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A command economy of opinion

The media industry worries little about the Indian government now. Its concern is rather about revenues, which are still tiny in relation to the size of its audience.

Written by Arvind Rajagopal | Updated: May 15, 2014 8:28 am

The demand for an independent media in India was initially seen as a way to curtail state control over the airwaves: since state control was taken as fait accompli, the demand for autonomy was a way to limit the impact of the ruling party’s grip over broadcast media.

After 1995, when a Supreme Court ruling deprived Prasar Bharati of its monopoly, which satellite channels had already begun to undermine, the government suddenly became one player among many. From declaring the media was irrelevant, irresponsible, or both, as Indira Gandhi used to do, political leaders became vulnerable to negative media coverage.

Today, more than government media, it is the “autonomous” or commercial media that presents a threat to public interest. The commercial media exerts de facto monopoly over the airwaves, while Prasar Bharati is almost a voice in the wilderness  —  except, ironically, when it interviews Narendra Modi.

Indeed, Prasar Bharati is considered so unimportant that the television ratings agency, TAM, has ignored it, until forced by a recent court order to include it. The election media coverage study released recently by CMS Media Lab does not even mention Prasar Bharati in its study, and few seem to have noticed Prasar Bharati’s viewership is nowhere near its pre-1995 levels. Meanwhile, advertisers have focused on the more affluent urban audiences who watch cable and satellite, not the free-to-air government channels, which are watched mainly by those who cannot afford private channels.

Given that they inform, and even embody, the public interest, all media houses and sectors should be held to the same, high standards of accountability. The very criteria used to evaluate Prasar Bharti’s professional autonomy should therefore apply to privately owned media.

In fact, since 1995, debates about the Indian media have been about the growing power of private media, and the government-business nexus central to it. The “paid news” phenomenon has taken media manipulation to extraordinary levels, since viewers today have no way of knowing which news stories are genuine, and which ones are disguised advertisements. Political parties spend huge amounts on their election campaigns, their money is from sources they refuse to declare, and the media is the biggest beneficiary.

The expansion of the economy has thus completely changed the question of media regulation. Previously, businesses had to fear the government, and media regulation served mainly to protect government power. Today, the balance has shifted.

The major private media outlets are owned by large business houses that can navigate any set of rules with their ability to buy talent, technology and political favours. Large volumes of persuasive media coverage can be generated to convey the impression of public support for any suitable programme chosen for promotion. Questions of fairness or unfairness of media treatment are outweighed by the volume of coverage, audience size, and revenue earned.

The media industry worries little about the Indian government now. Its concern is rather about revenues, which are still tiny in relation to the size of their audience, and finding creative ways to bring in less affluent audiences into a market that has historically been heavily tilted towards its premium segment.

One way it has done so, whether by accident or by design, is through the encouragement of civil disobedience and popular protest focused on select social issues. Historically, major media houses have dismissed or trivialised protest, and tacitly endorsed the status quo, but there has been a 180 degree switch lately. Both the news and the entertainment media have embraced popular dissent, diffusely defined and safely practised. From the anti-corruption campaign led by Anna Hazare, to the mass outrage against the December 2012 gang rape of “Nirbhaya”, enthusiastic media industry support has been critical to the sense that Indian democracy is alive and well.

The sympathy for popular protest is a legacy of nationalist politics, and India has a history of insurgent movements. But for the news and entertainment industry, social issues provide an avenue for growing audiences, and bringing them into intimate relationships with the media. Media industry reports list the Anna Hazare campaign and the protest against the December 16 gangrape as their achievements, and as signs of the increasing reach and influence of the media.

In this conception, today’s protestor is tomorrow’s consumer, while media self-regulation is a triumph of Indian democracy. Only government is the problem, and needs to be rectified. Indeed, it needs to be regulated, and business can offer suggestions as to how.

The command economy of the licence-permit raj is no more, but corporations seek a command economy of opinion in its place. Before we embark on a discussion of how genuine autonomy can be achieved for Prasar Bharati, we should notice the new alignment between government and business that has taken place, and demand a genuinely public media that is autonomous with respect to both these entities.

The writer is professor of media studies at New York University

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