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11157Fwd: [karmayog] P Sainath on the Media's compulsion to lie

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  • Thiagarajan Arunachalam
    Mar 5, 2014
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       | Feb 18, 2014 in Criticles 

      “Journalism is the service of power. Either state power, money power or more increasingly the service of corporate power. Alex Carey summed it all up years ago when he wrote, ‘The 20th century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance – The growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.’”

      This is how P Sainath, the Keynote Speaker at “Zeitgeist” – a media conference –organized by St Xavier’s College Mumbai began his talk on “Structural compulsions of the media to lie”.

      Many in the audience only knew of him as the “Nero’s Guests guy”. Others knew him as the Rural Affairs editor of The Hindu. Only a few had any idea about his contribution in exposing corruption in the media. At a time when the integrity of many journalists is in question, the lure of Sainath’s unquestionable commitment to social causes and rural journalism had also brought many aspiring journalists to the session.

      Sainath started his talk with a bitter critique of the coverage a recent Supreme Court verdict got from the media. One day before the conference, the SC had upheld the validity of the Justice Majithia Wage Board. Considering that this matter affected journalists in the print media in a big way, MrSainath alleged that most newspapers, with the exception of Mint, had reported the news with a bias – they only reported a newspaper owner’s point of view, completely ignoring their employees. When I checked, I found that DNA had also reported it fairly – although it is correct that some major newspapers failed to report or highlight this case.

      Sainath said, “Managing Director of Bennett, Coleman and Co. once told New Yorker magazine ‘We are not in the newspaper business. We are in the advertising business.’ A General Manager of the same company said, ‘You can call us an equity fund with significant holdings in the media.’ These guys are on record telling you they aren’t here to serve your journalistic ideals, they are here in the advertising business!”

      Moving on to another Supreme Court case that the media rarely reports on (if it does so at all), Sainath spoke about the presence of paid news. He said that although paid news is not merely an election time phenomenon, the 2009 elections were an indicator of how deep the rot is. Advertising revenue, instead of shooting up, had gone down. “No one wanted to buy ad space when you could buy news instead!” he said matter-of-factly. “During that election, I decided that I will to go and live in Nanded, our former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s constituency. After examining his election expenses, I found it was the cheapest place on earth.MrChavanorganised a Salman Khan rally for Rs 4000. That man won’t cut a ribbon for that much money ordinarily. Now his advertising expenses were Rs 6000, but that was very cute considering I had collected over 150 pages of his ads.”

      The case against Chavan’s indulgence in paid news went on for four years without most newspapers reporting a single word about it because many media houses were involved in it themselves.Lokmat (owned by Vijay and RajendraDarda of the Congress), Maharashtra Times (Times Group),Pudhari and Deshonnati were among the major newspapers of Maharashtra who had published “news” about Chavan. All of them were sent notices, asking them whether the material was paid for. They obviously denied it.

      “The defense lawyer, Mr Abhishek Manu Singhvi (no surprise there) has only one argument in the case now: The election commission has no jurisdiction over the candidate’s accounts, apart from the timing of filing of accounts”, informed Sainath. In effect, what Singhvi (Congress Member of Parliament) is arguing is that the EC cannot challenge the declared accounts, regardless of their veracity. “Do you think your media has served you well in telling you about this? Do you think it’s a serious lapse on the media’s part?That’s because there are structural compulsions to lie.”

      Sainath claimed that the “structural compulsions” began with the advent of “private treaties”. For the uninitiated, private treaties are agreements under which a media house picks up an equity stake in a company in return for media coverage through advertisements, news reports, or advertorials in print or TV. As a result of such deals, there is an obvious conflict of interest when newspapers begin to report on companies with which they have entered into private treaties. “The danger with this was that the money was notional because it was in shares. Everybody did brilliantly until the twits on Wall Street screwed it up for everyone. Suddenly, the newspaper world was holding millions of shares worth zilch! This is when the newspaper world had had enough and decided to indulge in large-scale paid news. This isn’t merely about corrupt journalists, it’s an organised mafiosi industry – it’s extortion.”

      Sainath systematically took apart the facade of objectivity and journalistic ethics of Indian newspapers, and the media industry in general. “The media are no longer a bunch of pro-corporate newspapers. They are the corporates. They are the big business.” The coverage of the AamAadmi Party in Delhi is a case in point. According to Sainath, the media’s treatment of AAP changed diametrically once the political party started hitting at corporate corruption, through their stance on electricity tariffs.

      The four fundamental changes in recent times that have impacted the media, in his view are: 1. Media houses turning into big business. 2. Big business buying huge stakes in the media. 3. Politicians buying into media houses. 4. Media owners entering into politics in a big way. “To put it gently, we are in deep, deep crap”, he said.

      Sainath did offer some advice on how to fight these fundamental problems. He exhorted the audience to financially support and subscribe to alternative news sources and media. He stressed on the fact that great journalists had always come from the dissidents and never from the establishments. There is limited space in the mainstream media for such dissidents. If journalists want to rebel, they must occupy that space and try to expand its boundaries. “Your media was created by the freedom struggle. It belongs to you.”

      For most present in the Hall that evening, this Keynote address was a breath of fresh air. We are in an age where public speakers indulge in pure rhetoric without any focus on substance, but Sainath has the rare ability of finding the perfect balance between oratory and content. He inspired many students that evening to pursue journalism as a career. In the words of Vanessa Vaz, a First Year student, “His passion is contagious. One is provoked to ‘push their boundaries’”.Prakriti Bhatt, another attendee was quite astonished after hearing from an insider about the dirty underbelly of the media.  “It’s shattering how the Fourth Estate of our democracy can be so hollow and deceptive. The importance of reading between the lines and not relying on a single news source is something that I have realised today”. Despite all the ominous predictions Sainath had for the media, another student, Kartikeya Agarwal said, “I left with one idea that he stressed on: ‘news may be a commodity, but journalism is a calling’.”