While the clash between the Army Chief and the Defence Ministry has been hotly debated on television, a new study shows how a small group of people monopolise public opinion

About 15 years ago when the media had not yet reconciled to the idea of Dalits holding political power in Lucknow, a prominent newspaper carried a statement by Mayawati. The headline labelled her as `Chamarin' a pejorative play on her already discriminated against caste.

The newspaper, as all major newspapers in the Hindu heartland are prone to, has invested on the side in businesses heavily dependent on state patronage and therefore knew what was better. Copies of the edition were withdrawn and the owners preferred to suffer tactical monetary loss than risk antagonising a political leader whose turn might come to occupy the Chief Minister's chair in Lucknow.

At the end no one asked the question: How did dominant newsroom chatter make its way into the newspaper? Was it because the heaving political landscape in Uttar Pradesh that had brought first the backwards castes and then the Dalits into greater numbers in the Vidhan Sabha was being resented by the newsrooms where representation had remained static?

A recent study brought out the numbers in embarrassing detail. There were virtually no Dalits in TV and newspaper offices. If that across-the-country survey of caste representation in media houses revealed the issue of representations, a look at the representation in TV programme on the Army Chief's clash with the Defence Ministry, the most hotly debated topic in the media for a straight fortnight shows that there was no diversity of views expressed by participants in TV studios.

While some tilt in terms of gender, caste and class representation is to be accepted, the study by Vijay Pratap for The Media Studies Group founded by journalist Anil Chamadia seeks to show that not even norms of general diversity were followed. According to Chamadia, the study shows how a small group of people monopolises public opinion through discussions concerning armed forces. The study is based on a sample of 24 programmes aired on six news channels, of which three each were in Hindi and English between March 26 and April 2 when the debate was at its hottest.

In terms of political representation, the Left which has a different position from the two main parties on most issues was virtually ignored. From the political class, men and a few women from the BJP and the Congress dominated the discussions. While from the civil society, former officers – civil and military – made up the bulk of those inputting the opinion forming process from the media.

The figures in percentage are follows: ex-army officers 31 per cent, political parties 31 per cent, former-bureaucrats 13 per cent, journalists 19 per cent, and others- 6 per cent. Women participation was just 9 per cent – mostly former bureaucrats and journalists. Only three women politicians participated as spokespersons of their parties, two from the Congress and one from the BJP.

One former army officer was found taking part in six discussions in different news channels which amounts to 25 per cent of the share of the total programming. In all four former army officers participated in 75 per cent of the programmes.

But the study is on shaky ground here. Few top generals want to risk as being seen as too outspoken on Government policies for fear that this might jinx post retirement posts. There is also a small lot that declines or participates reluctantly because of the value it puts on solitude in post-retirement life. In this case, the former general the study has sought to hold up as an example of inveterate studio hopper (which should not cause alarm to anybody but to the mutually competing TV channels) is known in defence circles as the `dissident general.'

The officer whom the study identifies as Lt. Gen Raj Kadyan was the first serving Deputy Chief of Army Staff to have gone to court against his Government. After retirement he wrote a book, `Lies that win army promotions' detailing, as he saw it, the cosying up and cronyism inherent in army promotions. Not only was he suited for airing his views frankly, he had no fear of losing favour.

But the participation of bureaucrats in the six channels seemed to indicate the class divide. All of them appeared on English channels and none on the Hindi ones.

This is strange when the Defence Ministry apparatus deals with an almost equal number of Hindi and English media journalists from all the three spheres – TV, print and web. A firm conclusion is not possible because the study does not extend to channels from other regions where retired bureaucrats might have participated because not all of them settle down in megapolises and also because they would be more fluent in their mother tongue.

The study points out that former 17 former defense officials accounted for 31 per cent of overall participation. There should not be much cause for complaint had people with alternate views been accommodated in greater numbers than the decimal point participation seen in debates on corruption in an institution entirely funded by the tax payer.

Of the participants from political parties, 82 per cent were from the Congress and BJP with their urbane faces Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Tarun Vijay being the most prominent. Sabir Ali of the Janata Dal (United) was the only representative of a regional party despite the fact that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar alone in the Hindi belt can lay claim to many prominent political parties. D Raja of CPI was the lone upholder of the red flag in the debates and Tariq Anwar of the Nationalist Congress Party an aberration from the smaller parties.

Congress was represented by two women spokespersons while BJP by one. Women spokespersons of Congress were seen on Hindi channels and the BJP's only women spokesperson went to English news channels.

Besides this cast of former officers and politicians largely from the BJP and the Congress, supplemented by journalists on regular defense beats, the participation of only three from the ‘others' was noticed – unionist and Congress leaders N. Hanumanthappa, Anil Baxi, who the study says is a former contractor of Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) and scholar-columnist Abhay Kumar Dubey.

The study would be confronted by skeptics who would say, “So what? This is to be expected. That is the reality of today.” Fair enough. It would need many more of this kind quarterbacked by subject specialists (so that generalisations are accurate and not the Raj Kadian kind) to reveal whether the ‘Mayawati Chamaran' frame of mind has consolidated its hold to an extent that it is dictating participation in the media.

More In: National | News