In the mid-1970s, a small Left-wing publishing house in London produced a slim volume entitled The Big Red Joke Book to coincide with the Christmas sales. However, instead of the usual repertoire of anti-capitalist jokes, it was a scintillating collection of the black humour that resonated through the erstwhile Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact countries. The sharpness of the humour and the underlying note of profound disgust clearly suggested that all was not well in the socialist paradise.
Black humour has invariably served as a symbolic, but impotent, protest of people exasperated with their rulers. In totalitarian societies, they are probably the only instruments of subterfuge available to a disenfranchised people. However, when black humour starts assuming epidemic proportions in the democracies, they suggest a steady build-up of anger and frustration. Indeed, they are often more revealing of the public mood than the made-to-order opinion polls that are routinely trotted out in the media.
Over the past fortnight, as the Indian rupee defied the stern warnings of the finance minister, P. Chidambaram, and the silent stare of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and began its steep southward descent, the social media (which remains mercifully unregulated and insulated from the blandishments of the Bharat Nirman lollipops) has witnessed an epidemic of irreverence. On Rakshabandhan Day last week, it was suggested that the rupee should tie a rakhee to the US dollar with a plea: Mera raksha karo [Please protect me].
Nor is the parlous state of the national currency the only cause of concern. Earlier this week, the talk in the Central Hall of Parliament, arguably the capital’s most favoured destination for tittle-tattle and gossip, was all about an online petition to the prime minister imploring him to rename the state of Haryana Jamai-ka. It reminded me so much of the ditties around the Bofors gun that used to do the rounds in the last months of Rajiv Gandhi’s dispensation when the conventional wisdom of the chatterati was that the Congress would return to power with a ‘reduced majority’.
If the national disgust with a government that has made a proverbial dog’s breakfast of a promising economy, it may well be asked, is so profound, why is it not reflected in the media? Why was the focus so deftly shifted this week from the likely cost of the food security bill to the national exchequer, to 30-minute court bulletins on Sonia Gandhi’s well-being? Why wasn’t the United Progressive Alliance chairperson’s imperious comment about not being concerned where the money came from as long as it came buried in the fine print? Why wasn’t the finance minister’s pathetic attempt to palm off responsibility for the mess to his predecessor in Rashtrapati Bhavan not the subject of intense editorial scrutiny? Indeed, why are the UPA chairperson and the finance minister (but, curiously, not the prime minister) treated as holy cows? Why is the coverage of the Jamai- ka episode so perfunctory and mealy-mouthed, and why isn’t there a greater insistence on the Haryana government and a corporate house to be transparent?
The social media, particularly the hyper-activists on Twitter, would like us to believe that what are called the MSM (mainstream media) are horribly compromised and totally lacking in integrity. In the past, I used to discount these conspiracy theories as an unfortunate by-product of people who are unaware of how the media actually works. I still try to maintain my faith in the innate goodness of the Fourth Estate, but that is increasingly becoming an intellectual challenge.
In the past, the seamy underside of the media was most in evidence during elections. The issue was not of political bias. There is nothing resembling absolute objectivity in political reporting, and even the ‘quality’ publications of the most evolved democracies are never loath to reveal their subjective preferences, depending on their larger editorial world view. The problem was with a phenomenon that has come to be called ‘paid news’. You just have to talk to any politician involved in election planning to realize the pressure that is brought to bear upon parties and candidates to buy what are euphemistically called ‘packages’.
In plain language, this involves securing lavish and favourable coverage for a handsome consideration. Mercifully, the Election Commission has cottoned on to this blatant misuse of democratic freedoms and has driven the business of ‘paid news’ underground. But it still persists, and will continue to persist until the political class musters the courage to say, “Publish and be damned.”
In today’s depressed economic climate, the issue of subversion has assumed a different complexion. The media, contrary to public misconceptions of being a ‘mission’, is a commercial proposition and subject to the same laws of economics that govern other enterprises. The past three years have witnessed India’s growth rate plummeting from an encouraging eight per cent to below five per cent. This, coupled with the curtailment of liquidity and the rise in interest rates, has led to the assumptions on which the media based their future planning going totally awry. Some media houses have coped with the downturn through a combination of belt-tightening and an exploration of new opportunities. But others have not been so nifty in coping with adverse economic circumstances. They are in serious crisis resulting from over-extension and indebtedness. It is this dire predicament of the industry as a whole that has made it vulnerable to manipulation and pressure.
Let me illustrate the problem with an example from Delhi. The national capital boasts a multitude of daily newspapers in different languages. On my part, I subscribe to seven dailies and one is delivered to me free of charge. This Wednesday, which happened to be a public holiday on account of Janmashtami, I perused all eight of these Delhi editions for their advertisement content — the main revenue source for the print media. Four of the eight were entirely dependent on display or tender advertisements of either the government (both Central and state) or public-sector enterprises. Only three of the eight dailies had a healthy contribution of private sector advertisements in addition to the ones issued by State bodies.
The methodology of assessment may not be entirely scientific, but I think it indicates a growing distortion in the media: their over-dependence on subsidies from the State. Expressed more cynically it suggests that there is an increased willingness — perhaps involuntary and triggered by market conditions — to be more accommodative to the concerns of the government. And what is true for the print media is even more applicable to the electronic media, where news-gathering expenses are higher and the operating losses even more significant.
At one level, this crisis may lead to a greater corporatization of the media, a trend witnessed in other parts of the world. However, this is likely to be a long-drawn process and may even be resisted with restrictive government legislation. But, in the short term, we are likely to witness two parallel trends. First, there will be an increasing involvement of entrepreneurs who seek to use their stake in the media as a form of political leverage. This is already happening in the states and in mid-sized towns all over the country. Secondly, a beleaguered government will increasingly use its financial clout to influence both the tone of news dissemination and the hierarchy of what constitutes news.
In such a situation, black humour may well become a much more relevant index of the popular mood.