The credibility of India’s news-producing infrastructure has long been in tatters. There are brave journalists, risking even death, who still have some fidelity to truth. But a number of prominent media institutions have over the years become a toxic amalgam of veniality, fanaticism, irresponsibility and subservience to power. The media has gone from being the saviour to democracy to being one of the principal threats to it.
This perception does not require a back story; the content peddled speaks for itself. In such a context, the Cobrapost sting operations will be seen as exposing the rot in Indian media. But it is unlikely that the operation will be the beginning of soul-searching. It will cast a shadow even over the good institutions without producing accountability in the bad ones. It will deepen a cynical nihilism.
There are legitimate concerns about such sting operations: The ethics of the operation, the credibility and antecedents of those conducting it, the murkiness of their motives, and the indeterminacy of what the taped conversations might have led to in terms of actual contracts or content. But even after acknowledging all those concerns, it is hard to escape the rotten odour that comes through in these tapes from so many media houses.
Some conclusions are hard to brush off. Content in Indian media houses is for sale, not just at the margins, but whole-scale. These deals are struck not just by low-level marketing operatives, but seem to be negotiated by India’s biggest media barons and are constitutive of the business model.
There seem to be few limits to what they might contemplate carrying. Some are willing to contemplate a cultural recalibration, others fomenting communal polarisation. The willingness to bend to the government of the day is apparent. The lines between editorial and marketing have blurred. But that would be an understatement. The situation is worse because the blurred line is between editorial and contracting. Marketing still assumes a certain deference to the consumer: Content is shaped to defer to consumer tastes. But contracting is entirely supply side driven: It depends upon who can show up with the big contracts. It seeks to manipulate and shape, not defer to consumers.
What comes through, loud and clear, is the thorough contempt Indian media has for the Indian citizen. The owners seem to think of citizens as infantilised fools. Owners seem to boast about how the thinnest veneer, the smallest gesture of pretending that you cover news, will allow you to get away with masses of propaganda. Since the people do not pay, accountability is only to those who allocate capital or use political power. There is a curious phenomenology of authoritarianism at work in these tapes: Just like the political leaders think they can use the veneer of democracy to imprison us in propaganda in our own name, sections of the media think they can use the fig leaf of a market to essentially subvert market values. We matter neither as citizen nor as consumer.
The Cobrapost expose may have intended at producing more accountability. But don’t hold your breath. For one thing, the means deployed and the certainty of the result matter. Sting operations may give an occasional high. But since they started, they have cheapened and coarsened media. Two very rare conditions for sting operations do not exist: Absolute credibility and accountability of those who carry out the sting, and a consequent ability to follow through. Second, it will not happen because if the sting is true, the joke is on us, not the media. It implicates virtually large sections of viewership and readership in creating and sustaining the conditions where media barons can be so contemptuous of us. Since, barring a very small number, everyone has been tarred, no one will really be affected. The few institutions that have escaped this net will be seen as merely lucky or protected by some partisan deal.
There is a paradoxical lesson here. Large-scale muckraking does not produce more accountability; it simply deepens cynicism. For accountability and influence, you have to produce exemplars whom people trust. The rot in the media can be stemmed not just by crying corruption but by creating exemplary institutions that inspire trust. Projecting trustworthiness becomes so much harder under conditions of generalised distrust. We might win the battle but will lose the war.
The biggest gainers from this expose are the political class. The lower the credibility of India media, the more it suits them. Try to imagine how anyone in the media will be able to raise conflict of interest issues with a straight face. The line that this operation exposes the Hindutva agenda will not stick long. It is the veniality and subservience to the government of the day, not the ideological moorings of what the media houses were being asked to do that will stick more. The operation exposes the intent of media owners, not politicians. It also shifts the spotlight away from politics. Society is, it turns out, even more corrupt than politics. It is society that knows no moral limits; there is rampant instrumentalism. A distrust of civil society, the sense that the pure people need to be rescued from themselves, is the bedrock of authoritarianism.
Will the sting produce reform? Judging from the denials of some large organisations, there is the possibility that this operation might produce some own goals. The denial by one of the big media houses seems to rest on three incompatible premises that should undermine its own defence: That the operation was doctored, that the group was engaged in a counter sting, and that the content of what they were proposing to carry was innocent. Perhaps a few small organisations might take corrective measures. But this will happen only where the top management is not implicated in the sting. Some organisations may try to compensate for the image the sting created: Cynically change their content and editorial stance briefly to project independence.
But the operation will not improve democracy. When almost no news source can be trusted, people will have the license to believe whatever they were pre-disposed to believe even more. Our vicarious thrill in the momentary shaming of some large media houses will soon give way to a more cynical foreboding. Hegel once said that in modernity the newspaper will substitute for the morning prayer, taking the measure of our soul. Now we are a democracy without a measure, where anything goes.