Saturday, 27 November 2010

The new moral universe?

In this new game of privatising public resources, media has to be an important ally. Only an insider can create a credible smoke-screen that makes the mafia look like the saviours. It is clear now that the media honchos have been willing and quintessential insiders, says PADMAJA SHAW

Posted Friday, Nov 26 16:13:29, 2010 on the website The Hoot

This post-Diwali season, the fireworks continue on media. Till now, we were witness to media sending up the likes of Raja and Chavan to come down in a shower of sparks, but now some of the greats of Indian journalism themselves have taken off too. Only, we don't see much of a shower of sparks. Their former colleagues and friends have closed ranks and are killing the story by ignoring it.

Just this week also marks the significant quotable quote from Mrs Sonia Gandhi about our “shrinking moral universe”. ‘Shrinking moral universe' is a good turn of phrase. Just look at the performance of the elite media on a range of issues. The real debates (whether about the economy, development, displacement or media content itself) are increasingly found on-line and not in the mainstream media.

The political and business interests in India have prised open the ‘license raj', promising to bring dynamism and efficiency to our polity and economy. Today, ‘license raj' that was like gully cricket is replaced by high stakes IPL ??" the new economy. The new economy has spawned new entrepreneurs who are aggressive, sure-footed and know how to tweak the system to deliver. The outrageous speed at which the politician-business nexus has systematically privatised public resources like land, water and spectrum over the last decade is unprecedented in independent India. The political class is giving away at throw away prices what does not belong to them. Land, water and spectrum are the wealth of the nation that belongs to the people. The surplus generated for the corporations from this bonanza is being systematically reinvested to further consolidate their hold over political power.

In this new game, media has to be an important ally. Only an insider can create a credible smoke-screen that makes the mafia look like the saviours. And it is clear now that the media honchos have been willing and quintessential insiders. Media persons have become mediators in this process. The Radia tapes are testimony to the extent to which the movers and shakers in the media are complicit.

One had the hunch about this complicity when looking at the coverage given to people's issues at other times. A leading ‘star' anchor (who is also the owner of a bouquet of channels) calls the Union Environment Minister arrogant when he took a stand on the Posco issue. The strategy for the channels has been to promote the corporate interests aggressively, resist regulation and when disaster strikes, do wall-to-wall bleeding-heart coverage. Claim TRPs. Claim most viewed status. Make fake stars out of dishonest journalists.

As part of their overall nexus with corporate power, the big media reduces the distress caused to the victims of this unsustainable development of the economy to a law and order issue. The prime minister's statement labelling the displaced people's protests as the single biggest threat to our democracy got the greatest play on corporate media. Barring a few like Outlook again, no media house had the courage to question it. Neither did the media houses ask the PM, how he would characterise the activities of his party, the ministerial colleagues hand-picked by him and the media mafia. Were they the harbingers of democracy? While the Barkha-Niira Radia story was breaking invisibly, while Madhu Koda was allowed to walk free, and Raja was cajoled into a temporary exile, only to be patted on the back by the PM a day later in public, one could see a fast moving scroll on news channels telling us that ‘Twenty ‘naxals' were shot dead'. The law, of course, will take its course in our idyllic democracy. The extreme structural violence of this system needs the extreme fair play only our deeply deliberative judiciary can provide. A few generations may live and die without food, shelter and education, but what the hell … The ‘new moral universe'.

Similar clever coverage is being given for the I&B Ministry's ruling for showing programming with adult content after 11pm to protect younger audiences. CNN-IBN brings serial producers, advertising people and film-makers to tell us about ‘freedom of speech' and ‘public opinion'. The debate was heavily loaded in favour of, ‘today's children are more mature, know everything from the net and therefore even pornography is ok on prime time. We must have choice'. The minor point of how many TV-viewing children have access to the net outside urban India is not worth dwelling on. And no one asked if there are other sources for objectionable content, is it necessary to provide it on prime time for children? (Years ago, when the Soviet Republic fell, one Western commentator hailed it as a victory for free speech because now all the Russians are free to buy and read ‘Playboy'). The channel is clearly telling us not to obstruct its profit run and its TRPs and telling us regulation is a threat to our democratic future. The new ‘moral universe'.

The signs were all there, but it would have been considered mean to crib about them. Take for instance the recruitment in major English channels. It has been rumoured for years that those with a good deal of social capital are preferred over others. If they belong to a well-connected political or bureaucratic family, the cocktail circuit, then they would have an established network of information that others would take years to build. They would also have the self-confidence to deal with the political and economic elites on equal terms. As for training, they could always be shipped to top j-schools abroad for tagging and for honing their skills (without really re-arranging the moral compass to suit the needs of journalism). Perfect arrangement. Dynamic journalism. Lay a thing or two on the old, unrealistic middle-class hang-ups about journalism.

But this arrangement didn't figure-in the personal ambitions of the new ‘journalists' coming unravelled. It takes a deep ‘moral universe' to resist all the opportunities that stare at you ??" the power to influence the most powerful in the land; the power to shut critics up; the power to bend policy to help friends in high places; each success adding to the sense of invincibility. Since regulation is anathema, here too, how far one can go was never really debated or defined. Just like the politician, instinctively one knew one had to brazen it out when caught. Public memory is short and forgiving in this ‘new moral universe'.

The crux of the issue is: In this much-celebrated democracy of ours, the real decision-makers are the corporations and the media who never face an election, who are not accountable to the people or any sovereign constitutional authority. The politicians are placed and replaced at the whims of the corporations and the media, not the ballot. The big media has for decades fooled people into believing that they speak for them. It stands exposed today as the ‘dalaal' helping to sell people's welfare to the lowest bidder (L1) among their corporate friends. The ‘new moral universe'.

Do they still deserve the right to invoke the constitutional guarantee of ‘freedom of speech and expression'? Ironically, it is the need to protect the rights of publications like Outlook that the freedom of the press has to be defended and protected. Should there be a regulation that separates wheat from journalistic chaff?