A short post on journalism circa 2017

Below, a clip from a Hartosh Singh Bal piece from the Caravan’s annual media issue:

In March this year, Modi pulled out of the Economic Times Global Business Summit at the very last minute, citing “security concerns.” Along with him, several ministers and senior bureaucrats also withdrew from the event. The decision caused a huge loss of face for the Times Group. Given the largely favourable coverage of the government in the group’s publications, it was difficult to fathom the reasons for the government’s step. Subsequent events seemed to carry their own message. A journalist critical of the government, Rohini Singh, left the Economic Times, and a spoof on Modi, which ran on one of the group’s radio stations, was soon taken off the air. (Singh went on to author a story for The Wire on the finances of Jay Shah, the son of the Bharatiya Janata Party president, Amit Shah.)

In a recent podcast on the state of the media, Amit Varma and I had discussed this incident and its implications. Bal spells it out, on similar lines, in his piece:

The nature of the pressure Modi brought to bear on these large, profitable media houses is important to understand. Neither of these groups is financially dependent on the government or media summits for their profits; what they were afraid of was the signal that would go out to the corporate world as a result of Modi’s absence from their respective events. Big media in India relies largely on advertisements, and as a result is beholden to corporations. And in India’s partially liberalised economy, corporations are beholden to the government. For a government that wants to control the Indian media, it is much easier to do so through corporations rather than to concern itself with individual journalists.

Below, three exhibits from a TV channel that prides itself on being India’s most followed, and influential:

That is journalism today. A news channel ran an entire debate on the “fact” that Rahul Gandhi went for a movie. It backed the story up with “hard facts”. It then sent reporters to the theatre to confirm that Gandhi did, in fact, go for a show. It then sent more reporters to ask a senior party leader what he had to say about the fact that Rahul Gandhi went for a movie. It has, for close to 48 hours and counting, been running a stream of such “reports” with the dedicated hashtag @AreYouSeriousRahul

As Meghnad writes in The Print, we now live in the age of farce, an age where the ground reality is way beyond the ability of the satirist, the comic, the cartoonist, to lampoon.

The real tragedy here?: anchor Navika Kumar, who has been piloting this lunacy, is actually an accomplished TV journalist. She has, in her time, done good, probing stories that examined corruption and malfeasance in our society. She is, in fact, the antithesis of Arnab Goswami, the quintessential desk jockey. And today, she is reduced to a troll, an unabashed arm of the ruling party’s propaganda machine, as subtle as a sledgehammer in her relentless focus on finding something, anything, negative to say about the opposition leader.

Arising from all of this, two thoughts:

A. Absolute power corrupts absolutely

B. We get the media we deserve.

Tailpiece, from the past:

PostScript: You guys need to get out of the habit of emailing me with questions relating to blog posts, when it is so much simpler and cleaner to post your queries (and comments) right here. It is not as if I don’t respond, right?

Reason for this: Within minutes of posting this, I got a mail from a regular reader with just one line: “Can you explain what is in it for media houses to toe the government line?”

Sure. To borrow a James Carville formulation from the era of Bill Clinton, “it is the economics, stupid”. (Again, Amit Varma and I had discussed how this plays out, in the podcast referred to earlier in this piece).

Here’s the thing: Channels and websites are proliferating at an exponential rate. However, this is not matched by a corresponding growth in advertising dollars. In other words, more and more channels and sites are fighting for smaller and smaller sizes of a pie that is growing way too slowly.

Which brings you to this: An RTI query earlier this month revealed that the Modi government has spent, between April 2014 to October 2017, a sum of Rs 3,775 crore (of taxpayer money) on publicity. It is a slice of this pie that media houses are angling for as quid pro quo.

In passing, the Churmuri blog had a list of all the things that could be accomplished with that amount. A small sample:

# Educated 5,531,820 (or 5.5 million students) at the primary school level (at Rs 6,788 per child) for a year, or given technical and professional education to 597,539 students (at Rs 62,841).

# Provided 195,572,916 or 19.5 crore mandays of labour for unskilled and unemployed people under the MNREGA scheme at the notified rate for Gujarat of Rs 192 per day.