Zoya Hasan is a noted political scientist and public intellectual. She is Professor Emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi. She is the author and editor of fifteen books on Indian politics. Her book, “Agitation to Legislation: Negotiating Equity and Justice in India” and a co-edited book, “Empire of Disgust: Prejudice, Discrimination and Policy in India and the US will be published soon
The media revolution has swept the country. With thousands of newspapers and hundreds of news channels in several languages, Indians are spoilt for choice in a diverse universe of communication. More significant than the numbers is the change in the nature of the media from government control to overwhelming private control.
Just over two decades ago, television news was a government monopoly. Today it is almost completely privately owned. But even as the number of news sources has grown exponentially, the information given by these countless sources is quite similar. What we see is a contradictory situation marked by unprecedented expansion of the media and unprecedented narrowing of the communication space. The very profusion of news and its easy accessibility from various platforms and devices raise questions with regard to news content, media bias and political control of the so-called independent media.
Before we take a closer look at political control of the media, it’s important to understand the enabling environment for the emergence of a pro-market media which has tilted to the right. We can discern four important strands which provide the context for understanding the shifts in media practice and politics.
First, more than two decades of liberalisation have led to a huge advertising-supported media and this has shaped the economic philosophy of media. Economic reforms have been so influential that it is difficult to distinguish between business and mainstream newspapers and the same is true of television news and business channels. Economic reform is the template through which the media generally views India’s development and politics since economic liberalization. It was widely claimed in the pre-liberalisation era that a privatized media free to grow and compete in the marketplace would deliver choice and freedom of opinion, but the opposite has happened, ‘as the exponential growth of media outlets has narrowed the channels for political dissent.’ Earlier government controlled media served as the voice of the state, privately owned television channels now claim that they speak for the nation and national interest.
Second, the strategy of relying on advertisement revenue rather than subscription has created a sympathetic climate for corporate driven political opinion to flourish in the mainstream media, which invariably favours market driven solutions to poverty alleviation or economic development more generally. The contemporary media frames stories through the lens of economic growth and national security. In 2014, this framing helped to paint the Congress as ‘corrupt, dynastic, and a reckless benefactor of the poor’ which stalled growth. This discourse reflected middle class anger at the economic slowdown and the rights-based welfare programmes which were blamed for the policy impasse. Media joined in a vehement attack on the right to food under United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government as an example of irresponsible populism that will destroy the growth story forever. The private media has clearly emerged in the neo-liberal context as a powerful political weapon symbolising the convergence of state and business elites.
Third, the structure of prime time television news has also contributed enormously to the high visibility of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when it was in opposition and to political control when it is in power. The low cost news manufacturing model gives priority to studio debates during prime time, which invariably ends up as a verbal slanging match between BJP and Congress spokesmen, dutifully at 9 pm. This news manufacturing model has facilitated the BJP’s domination of the airwaves, as its leaders and party spokesmen easily outnumber, outtalk and outshout the opposition on every television channel, and their refusal to participate in the nightly debates in order to punish an anchor or television channel they disapprove of can ruin the show and its ratings.
Fourth, the growing influence of the vernacular media, especially Hindi media further reinforces right-wing opinion in the mass media.
The media in India does not merely report, it is a political player, especially during elections when political parties spend a lot on the media. It played a significant role in projecting Narendra Modi in the 2014 general election. Reporting for the 2014 election almost completely focused on him, hardly ever on the issues at the ground level. He had assumed a larger than life dimension, dwarfing all other elements of the political discourse and public agenda. His ascent was undoubtedly powered by a compliant media which was deftly used by the BJP to create a ‘Modi wave’.
For weeks, any speech by Modi in any remote district ran live on several channels. A study by the Centre for Media Studies found that he dominated over a third of the prime-time news telecast on five major channels. From 1 to 11 May 2014, Modi’s time crossed the 50 per cent mark. Over six times what Rahul Gandhi got. And ten times the share of AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal. Shorn of sufficient staff on the pretext of an economic slowdown, television news channels relied heavily on the live feeds from the two leading parties, most conspicuously from the BJP camp. This new trend allowed channels to hook up to BJP’s live feeds and relay it to unsuspecting viewers, giving rise to media hype. It is only when some editors raised uncomfortable questions in internal meetings that some channels started identifying it as ‘BJP feed’ on-screen in an under-sized font.
The 2014 general elections marked a tectonic shift in Indian politics. For the first time since independence, India elected a right-wing party to power. The media played an important role in facilitating the shift to the right. With this shift, the media is more closely aligned with right-wing opinion in the country.
After the formation of the BJP government in 2014, politics rivals economics as a source of news for the non-business media. While the media as a whole judged the UPA government primarily on its performance on economic reforms and how economic reforms were getting stalled by the policy paralysis, and the unequal division of power between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, under the BJP government they are more concerned about highlighting the political priorities of the ruling party rather than lack of progress on economic reforms, job growth etc.
It is hardly a coincidence that the issues most hotly debated are the ones that the government is interested in, which relate to beef, love jihad, 800 years of Muslim rule, the singing of Vande Mataram and chanting Bharat Mata ki Jai. There are other more critical issues such as joblessness, agrarian distress and hate crimes and the damage to the social fabric but they don’t get the attention they deserve largely because the media is preoccupied with provocative speeches and political controversies that become breaking news and topics of hyperbolic television debates. Corporate-political control and nexus is a major reason why this is happening, but that alone cannot explain the shrill pro-government tone of many television channels and some newspapers.
The same corporate sector controlled the same media five years ago. Then they were freely going after the government, whereas now the media readily accept the government line. What is new is that private capital has signed up to a project of aligning the media with the ideological purposes of the state. The mobilisation of private media to capture public discourse is undoubtedly a new dimension of media-politics relations. This government has shown that the private media is more pliable and more ‘effectively manipulated, cajoled and coerced than even the state media.
In this situation, it is hardly surprising that the media is unwilling to ask uncomfortable questions of the government; instead, the media has trained its guns on the Opposition. This is particularly true of television which night after night is putting the spotlight on the Opposition. This is extraordinary because in most democracies the media is a watchdog of the government, but in India today the media is the watchdog of the Opposition. Indeed, when the UPA was in power, the media was playing its adversarial role to the hilt; it was fearless in taking on the establishment. It supported and helmed the anti-corruption movement. Five years later, there is no Lokpal in sight, and the media has all but forgotten it.
Influential sections of the media tend to be soft on the government partly because of the ‘nation’ and the ‘nation under threat’ argument, which seems to have become popular across media platforms. Consequently, the whole language of public discourse has become nationalist, actually, Hindu nationalist. In the event, sections of the so-called independent media are becoming like ‘a shadow state, defining agendas and acting as judge and jury on issues of national importance.’
The national media when covering stories that involve political dissent quickly turn to interrogations and witch hunt of ‘anti-nationals’. As self-appointed guardians of the national interest, the media sees itself as the conscience keeper of the state, waging a battle against ‘enemies’ of the nation, principally those who disagree with the government. It has become complicit in the manufacturing of the nationalist narrative, the media is signalling to political supporters and dissidents alike who was national and who was anti-national. Hashtags ‘FightForIndia’, ‘LoveMyFlag’, ‘ProudIndian’, ‘TerrorStatePak’ and ‘AntiNationJNU’ are attempts to play with emotions and polarise the nation.
The present government swears by the freedom of the press, yet, there is increasing evidence that the long arm of the government is finding ways to compel media houses that question or expose its wrong-doings to fall in line. There is little doubt now that through encouraging friendly corporations to take control of the media, and by way of some arm-twisting, the ruling dispensation is determined to ensure that the media is completely in sync with the dominant narrative and that this will resonate across media houses. Hence, the new trend is the use of media not to communicate news but to propagate the ruling ideology.
Currently, most media houses lean politically to the right and most of them support the BJP. But there’s a section of the media which has become more activist and critical and is willing to question politicians, bureaucrats and the corporate sector. This is also the time when the RTI (Right to Information) Act has come to be used more frequently. These two things may appear paradoxical to some but they were happening simultaneously. For these reasons the government wants to keep the media on a tight leash. Media is fearful of criticising the government and this fear has been aggravated by the government’s open distaste for dissent. This is clear from the way the NDTV, which is disliked by the present regime, was raided by the income tax authorities earlier this year and a slew of cases filed by all the investigative agencies that the government commands. The BJP has officially carried out a boycott of the channel. The process of political control is vividly illustrated by the recent resignation of three top executives and anchors from the Hindi news channel ABP News. In July, ABP News ran a report claiming that a woman in Chhattisgarh had been coached to make false statements about the growth of her income during a video interaction with Modi. Within a month of the programme being aired, the host of the popular show Masterstroke, as well as the channel’s Managing Editor resigned.
But these are not the only resignations that have happened; in fact, resignation of editors is a regular feature of the media landscape since 2014. At least four senior editors have left their jobs after publishing reports that angered the government or its supporters.
Ever since the BJP assumed power, the space for free press is shrinking. What is also apparent, though less recognisable, is the denial of access to information and to people holding public office as a form of limiting of the freedom of press. The constraints on media freedom are directly related to the closure of legitimate sources of information, such as press conferences and press briefings.
This happens when a government refuses to accept that the job of the media is to ask questions and expose shortcomings of policy and its implementation. As the Economic and Political Weekly noted, ‘rarely has there been such tight control of information from the central government to the point that bureaucrats are afraid to speak or mingle openly with journalists. People in power publicly endorse what is deemed to be the Prime Minister’s view. There is no open debate within the government and independent voices within it are afraid to speak. This leaves little or no space for independent journalists to investigate issues of importance. When they do, they are accused of being allied with an opposition party.’
The BJP’s ascension of power posed a problem for the media, which had assumed that a neutral authority would always control state power. Since that is clearly not the case as far as the BJP is concerned, media had to pretend that they were neutral, or rationalise that they were not really communal or pro-Hindu but principally interested in promoting development.
In these circumstances, the Indian media’s idea of fairness and objectivity is to systematically question all politicians and attack all sides. The media, ever fearful of criticising the government, balance any criticism by apportioning blame on the government and opposition in equal measure. Very often the discussion ends up focusing more on what happened under previous governments than what’s happening now.
Trends in the media-government relationship in India are quite different from those in most other democracies. Comparatively speaking, the tension between the Trump presidency and the American media is a prominent example of the contrarian position in this regard. In the US, many newspapers, television networks and websites have kept up the pressure on the Trump administration. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and CNN continue to take an adversarial stance, despite Trump calling them crooked or fake or failing.
In the US, where Donald Trump is routinely called out by the media, the media is fighting back hard, whereas in India most television channels and newspapers, with some notable exceptions, are reluctant to challenge and expose the government. Indian media is often on the back foot because it succumbs to political pressure even when it doesn’t have to. True, this government regards questioning as hostile and even anti-national. Worse still, a giant but pliant media is going along with this and with the glorification of the leader.