An Uncertain Glory
India and its Contractions
By Jean Dréze and Amartya Sen
Allen Lane (Penguin Books)
Hardback / 448 pages
Special price in India Rs.699
Inequalities and the Media
Perhaps the biggest barrier to the free operation of the media in democratic India lies in its partiality in favour of the rich and the powerful, which is widespread in its coverage of news and analysis from across the country. There are many complex biases that can be detected, but what is remarkably obvious is a serious lack of interest in the lives of the Indian poor, judging from the balance of news selection and political analyses in the Indian media. 18
Even though this bias is rarely discussed and challenged (and its enormity tends to be seriously underestimated), it is plain to see for anyone who bothers to enquire into it.
Social commentators as diverse as Harsh Mander and Shobhaa Dé have pointed to the deep – and typically implicit – alienation of the Indian elite from the country’s underprivileged. Mander, writing from the perspective of marginalized people, has drawn attention to the ‘exile of the poor from our conscience and even consciousness’, which has grown fast over the last twenty years. Shobhaa Dé, viewing the same phenomenon from the other end of the social spectrum, writes in her book Superstar India: ‘The India we are lauding forms but a microcosm of this vast land. It is the India of the elite, the privileged, the affluent. The only India we want the rest of the world to see and acknowledge, because we are so damned ashamed of the other. Ashamed and ignorant.’ 19
Why this bias? There has been some public discussion of the fact that most of the media institutions in India are owned by the rich. While there is something there to watch out for, this is not really unusual in any country in the world. And there is enough diversity of editorial policies to make the ownership bias not a major explanation of the slanting of news coverage or editorial opinion. There is probably more of an explanation in the fact that the media is an advertisement- driven business. 20
The economic dependence of the media on advertising creates a special focus on potential consumers – as a result of which the rich count more than the poor. The dependence on what is effectively corporate sponsorship also creates a general tendency to pander to corporate culture and values. There are also strong pressures on the journalists and editors in a corporate- sponsored world to be selective in what they say or write. For instance, according to one of India’s leading magazine editors (who preferred not to be named), ‘Mainstream media is reluctant to investigate corporates because of their advertising potential. The reluctance is the direct result of management pressure with which editors go along.’ 21
The recent proliferation of ‘paid news’ – the phenomenon of paying newspapers or TV channels to report certain facts (rather than others) – has also brought out some deeply disturbing aspects of news coverage in India, including the chosen slants in the allegedly objective reporting of facts, and hiding the separation of advertisement from news. 22
These pressures not only lead to misinformation, and give misleading clues to the reading of facts, but they also tend to reduce the space, time and resources available for public discussion of less dazzling matters of great importance to ordinary people, such as education, health, nutrition or sanitation. The bias is hardened also by the fact, discussed in the preceding chapter, that media professionals tend to come disproportionately from a privileged background in terms of caste and class.
The Dominance of the Privileged
Is there a sufficient explanation of the persistent pro- affluent bias in the coverage of the Indian media in these defective features of the media? Even though some part of the bias in media coverage can be linked, directly or indirectly, to its being influenced by advertising and sponsorship, and also by the class and caste background of media professionals and owners, there remains a huge residue to be explained by the deeply unequal character of Indian society, which tends to shape the nature of the media. This is a huge problem, for the media is not only moulded by the unequal society, its potentially corrective role in Indian social and political thinking is made more difficult by the society that has moulded it. Systematic illusions about the nature of the country and the sharpness of disparities within India tend to survive – and are sometimes hardened – by the limitations of the media.
Some of the biases are easy to detect and discuss. For example, there is very little coverage of rural issues in the mainstream media: a recent study found that rural issues get only 2 per cent of the total news coverage in national dailies (in spite of national dailies being widely read in rural areas). 23
The interests of what is described as the Indian ‘middle class’ (even though most members of this class are way above the middle of the spectrum of affluence of Indians as a whole) receive enormously more attention than the concerns of the underprivileged, with a bias that slants the papers and broadcast channels towards such subjects as fashion, gastronomy, Bollywood and cricket.
As one leading editor put it to a group of children’s rights advocates at a recent meeting in Delhi: ‘Don’t have any illusions, you will never be able to compete for attention with the wardrobe malfunction of a model on the ramp.’ 24
India is not unique in having biases of this type. Wardrobe malfunction and similar trivia get media coverage in many other countries. But what is special about India is that an overwhelming majority of the people of the country would have little idea of what a wardrobe is, and what a malfunction might mean in this context. If one reads only the newspapers, and watches the glitzy channels of broadcast, one would tend to have a largely misguided notion of how most Indians live and think. One would be only vaguely aware of the fact that India has the largest population of seriously undernourished people in the world – not just in absolute numbers, but, in terms of standard criteria, even relative to its population size. One would hardly know that half of all Indians live in accommodation that does not have any toilets – forcing people to return to nature to perform one of the most private activities of living. There are of course bits and pieces of coverage of the deprivations and struggles of the underprivileged in newspapers and TV outlets (more in some of the deliberately conscientious media channels than in others), but coverage of the lives of the deprived is astoundingly limited for the media as a whole.
The media itself certainly shares a big responsibility for the bias in the coverage of news and analyses, especially since it can play a large role in leading, and not merely following, public curiosity and concern.
But the problem extends to a lack of interest and engagement from the relatively privileged parts of society on matters of social inequality and deprivation, since the media tends to be shaped substantially by the need to cater to them. The influential subscribers, readers, sponsors and champions of the media tend to come from this relatively small but, in absolute terms, large – and powerful – group.
18. For insightful analyses of the successes and limitations of the Indian newspapers industry, see N. Ram (1990 , 2011, 2012). See also Robin Jeffrey (2000), Prabhat Patnaik (2002), P. Sainath (2009), Ken Auletta (2012), Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Alice Seabright (2011).
19. Shobhaa Dé (2008), p. 41 .
20. As the managing editor of one of India’s leading dailies (The Times of India) put it in a recent interview, ‘we are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business’ (see Auletta, 2012).
21. A few years ago, Pepsi and Coca Cola were exposed by the Centre for Science and Environment for using contaminated water in their products. Yet, according to the same commentator, ‘the electronic media jumped to the defence of the soft drink manufacturers – both are big advertisers on TV ’.
22. On this (and also the related issue of so- called ‘private treaties’ between media houses and business groups), see Reddy and Thakurta’s (2010) report to the Press Council of India; also P. Sainath (2009, 2010) and Guha Thakurta (2011).
23. Vipul Mudgal (2011). For similar findings on regional dailies, see The Hoot (2011).
24. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, comment made at an informal dialogue between media editors and the right to food campaign, Indian Social Institute, 29 November 2011.