"Media – Most Exclusionist Institution in India"

From IPS

Interview with Palagummi Sainath

NEW DELHI, Sep 3 (IPS) – Palagummi Sainath, winner of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay award in the category for journalism, literature, creative communication and arts, believes that while India has a free press there is a growing disconnect between mass media and mass reality, arising from monopolistic trends.

In an interview with IPS correspondent Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Sainath who is widely respected for his reportage on rural issues, says that the ‘dumbing down’ process is actually pure business strategy on the part of media moguls.

IPS: How have you seen journalism evolve in India over the last 30 years or so?

Palagummi Sainath: The last 20 or 30 years have been really a process of growing concentration of media ownership. Normally, we look back at how media has been changing in technological terms, its spread and reach. But what you are also seeing is the rising clout of a very few owners that really diminishes diversity and marginalises the smaller voices in the media. The game has become far more expensive. So, the richness or diversity is dying even though the numbers are proliferating. The statistics show all sorts of growth.

IPS: What has this meant for ethical standards? Reporting should be balanced and should provide the full story, different points of view, the proper perspective, the historical, social and economic perspectives.

P.S.: Again, what I am saying is that the culture and the mindset that monopoly creates, the homogenisation, creates this situation.

IPS: In the name of being first with the news, ‘facts’ are published which may not be verified, allegations are made which may not be substantiated, and the basic duty of trying to get the other side of the story is ignored.

P.S.: This is the low end of what people are fond of calling the ‘rat race’ in the media. As far as I am concerned, the rat race in the media is over. The rats have won. These are fringe battles but they still mean a lot of damage to the credibility of the profession, to the craft and the practice of the profession. It’s just incredible, the kind of low-end competition that is there. If there is an earthquake and if the rival says 20,000 have died, nothing less than 40,000 would do for me. You have to pitch it higher than the other person.

Another way the debate is posed is “serious journalism versus non-serious journalism”. I maintain that non-serious journalism is a very serious business proposition. It is a well thought-out business strategy.

IPS: There were large numbers of farmers committing suicide in different parts of the country. For the owners of the media, the newspapers, the magazines and the television channels, what makes news is different. It was the wardrobe malfunction of the model on the ramp and not the plight of the farmer who is committing suicide or what happens to his family thereafter. Journalism is about how, as you rightly pointed out, one makes money. Therefore, you do not have readers and viewers but you have consumers. The idea is to bring the advertiser closer to the consumer. Is it not this mindset which is dominating the major media organisations in our country?

P.S.: Yes, you are right, except that I question the idea — they are not carrying what they see as news; they are carrying what they see as revenue. It is not news — the wardrobe malfunctioning is not news, it is revenue. There are many proprietors who have said so. They said so quite frankly. Journalism is a business, like any other business. Now, I do not think so. Newspapers might be a business or a part of a business. Journalism is not a business but it is a profession. I have a very different take on what journalism is. Bringing out a newspaper is a business, journalism is not.

IPS: If you look at what is happening, for many of these business houses, media is their main business.

P.S.: In fact, in India, you can speak of media monopolies. At a global level, you have monopolies in the media because media is one component, a very vital component, of much larger transnational empires. You have five or six such conglomerates in the world. You have News Corp. and you have Time Warner. Some of these corporations are into the armament business; they are into multinational banks; they are into airlines; they are making rockets. One of them is actually a part of the U.S. mint.

IPS: Is journalism a business or is it something more than a business? An Indian proprietor has gone on record saying that it is not in any way different from producing soap or toothpaste or whatever. Actually it is, because you cannot sell yesterday’s newspaper today. But you can sell yesterday’s packed toothpaste for the next six months at least.

P.S.: There is also no direct link between the price of a newspaper to the consumer and the cost of production because 90 percent of your revenue is coming from advertisements.

IPS: Whenever there is talk about restrictions on cross-media ownership, namely that one particular newspaper group or one particular media organisation should not dominate all media in a particular area, be it in print, radio or television, there is a big hue and cry. When you say that there are restrictions in the U.S. or Australia, they say there is an attempt to curb freedom of expression, a right enshrined in the constitution of India.

P.S.: This is the point. This is where fraud and hypocrisy stand out at their worst. On the one hand, in dealing with the journalist, dealing with content and dealing with the readers, you (owners) assert that journalism is a business like any other business. The moment your financial interests are threatened, you talk about freedom of press. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. If it is a business like any other business, then it has to be regulated like any other business. If it is a business like any other business, you have to have the rights and responsibilities of any other business and you do not have a special dispensation.

IPS: What can be done to uphold journalistic traditions in India, traditions that say a journalist plays an adversarial role to those in positions of power and authority? Hopefully, not all journalists in India will dumb down their audiences and there will be some good guys.

P.S.: I would be a little nastier than this. I would say that the media are the most exclusionist institution in this country. In the worst government, you have the representation of dalits (so-called untouchables), adivasis (tribals) in very important positions. Show me one dalit, one adivasi in the mainstream leadership of the media who counts for something. That is why it shows in our content. There is an absolutely hysterical, abusive attitude towards reservation issues and quota battles. It is as elitist as you can get and it is getting worse.

Leave a Reply