Issues today have to be dressed up in ways certified by the corporate media. They have to be justified not by their importance to the public but by their acceptability to the media, their owners and sponsors.
That the terrible tragedy in Pune demands serious, sober coverage is a truism. One of the side-effects of the ghastly blast has been unintended, though. The orgy of self-congratulation that marked the media coverage of just about everything since January is now in pause mode. Maybe the flak they copped for their handling of the November 2008 Mumbai terror blasts has something to do with it. But there is, so far, some restraint. At least, relative to the meal they made of the 2008 blasts.
Otherwise, through January and early February, the media stood up bravely for freedom of expression and some other constitutional rights you've never heard of. They slew the demons of lingual chauvinism and worse. And they're just spoiling for a fight with any other enemy of our proud democracy. Just so long as they can keep Bollywood in central focus.
Every issue is now reduced to a fight between individuals, heroic, villainous or just fun figures. So the complex issues behind the shunning of Pakistani cricketers by the Indian Premier League are reduced to a fight between Shah Rukh Khan and Bal Thackeray. (As one television channel began its programme: “Shah Rukh stands tall. His message to the nation ...”). The agonies of Bundelkhand are not about hunger and distress in our Tiger Economy. They are just a stand-off between Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati. The issues of language and migrations in Maharashtra are merely a battle between Rahul Gandhi and Uddhav Thackeray. And the coverage is all about who blinked first, who lost face.
The devastating rise in food prices (let's skip the boring factors) and the mess in agriculture are a face-off between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. The pathetic squabble within the Samajwadi Party is virtually a television serial. A blow-by-blow account of Amar Singh's valiant bid to retain his honour against Mulayam Singh's yahoos. (Indeed, some Hindi channels have begun using the language of theatre to report it — Act II, Scene II. And there was one programme which Mr. Amar Singh ended humming verses from his favourite film song). The Bt brinjal story had mostly only one villain — Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. He had no visible adversary unless you pose the humble Brinjal as the hero. But that won't work for television. The other, more sinister heroes in this media story preferred to function from behind the scenes, plying newspapers and channels with faked data and false information. Hell hath no fury like a powerful corporate scorned, as the Minister is learning.
Issues? The same media that passionately fought for freedom of expression for a month from mid-January had billed the 2009 Lok Sabha poll as one without issues. The country was actually burning with them, but they didn't make good television either. More accurately, the dominant media hadn't the slightest intention of covering them with any sincerity. The story of rising food prices remains one of the worst reported — no matter how much space it has been given. Sure, there have been exceptions — as in the case of some outstanding reports on Bundelkhand. But they've been just that. Exceptions.
If these last six weeks have been about freedom of expression, we have neither. Or, at best, a twisted freedom and a tortured expression. There is little freedom for thousands of journalists in the corporate media and the few editors who still believe we ought to be doing a better job of informing the public on the key issues of our time. There's very little freedom for readers or viewers, too. For days on end, it didn't matter which television channel you switched to, it was SRK on all of them. When that movie drew to a close, the 'Rahul Gandhi storms Sena den' film was released and sustained. A visit of some hours produced days of footage. But with the end of Mr. Gandhi's visit to Mumbai, it was back to Shah Rukh Khan. Of course, viewers had the freedom to choose, which sets us apart from totalitarian states. They could choose any channel, from among many, to watch SRK saying exactly the same thing, at the same time. And they will be free to choose again when the figure is Amitabh Bachchan or Aamir Khan.
If what we've watched on critical issues these past weeks is expression, we're through scraping the barrel. We're drilling holes in its bottom.
Many corporate-owned media houses have sacked hundreds of journalists and non-journalist staff since late 2008. Hundreds of other journalists have suffered wage cuts. Of course, the ‘right to know' of readers and viewers does not extend to this information. Why scare the poor lambs? And how can you tell them the truth about that while everyday crowing about the once-again booming economy? It might lead audiences to ask that dull, boring question: “If things are so good, why are you axing so many people?” Answering that means revealing the interests the corporate media have in the fate of the stock market. It means talking about their need to keep the shares of the companies they are linked to (or have heavily invested in) afloat and buoyant. That is regardless of how rotten they are within. No matter how their own shares in those companies were obtained. And no agonising over how unethical the means used to keep them heated. This was in part behind the fatwa issued by some newspapers to their staff banning the ‘R' word last year. Recession is what happens in the United States. In India, it was a slowdown — and it's already turning around brilliantly. The hundreds of sacked and ruined staff have little freedom to speak of. Even the professional communicators within them cannot tell their own audiences their story. Cannot tell them they were laid off, let alone tell them why.
Leave aside escaping a recession, India Shining is back. The cover story of a leading weekly gushes over the fantastic ‘rural resurgence' that is, in fact, saving all of us. Farmers are doing just great. Drip, micro-sprinkler, and other micro irrigation, the stories in it suggest, played a major role in this hidden-from-the-human-eye revival. This resurgence is seen more in urban media than in rural India. And the proliferation of such stories across the media spectrum reflects, in part, the strenuous media efforts of a major Maharashtra-based company. A corporate group that spends a fortune on propaganda and whose interests in this line of irrigation are pushed by some of the most powerful members of the Union Cabinet. Oddly, stories such as these come out even as the government's own projections for growth in agriculture are dismaying.
The main ‘rural resurgence' story hit the stands the same day the National Crime Records Bureau officially brought the 2008 data for farm suicides on to its website. The 16,196 suicides that year brought the tally of farmers' suicides since 1997 to 199,132. That's the largest single, sustained wave of such suicides ever recorded in history — anywhere. Guess nobody told them about the resurgence. Farmers in 2008 did know of that year's loan waiver, but it didn't stop large numbers of them from taking their lives.
The ‘rural resurgence' story comes after any number of the government's own committees, commissions and reports suggest that it revise poverty figures upwards. Whether it's the Suresh Tendulkar committee, the BPL Expert Group, or earlier the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised sector. Or a U.N. study which reports that 34 million more Indians remained poor or joined their ranks in 2008 and 2009, because of the ‘slowdown.' That is, 34 million more than would have met that fate prior to the 2008 crisis. It matters little if Census data show us that 8 million cultivators quit agriculture between just 1991 and 2001. (That is, on average, well over 2,000 a day, every day for 10 years.) Or that the 2011 Census just months from now will show us how many more have fled agriculture since then, un-seduced by the rural resurgence. Never mind the facts. One giant private irrigation company stands to make its already huge fortune bigger. Good for growth.
The ABC of Indian media roughly translates as Advertising, Bollywood and Corporate power. Some years ago, the ‘C' would have been cricket, but that great sport is fast becoming a small cog in the large wheel of corporate profit. (In the IPL, the ABC of media converge, even merge.) And, of course, everything but everything, has to be bollywoodised. To now earn attention, issues have to be dressed up only in ways certified by the corporate media. They have to be justified not by their importance to the public but by their acceptability to the media, their owners and sponsors. The more entrenched that ABC gets, the greater the danger to the language of democracy the media so proudly claim to champion.