The media inform the public and thus empower them. If Thomas Jefferson were alive today he would have delivered these words with great effect and elan. If Winston Churchill or our own Jawaharlal Nehru were to be in our midst they would do the same thing. For, all great men are great because they leave behind them quotable quotes. We confer on these quotes the status of scriptures in the manner of hundreds of readers who enjoyed the hospitality of the Hindu's letters to the editor columns after the Tamil Nadu legislature ordered the arrest of five of its senior editorial and managerial employees. They revelled, even if it was for a short while, in demonstrating their loyalty to such shop-soiled slogans as democracy and freedom of expression. These words are like symbols whose referents have become vague long ago. Yet, while commiserating with the Hindu, everyone from the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, federal ministers, chief ministers, members of Parliament, veteran journalists, press organizations to human rights groups at home and abroad and who else, could not resist the temptation to flog these dead horses.
Readers of the Hindu quoted William Randolph Hearst, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill and Jawaharlal Nehru in defence of freedom of press. None of these celebrities had much regard for the press or values of journalism. In a race with Joseph Pulitzer for increasing circulation, Hearst was the man who liberally invented stories about Spanish atrocities and pushed America into war with Spain. Jefferson had a reputation for managing the press and editors. He was also the author of the memorable quotation 'nothing that appears in newspapers need be believed.' No Indian in his waking hours will forget how Churchill had tried to crush both India's independence movement and the press which was its voice. Both the Press Objectionable Matters Act and the Defence of India Rules came when Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister. The readers need not get unduly worked up about state-media confrontations because they represent a continuing conflict of interests between two competing centres of power.
None of those who lent moral support to the Hindu, except working journalists, understands what freedom of expression is. Most newspapermen know that it is the freedom of the owner to deny/grant it to others. We know how editors of leading newspapers invent stories and why. Editors and senior journalists are free to report as long as what they report does not hurt the publisher. The readers' views appearing in the Hindu's letters columns are uninformed because they hardly have explored the nature of their relationship with the media and the state. In regard to the media, the readers are consumers of their content and in relation to the state they are voters. They have rights not only against the state but also against the media. These are enshrined in the Constitution. The reader is the direct and primary beneficiary of Article 19 (1) conferring freedom of expression.
Decades later, the Supreme Court extended the benefit of the Article to the press also. This freedom of the citizen (reader) is not limited to interpersonal communication alone. It also covers mass communication that is impossible unless the media yield space to them. The right to free expression the citizens share with the media necessarily implies the availability of a vehicle for such expression. Seminars, public meetings, demonstrations and exhibitions are some of the forums available to the public to disseminate their views. What all of them overlook is that both as people and as readers, they have a right to use the press as a vehicle of mass communication. Freedom of the press is conditional on the press facilitating the exercise of the public's right to free expression.
The readers hardly realize that the debates that the Hindu-TN Assembly confrontation generated sidelined totally the media's principal constituency: the readers. It is not always the people vs. the state or the press vs. the state but also the people vs. the media. The records of the Press Council of India show that it receives more complaints against the press than against the state. We, the people, have created through the Constitution the three wings of the State and other institutions like the Election Commission. These bodies operate in a system of checks and balances and are accountable to the Constitution. You can see how the Supreme Court had intervened in the Best Bakery case, the cases against Jayalalithaa and the Babri Masjid case, to minimize government mischief in the prosecution of these cases and in staying the arrest of the Hindu employees.
The Election Commission also intervened both in Gujarat and Chattisgarh in the interests of fair elections. This is democracy at work and demonstrates that the Constitution has mechanisms to check state misuse of power but what safeguards have the readers against the media denying them their right to free expression? The Press Council? Ha, ha. An irresponsible government can be brought down through a no-confidence motion in Parliament. How can the readers discipline an irresponsible press? It is misplaced charity that prevents the judiciary from being harsh with an errant press. Editors get away with an apology for defamation whereas the common citizen goes to jail for a couple of or more years. In countries which we recognize as models of democracy, journalists have the same status as the citizens in the eyes of the law. In explaining this solicitude of the Indian judiciary for the press, well-known jurist Soli Sorabjee says (the Indian Express, 23 Nov. 03), 'The answer lies in the concept of press freedom. The right guaranteed is not merely the right of the proprietor of the newspaper, or the editor or the journalist. It includes in its capacious content the collective right of the community.' Impressed.
The media do accommodate the views of the readers in the letters columns that are shrinking by the day. Readers may as well ask, 'Why are not long letters published as byline articles and remunerated?' The editors have no reply. Readers are useful for newspapers as magnets to attract advertisements and increase their revenue. Every inch of advertisement is an inch less of information useful to the readers. As more space is reserved for the ad industry, it is the readers' constituency that suffers. How many readers know that they are defending the freedom of an institution that does not respect their freedom? A decade ago, press reaction to V.N.Gadgil's bill about the right to reply showed the freedom-seeking media in their true colours.
Media cite policy disagreement as one reason to deny publicity to certain views. But pay a few lakhs of rupees, and even Narendra Modi's performance as a chief minister illuminates two or three pages in the media as an 'impact feature' or an 'advertorial.' The editor-in-chief of India Today (27 Jan.03) says, 'Today, there are PR agencies who charge a fee to get photographs and articles on 'event managed' evening into the Times of India's page 3.' Aroon Purie must know that there is not much difference between this practice and the fashionably-worded 'impact feature.' It is also unfair to isolate the Times of India alone for this practice.
I have described the reaction of the readers as uninformed because they are not aware of the goings-on in media offices and believe that the media are great crusaders for freedom of expression that in the final analysis really means the freedom of the publisher. Nor do the readers know that the media have a knack of anaesthetizing the public by turning the spotlight on corruption in the state sector and never turning it on themselves. Why do they run crusades against Antulay or Reliance or Bombay Dying or an NRI businessman all the time pretending to reveal low doings elsewhere and not in their own backyard? Do readers know what accounting tricks newspaper owners employ to deny fair wages to their employees and why nobody in the media ever writes about it? For sometime, Palagummi Sainath ran a journal called Countermedia that showed the ugly face of the media.
The readers are hardly familiar with concepts like media monopoly and its consequences nor why the media ran campaigns against personalities like Indira Gandhi and became great martyrs without a scratch on their skins. Few readers know that among those who engineered the Congress split of 1969 was a media baron whose firms were nationalized by Indira Gandhi and who was the driving force behind what was then called the Syndicate. The cement scandal in which the Supreme Court acquitted Antulay has also a similar background. The Hindu, of course, was always an exception.
There is not always a commonality of interests between the readers and the media because the media, owned and directed as they are by the market, have commercial interests to promote and preserve whereas the audience expect information that empowers. This empowerment of the audience is not the main item on the agenda of the media. They kowtow to a different constituency to serve primarily: aggressive and profit-seeking share-holders. In a symposium published in Editor & Publisher (11 June 03) David Halberstram who covered the Vietnam war for the New York Times says, 'The industry as a whole is in trouble because people at the top are taking out too much money and driving the profits up. The perception is that the real customers are not those who read the paper but those who buy the stock.' There cannot be an identity of interest between the readers who seek information and the media who seek profits.
Long time ago, some worthy had said 'if I were to choose a government without a press and a press without a government, I would choose the latter.' Readers are so drugged by such oft-repeated maxims that they do not even pause to ask if such a thing as a press without a government ever existed anywhere or if it can exist at all. One reader wrote, 'It is not simply an attack on the press but an attack on democracy itself.' This is symbolic of the ignorance of a majority of readers of the contradiction between democracy and the press, the first an institution elected by all eligible voters under the vigilant eye of an election commission created by the Constitution and the second a purely private institution, proprietorial or corporate in nature. Democracy is a running and dynamic discourse between the people and the government. The press is a good example of top-down communication. There is a fundamental difference between the government-people interaction and people-press interaction in terms of access and accountability.
Accountability is anathema to our media, evident from such vacuous slogans like self-regulation and the fierce opposition to any watchdog body. There are frequent debates in Parliament and in the media about the performance of Doordarshan and hardly any on non-governmental media. The Hoot intermittently publishes tidbits about media culpability that excite audience for the while but are hardly enough to inspire a deeper inquiry into media as a social institution distributing messages with agenda-setting power. Critics of government institutions like Doordarshan readily condone the misuse of space in newspapers for self-aggrandizement or for settling scores with rivals.
A constitution bench of the Supreme Court is seized with the Hindu-Tamil Nadu Assembly conflict. I am not commenting on the merits of the case though everyone that is someone has already delivered his/her judgment. The Hindu published in the first four days of the showdown with the TN Assembly 70 news stories, one edit, eight pictures, four full pages and an entire front page, all concerning the order of the Speaker. Hundreds of letters from the readers claimed separate space. The salience that the incident received in the Hindu showed that the newspaper has underestimated the power and dignity of understatement.
The readers have a claim on news space in the media, a claim recognized by the First Press Commission which fixed a 60:40 news-advertisement ratio. Accordingly, the government passed the Price Page Schedule Act. The Supreme Court later struck it down saying it was an attack on the freedom of the press. The judgment was an attack on the rights of the readers because it helped revenue-hungry newspaper barons to sell reader- space to advertisers. Some readers referred to the days of Indira Gandhi's emergency not knowing that that period was also a time of acute embarrassment for the press. N. Nisha from Chennai wrote that 'if truth-telling becomes painful to the powers that be, they should vacate the seat of power.' Nisha does not really mean what she wrote because it would mean that in the event of a clash of interest between an institution elected by the people and one that is a proprietorial body, the former should step down. It is the media that have popularized such untenable values.
We, the people, need media that provide voice to our aspirations and expectations and empower us by disseminating relevant information, media that are accountable to the society for what they publish as also what they do not. It is not anybody's argument that media should sacrifice revenues that are necessary for their successful operation. They must achieve a healthy balance between profit and their original mission. For the media to demand exemption from accountability is unadulterated conceit. Absolute freedom is absolute nonsense. Readers are the mainstay of the media and no logic can justify media betrayal of this constituency. The Hindu fallout has shown how badly readers are swayed by media rhetoric. Readers cannot get even a denial or a rejoinder published as a matter of right. The judiciary defends the freedom of the press and rarely that of the readers. Its reports show that even the Press Council is helpless in getting its judgments published in the press.