Noise too is a form of censorship

Sometimes when journalists cannot talk of certain issues, they talk a lot about other innocuous stories

Updated - November 10, 2021 12:17 pm IST

Published - June 03, 2019 12:15 am IST

Representational image.

Representational image.

I am overwhelmed by the support extended by readers to my last column, “ Electoral outcomes don’t alter the purpose of journalism ” (May 27). But this section may not be aware of the cynicism that is pervading our public sphere. For instance, Gopal Vaidya, a reader, observed online: “There are many forms of bias that exist in this paper: selection of what to highlight, what to hide, articles that avoid other perspectives, selective use of readers’ comments... Indian papers have a long way to go in this regard.” How can a news ombudsman handle general criticism? “Indian papers” covers the whole of print journalism but it does not reflect the wide range of publications within this sector. From serious broadsheets to sensationalist tabloids, the Indian print media encompasses all forms of reportage. My focus is restricted to serious broadsheet newspapers alone.

The media landscape is not pluralistic

Readers may appreciate the role of a newspaper like The Hindu if they are aware of the important findings of the Media Ownership Monitor, a research project carried out in India by Reporters Without Borders and the Delhi-based digital media company, DataLEADS. Though India has some 1.2 lakh print publications, over 550 FM radio stations and nearly 880 satellite TV channels, including more than 380 claiming to be news channels, the study says the Indian media landscape is hardly pluralistic. The research found the media space to be “tight”, with state monopoly in radio news, and regional newspaper markets being “controlled by a small number of powerful owners, some of whom have strong political affiliations”. It notes that the production and distribution of content are getting concentrated in the hands of a few. The research attributes the high level of ownership concentration to “considerable gaps in the regulatory framework”.

As Readers’ Editor, I take specific complaints seriously and I rely on the core values and cardinal principles of journalism to evaluate the merits of those complaints. But is it possible to examine vague, sweeping statements that cast aspersions on journalists and writers? A decade ago, novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco identified two forms of censorship: censorship through silence and censorship through noise. While all of us are aware of censorship through silence, wherein the state disapproves of certain ideas, we are not conscious enough of the censorship that flows from noise. In his lecture at the conference of the Italian Association for Semiotic Studies in 2009, Eco paraphrased the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to explain a trend that is engulfing us today: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must talk a great deal.” The lecture is a part of an anthology of essays, “Inventing the Enemy” — again, a malady that is afflicting us.

Creating suspicion

In “Censorship and silence”, Eco eloquently explained how innocuous stories are given disproportionate space so that readers do not notice the silence in covering important stories that the media ought to have covered. He used the example of how the press controlled by Silvio Berlusconi undermined the authority of the magistrate who criticised the Prime Minister by reporting that he wore turquoise socks. According to Eco, to make noise you don’t have to invent stories;“all you have to do is report a story that is real but irrelevant, yet creates a hint of suspicion by the simple fact that it has been reported. It is true and irrelevant that the magistrate wears turquoise socks, but the fact it has been reported creates a suggestion of something not quite confessed, leaving a mark, an impression. Nothing is more difficult to dispose of than an irrelevant but true story.” All of us watching prime-time news channels in India can relate to this.

As a news ombudsman, I make a crucial distinction between multiple voices and noise that is meant to drown out voices. I am aware of the fact that with regards to censorship, noise can be more powerful than silence because those who deploy this tactic are aware of the impact of this noise: “An accusation that is not an accusation cannot be challenged.”

Journalism is neither silence nor noise but a credible voice.

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