Media illusions

BY dasu k| IN Media Practice | 16/06/2004


Media illusions


People could bring down tyrannical regimes like those of the Shah of Iran or Idi Amin. But history has no instance of people dethroning a newspaper.


Dasu Krishnamoorty


Nikhila Haritsa and Shashikala S., two lecturers from Bangalore and Pondicherry, wrote in these columns (Media as conscience keeper) recently, "We wish to initiate discussion among the readers of The Hoot on the role of media in shaping civil society - the values, norms and mores that define ‘civility’ in social interaction." They were commenting on the report a Karnataka tabloid (Hi Bangalore) did on the suicide of a girl student. But for the fact of suicide the rest of the report was fiction, according to them. 

It is easy to understand the frustration of the two lecturers arising as it does from traditional and altruistic assumptions regarding the role of media in civil society. The media enjoy not only freedom of expression but also freedom from restrictions defining and regulating the role of every public institution, from a small co-operative society to the State itself. This unchallenged supremacy the media enjoy has the support of certain vocal sections of the society that need constant endorsement of its views in the press. But the most immediate factor that has shifted the role of the press from furthering public interest to serving private interest is the entry of major market players into media arena. They use media to augment the power of the market vis a vis the State. Today, industrial, commercial and business houses own a majority stake in the media. Some media owners or their nominees are members of Parliament and where they are not they finance lobbies in the corridors of both Parliament and the government. 

This context highlighting the shift in media objectives answers several questions Nikhila and her friend have raised in their article. The kinds of complaints they made against the press, particularly lack of accountability, are heard from scores of readers every day, apart from complaints reaching the Press Council of India. If the reader happens to be a victim of media content, the newspaper may or may not publish his/her grievance or rejoinder in the letters to the editor columns. You may suggest recourse to the Press Council set up by an Act of Parliament. Yes, the Council listens and passes verdict against the errant newspaper. So what, it meets with the same fate as the verdict censuring The Times of India in H.K.Dua’s case. People could bring down tyrannical regimes like those of the Shah of Iran or Idi Amin. But history has no instance of people dethroning a newspaper. 

Both the lecturers could have spared themselves some anguish if they had not equated democracy with the press. On assurance of anonymity ask hundred journalists what degree of freedom of expression they enjoy in their newspapers. The answers will dishearten you and dispel all kinds of illusions regarding press and democracy. Can the editor publish a story knowing that it hurts the interests of the owner and still keep his job? In the end, the freedom of press that all of us including Nikhila and Shashikala faithfully struggle to preserve is the freedom of the press baron. What happened to H.K.Dua happened to several editors before and will happen in future too. The editor enjoys freedom at the pleasure of the owner, a fact they shy away from admitting. 

Nikhila and Shashikala complain, "Yet, no source is quoted or revealed throughout the report." You can daily see scores of stories in newspapers which are unsourced or attributed to questionable sources like reliable quarters, sources close to the prime minister’s residence or South Block watchers etc. This practice is a camouflage for kite flying and character assassintion. Long ago an American academician wrote how foreign correspondents begin writing reports about countries they are visiting even before they check into their hotels. Here is Gaurav C. Sawant (The New Indian Express, 5 Feb. 01) throwing some light on how reporters gather their stories: "We were dissuaded from using taxi drivers in Colombo as our sources for information on the battle in Jaffna by our host, a Sri Lankan national again. The people of Sri Lanka say that they are hurt by the war propaganda dished out by journalists para-jumping into Colombo." It is the innocent people who pay the price for suspending disbelief about media content.

A common failing of readers is to regard democracy and free press as synonyms. The former has rules and permanent institutions to ensure their compliance. Among them are the legislatures, the judiciary. In recent times, the press, calling itself the watchdog of democracy, has challenged the raison d’etre of all these democratic and constitutional institutions. The media enjoying the benefits of democracy have least respect for it. Last year (3 May 03) there was a seminar in Delhi to discuss an answer to the question, ‘Who will watch the watchdog?’ "The Press Council of India lived its day and its mandate is over. Let each media house decide for itself if the profession does need a council or advisory body," said Dileep Padgaonkar, then executive managing editor of The Times of India. Ajit Bhattacharjea, director of the Press Institute of India, said the Indian media had always been reluctant to open itself to scrutiny and seldom accepted criticism readily. He also said that the debate on the PCI was evidence of the media’s difficulty to digest criticism.

The Press Council owes its birth to an Act of Parliament elected by people in a free and fair election. While editors demand that the judiciary be brought under public scrutiny, they themselves reject the scrutiny of the Press Council or any other watchdog body for that matter. A rejection of watchdog bodies amounts to a rejection of the concept of accountability. All public activity submits itself to outside scrutiny. There are institutions like the Bar Council, the Medical Council, Board of Film Censors, Securities and Exchange Board of India to keep a watch on the players in the area of their activity. The press, lacking any representative character, seeks to exempt itself from public oversight and from norms governing civil society. It has so far failed to make out a convincing case for exemption from public scrutiny and for ‘letting each media house decide for itself if the profession does need a council or advisory body.’ I wish somebody would explain the rationale of lending support to an institution that opts for anarchy and arrogance.

The media are uncomfortable even with the judiciary that came to their rescue (The Hindu, for example) on several occasions. The Supreme Court sent Arundhati Roy to jail for a day for contempt of court. The merits of the verdict can always be debated as they have been. But such debate should befit the stature of the highest court in the country and also its critics. At a seminar organized shortly after Roy’s conviction, one leading magazine editor said, "All other pillars of democracy including the Executive, have been shattered. It`s time the last holy cow, i.e., judiciary also be slaughtered so as to make it accountable to the people. The sort of tyranny that the courts exercise is extraordinary. What is more extraordinary is that it is unchallenged." He suggested that public opinion be mobilized to bring the judiciary under public scrutiny. Another veteran journalist said the higher judiciary was increasingly becoming "insensitive" to social issues concerning the vast majority.

Nikhila and Shashikala say "As if to rub in its ‘authenticity’, the report (of Hi Bangalore) is accompanied by the photograph of not only the dead girl, but also of her ‘rivals’ -- other girl students, while Press Council of India norms clearly state that in matters of chastity and personal character of women, their names, photographs and other markers of identity should not be revealed."  This shows the disjunction between media audiences and media realities. The media are stretching the limits of every ethical and legal norm reserving the last word to themselves. Peephole journalism that does not respect anybody’s privacy is on the ascent. The pictures our media publishes during communal riots worsen the situation and make riot control extremely difficult and expensive. They actually did. As Helen Gambles says in her article A Semiotic Analysis Of A News Story, "Connotations of the linguistic and visual signs which are presented by newspapers are central to the meaning of the news item to the reader. Narrative codes used in the headlines provide a framework on which to build the meaning of the news item." In cases of crime, pictures convict the suspect even if the courts acquit him later. The suspect and his/her family live with the stigma forever. 

For all their commitment to truth-telling, the media do not publish everything they know. Even where freedom of expression is conferred by the Constitution and various judgments of the Supreme Court there are instances of voluntary waiver of such freedom which interferes with the free flow of information to the reader even as such a waiver brings material benefits to the press organization and inDIVidual journalist. The Hindu columnist Sevanti Ninan writes (8 Dec. 02) "But self-censorship in the Indian media is not just alive and well; it is growing. Self-censorship means that you have to read more than one newspaper, watch more than one news channel to get at the whole truth. On Deepavali day, the Delhi Midday broke the story of a witness to the Ansal Plaza shoot out but played it down and did not name the doctor. Maybe it is just a coincidence that a police officer’s son works there in a senior editorial position. Police influence in newsrooms, gained by leaking stories to reporters, ensures a fair degree of self-censorship."  

Media self-censorship extends naturally to corruption in their offices. People are not so naïve as to believe that all kinds of barons who enter media business are a separate tribe free from unethical practices that trade and industry generally employ in pursuit of profit. Yet we have the spectacle of editors rushing to the rescue of their owners when the revenue intelligence or income tax departments come to inspect accounts and records of these firms. A very transparent and legally sanctioned inspection of accounts is termed as raids. Don’t pay energy bills. A notice to pay becomes an assault on freedom of press. It becomes easy now to understand why there is such a rush of big money to enter media business. Ask why Vijay Mallya is buying up newspapers. He says,  "The reason I am buying into the media is that in India, it is an essential part of management of our business - it’s my insurance policy."  

It is time for all of us to become familiar with the essence of contemporary media thinking that the judiciary must go, the legislatures must go, elected governments must go but the press must remain since it can do no wrong. Thomas Jefferson’s fantasy is coming true! I wish everyone realized the bitter truth that democracy and responsible press are antonyms.


Dasu Krishnamoorty worked with the Indian Express, the Times of India and Patriot  and taught at Indian Institute of Mass communication, New Delhi, and the Osmania and Central universities in Hyderabad. He now writes for online magazines, including The Hoot, on media matters. Contact:





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