B P Sanjay
J.V. Vilanilam, 'Mass Communication in India --A Sociological Perspective,' New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005. . 223 pages, Rs. 250.
Reviewing a book with an ambitious title is problematic for it raises expectations beyond the capacity of the author. If the title pertains to Mass Communication and aims to span the entire country the imagination of the reader is let loose and he has to work hard to knit the pieces put together by the author.
Prof Vilanilam is eminently suited to write a book on this vast subject. With two doctoral degrees and an academic career in journalism and mass communication he has a few books and many journal articles to his credit. He also has the advantage of comparative exposure to the Western context from where many of the seminal ideas of the subject originate.
The title is indicative of a textbook approach but the sub-title 'a sociological perspective' makes it imperative for the author to adopt an interpretative approach. By referring to his earlier book on a similar topic, he sets out to clarify in the preface that the present book attempts a historical and sociological perspective. Commenting on the asymmetrical dispersion of the media the author admits that a substantially large number of people are not living in the wired world. Based on his observations and analysis of media performance and content in various parts of the world, including India he clarifies that he is neither a scrooge nor Luddite but believes in the power of communication for peaceful transformation.
It was odd to see the list of abbreviations precede the first chapter. Conventionally it ought to have been elsewhere or even dispersed in the text wherever necessary in the ten chapters of the book. The first chapter, Communication and Society is perhaps more illuminating than the other chapters especially from the students' view point where they can find conceptual clarity on many issues and definitions. The levels of communication and basics such as mass and journalism are sought to be explained The pyramid of communication illustrated on p. 23 while placing mass communication on the tip allows us to see the determining elements of communication that form the base of the pyramid. The span is wide enough in this chapter to introduce the students to convergence, ownership, editionalization etc. By editionalization the author refers to the multi edition dailies in India and the impact they have on content. He argues that this is a ploy to maximize revenue.
Something inherently wrong with the production of the book is that the text was very dense making it difficult to read, and the alignment of the sections and subsections was visually not appealing-an aspect that a quality book publisher ought to pay more attention to.
The remaining chapters convey the feeling of being a mixed bag. The second chapter on print media in trying to compress all the ideas ends up half chronological and half interpretative and the language newspaper section read almost like the Registrar of Newspapers report. Befitting the title one would have expected better illumination of the sociological dimension about the growth of journalism but it fails as it is confined to 2 pages only (pp 62-63). The focus then leads to colonialism and its impact on India.
The third chapter on national and international news agencies captures the global and paragraph wise description of other news agencies, including two pages on CNN. Sprinkling comments on the news agencies' agenda and their western bias highlight the problem but fail to provide a perspective on limited efforts at negotiation including the not so successful non aligned news agencies pool. The ideological counters that dominated the discussion on globals and their impact could have been a historical reference but are missing here.
The chapter on Gandhian journalism is the longest in the book. It upholds the mirror of Gandhi's principles and practices against the then and contemporary media policies. Since there are adequate number of issues to be addressed from an Indian perspective it would have been ideal had the author pursued his analysis more on India rather than making references to other countries For example the section on Indian press at Independence and Today is spread thin over just two pages 85-87 with NRS table occupying at least one page. By any standards this section deserves more space for which there is abundant material available. Subsequent sections that deal with new media and convergence make passing references to media's role during and after the Babri Masjid demolition including historian Panicker's views on media and secularism/communalism.
Editonalization is referred to again and one of the points that the author makes is interesting. He suggests that technologies adopted by newspapers for their multi edition publishing could be adapted for launching district wise newspapers. Extolling the virtues of Video Display Terminals (VDTs), Vilanilam argues: 'To begin with such technologies can be introduced in the 600 odd districts and then gradually extended to rural newspapers, radio and television stations. This is not wishful thinking provided some technology-oriented promoter of media inspired by Gandhian ideals of rural development takes up the project in each district.' (p.95). Four pages are devoted to the text of the Salzburg Declaration, which advocates Journalism as a Public Trust (pp.96-99). The arrangement of sections appears disparate as the last section in this chapter deals with Conglomeration and Concentration of ownership. The foreign pitch is more evident with occasional references to India. This critique stems from the claim in the title about India.
The chapter on audiovisual media is more historical and narrates the history of a range of media and associated technologies. The chapter on films adopts the same approach and leads to a feeling that the reader is now lost till he can recover in the chapter on radio described as the first real electronic medium. The expectation with regard to an India focus continues while the author disappoints by shifting gears. Radio's fascinating history from a sociological point of view is missing as both the colonial and Prasar Bharati phase in the book reveal less of the promised perspective in the title. The missing Keskar era for example and the classical music overtones of his radio policy are definitely indicative of the social and cultural imperatives of the era, which has been documented by other authors.
On television, described as endless parade, the author cannot help dipping into more of the history of the medium itself-a problem that pervades the book. The educational goals are recollected with references to SITE etc., Verghese and Joshi committee reports are mentioned with leads to understanding television and cultural imperialism. In four pages the author refers to portrayal and the advertising dynamics including a profile of the advertisers (pp. 160-164).
The chapter on new media is a stretched description of convergence. Despite laboring hard Indian references were hard to come by save a line or two on Internet and community television. Trends in the west seem to guide Indian journalists in the new media era and a charitable reference is made to investigative journalism (p.177). The last chapter is posed as a challenge to the 21st century. The educationist in the author speaks when he extols the Edusat project and reels off a number of initiatives that can meet the challenges of a country such as ours. When one feels redeemed with references to our context more than the others the book ends with a useful five-page glossary (pp.205-210). References and select bibliography follow with an Index section.
Reviewing a book in a nascent subject such as mass communication is daunting. We are always encouraged by the publication of books on the subject by Indian and other third world scholars. Expectations run high. While the efforts have to be recognised and appreciated it may be useful to set limits and parameters for the subject matter. Comparisons are odd but efforts by Milton Israel with regard to history of the press or more recent writings by Arvind Rajagopal or Purnima Mankekar with regard to television, and elementary but useful analysis of India's Information Revolution by Arvind Singhal or a focused approach on communication and development in third world by Srinivas Melkote come to mind for their handling of vast canvas topics.
The intentions of Prof Vilanilam are laudable in reaching out to a basic constituency. However, his energies are dissipated when he aims for a broader and complex interpretation of the mass communication scenario in India. Revisiting the title, just 'Introduction to Mass Communication' would have been better justified. It is the mismatch between the title and the contents that bothers the reader more than the understanding that the author has provided through the ten chapters of the book.
The production quality of the book leaves much to be desired. The heavy layout and less attention to illustrations strain the reader.