In about the year 1985, I was having dinner with two friends in the Chung Wah restaurant, off Chittaranjan Avenue in central Calcutta. We had been undergraduates together in Delhi in the 1970s; now, a decade later, we were in our first jobs, I as an academic, the other two as journalists. We spoke, among other things, of our current projects. One of the journalists said he was working on a story about chemical pollution, caused by a plant owned by a large industrial house outside the city. The other journalist wondered if that was a good idea. Remember, he told his colleague, that your magazine and my newspaper both depend on advertisements from companies such as the one you propose to investigate. Why then cause offence to them and/or embarrassment to your editor?
I remembered that conversation when reading a recent cover story in a Delhi newsmagazine about threats to press freedom. The cover announced that the media were under attack from all corners, the onslaught recalling the dark days of the Emergency of 1975-77. The hyperbole was characteristic; too many people now see in any arbitrary act of the Indian State echoes of the notorious Emergency.
The main story in the magazine looked critically at a bill sought to be introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Congress MP, Meenakshi Natarajan, which, if passed, would have given the State sweeping powers to ban coverage of national or international events, to levy massive fines on newspapers who violated the ban, and even to withdraw their licenses. Other attempts to gag social media were also itemized and deplored.
The Indian State does indeed inhibit the free flow of news in very many ways. Archaic, colonial-era laws permit it to ban books, magazines, and even maps that offend one or other State functionary. The State’s paranoid attitude in these matters is also reflected in the ban on private radio stations carrying news bulletins. Community radio, a participatory and emancipatory medium that has deeply enriched democratic functioning in many countries (including Nepal) is made unfeasible in India, because the law does not permit, say, a radio station run by a village panchayat in Jharkhand commenting on corruption in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme.
The State regulates and curbs the media in more specific ways as well. Mamata Banerjee is not the first, nor shall she be the last, chief minister to stop giving government advertisements to newspapers that may, for entirely sound reasons, have been critical of particular policies of her government. Individual ministers in both the states and in the Centre are known to have instructed their department to favour, in the matter of government ads, certain newspapers rather than others. Some have gone further, sending party goons to physically harm reporters who dared write less than flattering reports about their department or their government.
State interference in the media is often arbitrary and sometimes excessive. The cover story in the newsmagazine was therefore welcome, but I was struck by the fact that in seven or eight closely printed pages, there was only one short paragraph dealing with what, in the India of today, may be as important a threat to press freedom as State intimidation — namely, the distortions in the free flow of information imposed by large and powerful corporations.
Consider, for instance, the phenomenon of ‘paid news’, whereby periodicals reproduce PR handouts from companies extolling their achievements as if they were neutrally reporting the ‘news’. Some papers have gone so far as to sign private treaties with companies, getting a share of their stock in exchange for favourable coverage on the news pages.
Paid news is a direct, even brazen, form of media corruption; but private firms also distort the news in more subtle, understated, ways. Back in the 1980s, following popular movements such as the Chipko and Narmada Bachao Andolan, there was a wave of media coverage of environmental issues. Outstanding reporters such as Anil Agarwal, Kalpana Sharma, Usha Rai, Darrly D’ Monte and others wrote fine reports and essays on the social and economic impacts of deforestation, soil erosion, air and water pollution, and the like. In the 1990s, however, when liberalization became all the rage, several newspapers cut back on their environmental coverage, very likely as a result of pressure from advertisers. One Delhi newspaper, known in the 1970s and 1980s for the quality of its grassroots reporting and for its independent views, became an unofficial spokesman for the Confederation of Indian Industry. Other newspapers laid off their environmental reporters or sent them to cover the stock market instead.
Like ministers, corporations also withdraw advertisements from newspapers or channels that have run stories critical of them. However, they do so without issuing loud threats. The withdrawal may sometimes be followed by a quiet phone call to the editor or proprietor, who — in more cases than we should be happy to acknowledge — sues for peace, by chastizing the offending reporter and/or promising not to transgress in that direction again.
In the India of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the press may have been excessively hostile to big (and small) business. Entrepreneurs were then seen as greedy, grasping creatures, who contaminated the dream of a socialistic India. Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. There is, in the English-language media at any rate, a reverential, almost worshipful, attitude towards private entrepreneurs, the worship increasing proportionately to the subject’s wealth.
Striking in this respect is the very different attitude of television anchors to politicians and businessmen. Cabinet ministers and major Opposition figures are sharply, sometimes savagely, interrogated — as they should be. On the other hand, those who own or run large corporations are never asked tough questions. ‘Sunilji’, the anchor purrs, sweetly, the manner of address making it manifest that this‘interview’ is nothing more, or less, than an extended exercise in ego massage.
An illustration from personal experience may serve to show how deferential towards big business sections of the English media have become. I was out of the country from January to March this year, in which time I logged on to ‘Google News’ every morning to keep abreast of what was happening back home. But it was only when I returned that I discovered that the company run by India’s richest man had, when I was away, bought a large stake in an influential media house. One would have thought that there would have been some serious scrutiny about what this meant for the indepedence and integrity of the press. If there was, it seems to have escaped me. My cynicism was deepened when, in the time since I have been back, several magazines have run sycophantic stories about the wife of India’s richest man (now also India’s newest media magnate), depicting her as a paragon of beauty, compassion, and wisdom, as (so to say) combining the best qualities of Mother Teresa, Amartya Sen, and Princess Diana. Ironically, one of these puff pieces was carried in the very issue of the Delhi periodical that compared Meenakshi Natarajan’s bill to the actions of V.C. Shukla and Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency.
To be sure, there remain some independent voices in the media, journalists and columnists and editors who do not, in the search for truth, brook interference either from the state or from private industrialists. The journalist friend who, back in 1985, wished to write about chemical pollution still labours away, honourably. Thirty-five years in the profession have not dimmed his passion nor sullied his integrity. Among his recent pieces of work are a report to the Press Council on paid news, and a film on the mining mafia in Karnataka.
What, however, of the other journalist at that Chung Wah luncheon table, who suggested that advertisers should have a say in which stories could or could not be printed? That preternaturally prudent young man is now, in middle age, a Rajya Sabha MP of the Bharatiya Janata Party.