Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Noam Chomsky in his seminal work, Manufacturing Consent, writes how communication channels can be used, imagery created, agenda-setting done by media to create or evolve mass consent in favour or against a perspective, a world-view, an outlook, a policy or a personality.

 Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister of Adolf Hitler and his right hand man, once said famously, “If I tell a lie, tell it once, tell it ten times, tell it a hundred times, and it becomes a truth.”

Manufacturing consent and trivializing issues seem to be a conscious or unconscious under-current in a large part of media coverage today in India, ahead of the elections.

Varanasi Conundrum

Take for example the first images and stories after the belated declaration of Narendra Modi as the BJP-NDA candidate from Varanasi.

People either in religious attire or in Holi colors were shown from the ghats of Varanasi regaling and rejoicing Modi’s coming and the imagery was of instant win when candidature has just been declared. Most of the images were strikingly similar, questions asked were leading ones (like, what are your expectations from a PM-in-waiting being your candidate?), venues were largely the same, and even many faces giving reactions were the same across channels. Headlines in media after Modi’s candidature and Kejriwal’s announcement of coming to Varanasi on March 23 to know people’s mind were like: Banarasi Babu Modi seeks Kashinath’s blessings, while Kejriwal traps the voters again! The motive is clear.

The other news-points at Varanasi now, like two rallies to support Arvind Kejriwal’s possible contest here, Samajwadi Party’s thought of not putting up a candidate in support of Kejriwal if he contests, the caste and community composition of Varanasi seat where more than 50% of voters are Muslims, Dalits and very backward communities all of whom are not known BJP voters, the reaction of the Brahmins and a section of BJP on Murli Manohar Joshi being shunted out, etc, were hardly reported or discussed.

Missing Issues

Take another example: of issues being raised in this election, or the lack of it.

The four issues of debate in these polls are: ‘development model’ of Gujarat to be replicated for the nation, collusive and coercive corruption and how they can be controlled, clean politics with transparent funding, crony capitalism and its linkage with inflation.

However, if one looks at the overwhelmingly dominant content, especially in the electronic media, these are the last things on display except in nomenclature.

There have been claims on Gujarat development from both camps: from pro-camp talking about the rise in state GDP and agricultural production among others, and anti-camp citing figures of 800 farmer suicides and Gujarat failing on several human development indices. Media has by and large failed to go deeper into either of these claims.

Corruption has been the recurring issue across the last five years with a huge national movement against it, the epicenter being in Delhi. No in-depth coverage has been there of why, how, when corruption and how to tackle it systematically, legally and through people’s participation, except, of course, the good talks on legal tools of combating corruption.

Political funding has been the least talked about area, and so has been media funding even in spite of recent questions raised on both. An open transparent fund-raising dinner of a party in Bengaluru finds a full page and full episode coverage, whereas no questions asked on huge rallies of major parties spending crores including the merchandise and logistics being used in them.

Another almost near silence is in the grey area of crony capitalism and its linkage with price-rise across board. There are instances like advance information to land mafia about development projects in specific locations for them to buy land from farmers in paltry sums ahead of declaration of the projects. There are instances of bank loans being given to large business houses flouting set rules, interest waived off later, and even principal amount payment delayed or partially waived. No stories on these. There are natural resources pricing issues, KG Basin gas apart, which lead directly to inflation. And these instances are not specific to only one party, but of a host of parties, including regional ones. Whoever is the ruler of the day wherever has been resorting to crony capitalism, in bits or in truck-loads.

Media Choices

Now let us look at what the media turns into major stories.

Media over the last one month has been obsessed with the change of attire to suit each location of every rally by the only declared Prime Ministerial candidate, no-use of seat-belt by opposing leader touring parts of India, selected rallies being shown in totality with participation angles (as in cases of electronic feeds and still pictures given by BJP and Congress to media for its rallies) while in rallies of others the camera is constant on the face of the speaker and never on the audience. Has any Indian media consumer seen the audience size of AAP rallies in Rohtak, Kanpur, Nagpur and Bengaluru recently? Or of Mamata or Left rallies in Kolkata? Or Mayawati or Jayalalitha rallies?

If Mamata Banerjee had provided that kind of feed to channels of her Delhi rally, as done by BJP and Congress of their rallies across India, then people would not have known that only 2,000 people had turned up. The media is manufacturing a “reality”, setting the agenda, and then using it to generate a discourse.

Media commentator Shashi Kumar rightly says that when Mr. Kejriwal criticises the media, he does so with the knowledge that there is antagonism within the public towards the media.

Paid Media

Some five years ago, the Press Council commissioned an investigative research by a team led by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta on paid media. The team came out with an in-depth work illustrating how even leading media houses are resorting to paid content, elections or otherwise. The Council, under the influence of media owners, suppressed the original report and came out with a much watered-down sham report not naming anyone in particular.

“Unfortunately when people outside the media criticize us, we have a very thin skin,” editor N Ram said in a recent media meet, identifying hyper-commercialisation and trivialisation as some of the ills plaguing the media apart from the rogue tendencies of media. Stating that it was time to look at the vices that have crept into journalism and not just celebrate the growth of the media, Mr. Ram pondered if the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ is confined to election season alone.

Everything has almost become “momentous and momentary” for the media without any contextualization, particularly in times of the dominance of the electronic media. One can only lament at the manner in which objectivity appeared to have become redundant in journalism; “subjectivity is masquerading as objective”. While TRPs are driving the visual media, the print is allowing television to set the agenda, leading to a “tyranny of the discourse”.

Uncertain Way Out

There is no easy solution, anymore than we have for curing cancer. There is surely the need for professionalism and codification of values and practices, but as is evident that self-regulation is not working within the visual media and the Press Council is not just a toothless body but is also infested with representatives from the newspaper industry. There is a need to have something radically different coming from within the profession and the civil society, and perhaps a stronger legal framework. But, one cannot accept blatant State intervention and control of media either.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind