosure and range of opinions represented.

Although it is intrinsically difficult to theorize about the complexities implied in this formulation, the implications of the empirical outcomes of the struggle over this terrain are crucial for the ways in which they help or hinder democratic governance. For this reason journalists and their audiences, when they first read, hear or see news, should always ask the irreverent question: ‘Says who?’ This may be bad news for the official managers of society, but it will be good news for democracy.

In a democratic society, therefore, the role of the media assumes seminal importance. Democracy implies participative governance, and it is the media that informs people about various problems of society, which makes those wielding power on their behalf answerable to them. That the actions of the government and the state, and the efforts of competing parties and interests to exercise political power should be underpinned and legitimized by critical scrutiny and informed debate facilitated by the institutions of the media is a normative assumption uniting the political spectrum.

It has been further remarked by Davis Merritt, in his work Public Journalism and Public Life that what journalists should bring to the arena of public life is knowledge of the rules – how the public has decided a democracy should work – and the ability and willingness to provide relevant information and a place for that information to be discussed and turned into democratic consent. They must exhibit no partisan interest in the specific outcome other than it is arrived at under the democratic process.

 

 

There are at least three major media traditions in modern India – that of a diverse, pluralistic and relatively independent press; of the manipulated-misused, state-controlled radio and television; and that of many autonomous, small media outfits of various subaltern groups and their organizations. These traditions are so diverse, their histories, functions and roles in society and politics so divergent, and the rules of the game pertaining to them so radically different that any attempt to speak in a generalized way of the ‘media’ in India today and locating it in ‘democracy’ appears far-fetched.

The face of Indian media has been fast changing with the growth of the Internet, the phenomenal rise of satellite and cable networks, the continuing growth of regional press, despite various challenges and the blurring of lines between news and entertainment. There is a sort of ‘crisis’ in the present media due to processes of commercialization, mercerization and commodification.

This has led some to present a pessimistic view of the media, to emphasize the ascendancy of ‘infotainment’ over ‘serious’ reportage and analysis of politics. It is also often remarked that the quality of ‘serious’ political journalism is steadily declining, with a dilution in its substantive political content to the detriment of the democratic process. An opposite view asserts not that there is too little serious politics in the media, but too much. This is seen as a kind of information overload that bores audiences and diminishes public interest.

Still others have argued that media is an elitist bourgeois construct, reflecting essentially bourgeois interests and values and conditions of existence, and can thus never serve the genuine interests of the people as a whole. Despite its democratic façade, it is said that the media remains exclusive, and people as a whole feel no real involvement in a process which appears to give them power but in reality does not.

 

 

While partially agreeing with both the above stated views, I think that pessimistic or nihilistic notions of media in India today cannot be stretched too far. They do not satisfactorily reflect the complexity, unpredictability and frequently contradictory nature of the media as it functions in our times. The public sphere, of which media is a central part, for all its weaknesses, has evolved over time into something altogether more interesting, and more useful as a democratic resource.

The capacity of our common media system to service and support the democratic processes for the benefit of the people as a whole has strong validity even today. Printed newspapers and magazines, the broadcasting media and the Internet are vital players in India today. Quantitatively and qualitatively, the information being circulated has greatly increased. Progressive forces cannot dismiss some of these channels by simply stating them to be ‘trash’. Popular does not imply irrational; entertainment can be informative, just as serious news can also be of great human interest.

As argued by Carl Bernstein, ‘Good journalism is popular culture, but popular culture that stretches and informs its consumers rather than that which appeals to the ever descending lowest common denominator.’ Today’s media audiences are semiologically sophisticated, active consumers, and interventions in all forms of media by progressive forces are a must to keep democracy ticking and check authoritarianism.

 

 

One would simultaneously like to emphasize that whatever the strengths, advantages and weaknesses of the media in contemporary India, history has played a critical role in it, which is the struggle for independence and democracy. A sketchy knowledge of it is vital for building a dynamic media in democratic India.

What are these strengths of history that are still valid for us? Let me elucidate this through the case of the press. First, there is an extraordinary close association between modern India’s struggle for political and social emancipation and the origins and development of the Indian Press. A struggle between two groups with competing ideologies and goals marks the history of the press in India: one group engaged in a continuing struggle against authority, whether British or Indian, to gain and maintain independence; and the other characterized by loyalty to the regime in power.

While the press has displayed strong signs of assertion in post independence India, Indira Gandhi’s 1975-77 repressive Emergency also revealed the vulnerability of newspapers to state coercion. But it learnt its lesson well and came out against the Anti-Defamation Bill and the Bihar Press Bill. Second, we have seen an impressive range of diverse opinions, interests and ideologies competing for space in the public discourse. There has been diversity in the ownership patterns and organizational forms of newspapers as business enterprises.

Third, there have always been sharp ideological and political divides within the Indian press tradition. In a sense, the contemporary division between newspapers in various languages that take a secular-democratic stand and those that have come out increasingly in support of the politics of the Hindu Right can be said to be similar to the divide between the ‘nationalist’ and the ‘loyalist’ press during the freedom struggle.

 

 

I would very briefly like to go into the history of broadcasting in India. Colonial politics and its variations in post-colonial India have structured the nature of media ownership and control. Broadcasting was deemed to be a privilege of the government, a tool to better the sensibilities of India’s teeming masses. In the aftermath of independence, the press, given its close association with the nationalist struggle, was allowed to retain its essentially private status as long as it was not seen to be consistently anti-government. However, with its armoury of press and censorship laws, control over newsprint distribution, pricing and disbursement of public advertising, the government has a formidable hold over private sector media. After independence, broadcasting, particularly radio and television, came under state control, and was used as a tool of national policy. However, this scenario is fast changing with the emergence of satellite and cable.

The concerns regarding broadcasting in India have been contradictory. There is anxiety that state regulation of the broadcasting media may impinge upon the citizen’s freedom of speech and that the Indian state may misuse broadcasting. At the same time, there is the fear that broadcasting freedom will get out of hand and destroy the country’s culture and polity. The government is anxious to be able to retain control in times of emergency. What has been the history of broadcasting?

 

 

Radio, which started as a Raj supported private enterprise, was passed on from one bureaucratic department to another, until it came under the Department of Information and Broadcasting in 1941. It was expanded and exploited as a means of propaganda during the Second World War. Following independence, the Government of India kept broadcasting firmly in the hands of the central government. This opened the way for more political access by the government to the air-waves and a more vigorous use of radio as an instrument of public policy. What I mean to say is that the broadcast media tradition seems to represent the antithesis of the press tradition.

Television was first launched in India in the late 1950s, though it did not become a mass medium until the 1980s. Despite rapid Indian development in the ’60s and ’70s, Indian TV remained an urban phenomenon confined to the well to do. It did not become a mass medium until the 1980s, the fillip coming with the Asian Games held in Delhi in 1982. A decision was taken to go in for colour TV. By the mid-1980s, India had become a television society and thanks to the development of indigenous satellite technology, Doordarshan became capable of broadcasting national programmes for the first time.

Then came an expansion of television, the like of which has rarely been experienced in the developing world. Economic liberalization, particularly from the 1990s, gave an entirely new meaning and opportunity to television. The onslaught from the skies, in the form of international satellite-distributed television, radically transformed the country’s broadcasting environment. Advertising agencies became the true midwives of satellite television. Television advertising helped to create new markets in India. Look at the increase in revenue through television – an increase from Rs 82 crore in 1982 to Rs 572 crore in 1996-97.

There was also a fresh context, shaped by the rising politics of communal mobilization. A significant study by Arvind Rajagopal, Politics after Television: Religious Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Indian Public (Cambridge University Press) shows how at one level the national television created a single visual regime, right across the country, for the first time. At another level, the Congress party wanted to seize this advantage. However, by playing the Hindu card, it was the Hindu Right that succeeded in changing the terms of political debate, entering into an era of authoritarian populism, more suited to the brave new world of economic liberalization.

 

 

In fact, at particular moments, the discourse of the Hindu Right has overwhelmed much of the media, as has been emphasized by us in an earlier study on print media and communalism. Thus, during Advani’s rath yatra, there was a Hinduised projection of a ‘them and us’ dichotomy in much of the news. There were pressures to ‘write Hindu’, that is, to produce news accounts which conformed to a supposedly predominantly Hindu audience’s preconceptions about the happenings in Ayodhya. This has been occasionally witnessed even during reporting on riots.

To return back to television, it has of course emerged as the premier mass medium. According to IRS 99, the reach of terrestrial television is close to 270 million; cable and satellite television reaches over 75 million. NRS 99 came up with an interesting finding that television has become the principal source of information and entertainment in a growing number of urban homes: typically on a week-day, an ‘average’ person spends 119 minutes watching television, whereas he/she spends 23 minutes reading newspapers and 32 minutes reading magazines.

Here also, there are many interesting developments taking place – cable and satellite are growing fast, and the state-controlled Doordarshan is lagging behind. The government’s attempts to rule the airwaves have been dealt a severe blow. The nature of the new satellite media makes earlier notions of simple western domination look oversimplified. Barriers of language and the political and economic empowerment of a growing middle class over the past 30 years have stood in the way of such a scenario.

 

 

The regional private satellite channels are marching ahead – in Tamil Nadu, in Karnataka and Kerala. Sun TV emerged as the satellite channel with the highest profit margin in India. There are other exciting things happening. For example, take the case of Zee TV, which is India’s leading private Hindi channel. Between 1992 and 1999, it grew from the status of a small-time venture to a commanding position, successfully combining entertainment, infotainment and news operation. This is an example of how in the less developed world, local media can indigenise global products and achieve a significant presence in a U.S. dominated global media market.

Globalization has further had a profound effect on India’s media, particularly the growth of Internet and on-line media. India is one of the largest software producers in the world. It has an estimated 2.7 million computer users. While e-mail still accounts for the majority of Internet usage in India, Internet is fast becoming a means for political communication as well. Many Indian newspapers have gone on-line. The Indian Army web-site gives its version of events in Jammu and Kashmir. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) set up India’s first party website during the 1998 elections. This, I think, further complicates the discourse of media.

 

 

Where are we today? I attempt to answer this mainly through an analysis of the print media. If we see its tradition, the news is mixed. The Indian press is still the most pluralistic, and the most independent among the developing world. In terms of the number of newspapers published as also total newspaper circulation, India is among the top four countries. While newspapers elsewhere struggle to hold readers, Indian daily circulation has increased by close to 500% in 20 years. Two all-India readership surveys conducted in 1999-2000, estimate that the press as a whole reaches something between 200 and 240 million persons. Roughly, about 60% of urban Indians and one-quarter of rural Indians read print media regularly.

Indian newspapers across a broad spectrum have been major winners due to economic liberalization; their growth rates have been remarkable in the 1990s. Robin Jeffrey’s study of the language press highlights this dynamic development. He underlines some key factors behind this growth: improved technology, expanding literacy, better purchasing power, aggressive publishing and political excitement. Added to this is the fact that all the top ten dailies in urban and rural India are Indian language newspapers, their readership ranging from 4.88 million to 9.45 million.

 

 

There are many problems with this growth – uneven development, increasing concentration of ownership in some language sectors, manipulation of news and analysis, and downgrading and devaluation of editorial functions. However, this regional growth combined with the development of the language press can give support, or at least work alongside the process of democratic governance in India.

I would here like to touch on another point, i.e. the overall ownership structure of the Indian press industry. According to the Registrar of Newspapers for India 1997, the predominant form of ownership of newspapers is individual, and joint stock companies figure very low down. In 1997, individuals owned 75.82% of all newspapers and 79.80% of daily newspapers, while joint stock companies owned 4.45% of all newspapers and 10.70% of the dailies. This may lead us to conclude that the Indian press does not have the kind of ‘media monopoly’ suggested by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. However, the trend towards increasing concentration of ownership and a decline in diversity cannot be stopped, unless there is a national policy or some public action from below.

A critical point is that despite unevenness and limitations – urban-rural, rich-poor – India’s modern media has taken on the character of a mass media, in the sense of being able to reach tens of millions of people. The media today matters more than at any other time. It is very much a mixed bag, with enormous variations. As noted by Ketaki Gupte, the head of the NRS 99 Technical Committee, ‘It is almost as if there are several countries within the country.’

 

 

In such a scenario, the relationship between media and governance is fraught with tensions and meaningful possibilities. It cannot be denied that both media and governance in India suffer from serious problems, which at times even feed into each other. Suspension of civil liberties, excessive militarization, communal assertions, and homogenizing tendencies have too often spelled doom for Indian democracy. In this context it is imperative that media becomes more sensitive on issues of democratic governance, people’s struggles against social injustice and inequality and so on. Its commitment towards democratic norms and values in its own governance system, structure and function is a must.

Further, the role of people’s organizations, social movements, voluntary organizations and other civil society formations in monitoring the functioning of media and making it more people centred is another critical issue in this debate. The role of civil society organizations is important especially in light of the fact that autonomous organizations within media like those of journalists and workers, have not only become weak but they also severely lack in their ability to raise critical issues pertaining to media governance and its functioning.

On the other hand, state control over television and radio, the role of multinationals and big corporate houses and bourgeois monopoly over print media has meant that media has often remained inaccessible to the vast majority of the poor and the marginalized.

Overwhelming commercial interests and monopolies of a few affluent individuals and business houses are not good for democracy. The media, under monopoly conditions, does not provide a wide range of interpretive frameworks that are important for the well being of democracies. The carving up of media markets inter-nationally as well as nationally by mega, transnational corporations has led to a catastrophic effect on the diversity of opinion, the nature of access and participation in the media spectrum and people’s right to communicate. Real access to and participation in media appears to be for the few and not for the many. Simultaneously, the state has time and again tried to curb the voice of the media, to prosecute and harass those who have come out openly against repressive practices.

 

 

But to end here would be to offer only a very fractured picture. Like every other technology developed by man, the mass media can be employed to improve or impair the human condition. While it can be used to further tyranny, it is also effective in not only preserving freedom but extending it. The news media plays a decisive role in establishing a discursive space, one framed by the state and economic domains on either side, for public deliberations over social issues. The formative influence of the news on popular attitudes is accentuated by conceiving of the news audience as citizens engaged in public dialogue.

If we want to define various developments in the particular context of governance, and governance that means something for a majority of the poor, the struggling people, then we must first realize that the media, in all its varied forms, has opened up the potential for new forms of participation. People are discovering ways to think about themselves and to participate in governance that would have perhaps been unthinkable a generation before. Their access to information and accessibility of information has both increased.

Thus the dalits, women and other marginalized sections of the society are also using the media to make their voices heard, to make democracy somewhat more real. It is also amazing that in spite of variations and complexities of opinions, by and large the overall thrust of news-gathering and dissemination is to propagate and promote democracy. Media in India depends on the central impulses and aspirations of democratic governance.

The media, particularly the newspapers, have managed to create conditions for a liberal democracy, a ‘public sphere’, where the public can widely share its ideas. On balance, the history of media in India demonstrates that it has been a liberating force. Though there are various lacunae, the media has by and large committed itself to the reawakening of an antecedent tradition of journalism, one that emphasizes local democracy, the community of locale, and citizenship as against the distant forces that would overwhelm it.

 

 

For a dynamic relationship between media and democracy, we have to build on the strengths of our history. One part well articulated by people like Sen, Dreze and Ramchandran, in their analysis and comparison of India and China, is about tackling hunger and deprivation on a mass scale. India has not had an unreported famine since independence, and the media, especially newspapers, and opposition political parties have played an important role in this. China on the other hand, went through a more-or-less unreported famine during the Great Leap Forward of 1959-61. This experience highlights the truth that in the Indian context, there exists a relatively independent and plural space in the media that can perform valuable democratic functions and take on progressive roles.

The complimentary interrelationship between media and democracy and challenges involved thereof can be concretely located in the specific context of the states of Kerala and Bihar. Kerala is a classic Indian case of politicization spreading to large sections of the population. Many forces work here – working class struggle, social movements of the oppressed castes, and politics of the Left. Kerala is far ahead of other states in terms of basic social indicators.

The point needs to be noted that an integral part of Kerala’s modern development experience is the formation of an authentic public opinion. There is a connection between the masses forming a habit of reading newspapers/magazines and the existence of a public opinion. The economist V.K. Ramachandran argues that owing to the prevalent levels of literacy, the dissemination of information goes much deeper in Kerala than elsewhere in India. This has important implications for the quality and depth of public opinion and for participatory democracy.

 

 

In Bihar there is widespread poverty, illiteracy, inequality and oppression. Despite this, over the past two decades there has been rapid politicisation of poor people in the garb of social justice. Land issues and social injustice have created a lot of disturbance. Even then there is a lack of broader public opinion at the state level and the society at large for a better and more equitable society and good governance.

Although here also different forms of media are growing rapidly, and people are interested to learn more about contemporary issues, the media is behaving like a market product. It attempts to satisfy people’s thirst for ‘news’ but basically keeps in focus its profitability and market sentiments. It is clear that in the contemporary context the media cannot become a mission towards the goal of social transformation on a large scale. It is doubtful whether it can even become a leading agent in the process of establishing a people based governance.

 

 

The implication is important for the rest of India. The formation of an authentic public opinion will not be possible in the absence of a newspaper, magazine reading culture, which has to become a mass habit in both town and country. We will have to see the link between political excitement and media expansion. The dramatic expansion of the language press over the last 15 years has a lot to do with political and social upheavals generated in many states of our country.

The designer suits of today’s politicians may be sharp, but so are the interviews, commentaries and editorials, which debunk them. News management may be more intense than before, but so is its journalistic deconstruction. There is populist excess, but the democratic sphere should be dynamic enough to take it in its stride. There are ethical lapses and resource constraints, which constantly threaten the quality of journalism.

It is also true that politics driven growth can be for better or for worse. How to make it better? How to go against the ‘manufacture of consent’, a role that is now widely understood as something built into its character? How to build a culture of public service broadcasting? How to invest hope in the new media, especially in the Internet? How to deal with national and transnational media monopolies, which will come sooner or later? How to build a socially conscious media? How to realize constantly the classic ‘watchdog’ role of the media in liberal democracy?

In order for the public to renew their stake in media, it is essential that media ownership and control be regulated so as to prevent existing media monopolies from increasing their stake in the media industry. The government should increase its commitment for community radio and television at district and local levels. Citizens’ movements that are committed towards reforms in the media industry should be encouraged. It is a fact that the press, television channels and the entire media could be a business. But the journalists per se are not for trade or business. Journalism is a social responsibility. It is a struggle to gain public space within the private sphere.

Media education supports the creation of an informed media public, a public that is able to critically judge between good and bad media content. Simultaneously however, for a true democracy, we also have to ensure that there is a strong stream of media free of any government control, with free speech and free press.

 

 

It is clear that in the present Indian context, media plays an important role in the exertion of power and distribution of values. Media affects the overall quality of public life and also shapes people’s engagement in the specific policy decisions in the Indian democracy. To make greater impact within the broad socio-political context, media needs to create a ‘space’ to effectively carry out its functions. The attempt by civil society organizations to assert the importance of issues like, ‘governance for the people’ vis-à-vis media is an attempt to search for its own public space and its own means.

There must exista relevant political consciousness so that a democratic impact is possible. Media to be effective must form part of an ideological and political context – of attitude, feeling, hope and critical democratic values and practice.

 

 

Over the years the corporate sector has developed its own press and channels. The political parties have their own newspapers. The governments in this country have also promoted their own medium of mass communication. But the voluntary organizations, groups engaged in movements, associations of the oppressed castes and the citizens engaged in promoting alternative politics which have grown manifold in the post-independence era in terms of its sheer number and the area of operation, have not been able to develop their own press or television channels with a mass reach and sound credentials. It may be noted that different civil society formations have developed and are running their own medium of communications, like small magazines or newsletters. But these do not have an impact on a macro level and have not been able to develop a professional form. The challenge to develop a reliable TV channel, a TV programme, a radio programme or at least a magazine is before all those who are engaged in various ways to promote and support alternative movements, alternative social groups and alternative models of development.

While it is true that a truly ‘public’ media is essential for a live democracy, media is only one of many institutions and practices of democratic life. No single institution can by itself bear the burden of furnishing democracy. Indeed, such centralization would be profoundly anti democratic. For a people’s democracy, people’s participation, panchayats, local governance, schools, civil liberties, forms of work life, freedom of faith and worship may be placed above the media. Civil society needs a variegated array of institutions and necessities – sanitation, electricity, water, neighbourhoods, libraries, rule of law and above all a basic level of security and welfare. An informative and critical media is a necessary condition for democracy but not a sufficient one. Democracy can exist only when interwoven with the human and material condition of life.

 

References:

A.N. Acharya, Television in India, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1987.

A. Appadurai, C. Breckenridge and A. Merol (eds), Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in South Asia, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1995.

S.C. Bhatt, Satellite Invasion, Gyan Publication, New Delhi, 1997.

Charu and Mukul, Print Media and Communalism, Delhi, 1990.

Noam Chomsky and E. Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988.

M.V. Desai and Sevanti Ninan (eds), Beyond Those Headlines: Insiders on the Indian Press, The New Media Foundation, New Delhi, 1996.

Roger Jeffrey, India’s Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian Language Press, 1977-99, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000.

J. Keane, Media and Democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991.

Brian McNair, Journalism and Democracy: An Evaluation of the Political Public Sphere, Routledge, London, 2000.

David Page and William Crawley, Satellites Over South Asia: Broadcasting Culture and the Public Interest, Sage, New Delhi, 2001.

Arvind Rajagopal, Politics after Television: Religious Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Indian Public, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.

N. Ram, ‘The Great Indian Media Bazaar: Emerging Trends and Issues for the Future’, in Romila Thapar (ed.), India: Another Millennium? Penguin, New Delhi, 2001.

Arvind Singhal and Everett M. Rogers, India’s Information Revolution, Sage, New Delhi, 1989.

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