In the by now tedious cliché, India, with a population of 1.22 billion (122 crores) and with an elected parliament, is supposed to be the largest democracy in the world. The relation between democracy and size is problematic. In small communities, voters can be presumed to have some personal knowledge of both candidates and issues arising from their life experience. But democracy in such communities in India is, to put it very mildly, slight. The various Panchayat systems set up to implement the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments are deprived of either significant jurisdiction or even minimal resources, and in most cases both. The sole exception is in West Bengal, where the Panchayat system was created fifteen years before the 73rd Amendment, and developed into real — if flawed — organs of local self-government. In consequence panchayat elections in West Bengal alone in all of India are truly serious matters and, as we are at the time of writing painfully aware, reflect a democracy increasingly overshadowed by gangsterism and force. But, for the rest, “democracy” amounts to periodical electoral exercises where the electors choose among candidates and programmes not on the basis of their personal knowledge or life experience but on information received from the media. If such democracy is to be meaningful, the first condition is that reasonably accurate information must be available.
But the ground realities show that the ingredients of meaningful democracy are in very poor shape. To be sure, official documents do not admit this. For example, in the case of literacy — a relevant element if is to be assumed that electors are making informed choices based on print sources — the Census figure for literacy is 65.4 per cent of the population aged seven and above. However, this figure merely reflects the replies given by households to the question “How many persons in the household are literate?” It does not reflect whether they actually are able to read. A study by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, carried out in four Hindi-speaking states (Rajasthan, U.P., M.P., and Bihar) compared the responses to queries using the Census approach with the results of a reading test. By the Census approach literacy of the 20,000 sample was 68.7 per cent; but by the reading test only 26 per cent could read properly. Another 27 per cent could read only parts of the test material, or took recourse to sounding syllables before putting together words. The remaining 47 per cent could not read at all. This qualifies the importance of the raw number of publications, which is indeed by world standards substantial. As per the Registrar of Newspapers for India, the total number of registered publications as on 31st March 2011 was 82,222, which includes 14,508 newspapers. From a geographical perspective, the largest number of publications — 13,065 — were registered in the state of Uttar Pradesh followed by 10,606 in Delhi.
Increasingly critical are radio and television. Radio blankets the nation. In case of TV channels, MIB has, as of 20.12.2012, permitted 848 TV channels. As per an industry report, total TV households in India were estimated to be 15.5 Crore at the end of year 2012. Assuming that each household consists of 4 adult members, the reach of television is around 62 Crore. Thus, the reach of the television media in the total population of the country — in view of the literacy figures set out above — now exceeds print. Digital media as a source of information is still limited to a relatively privileged minority, and primarily reflects information generated by print and television.
The crude total number of publications, radio stations and television channels might give an impression that the mass media do fulfill the preliminary conditions for democracy. But in fact it is reasonable to say that the mass media is dominated by less than a hundred large groups or conglomerates, which exercise considerable influence on what is read, heard, and watched. The propaganda power of media barons is the crucial fact that confronts all justifications of our political reality on grounds of “democracy”. In addition, a large section of people believe that journalists can not only highlight their problems, but can also redress them. In the struggle for social justice, we must therefore face the problem of the media right from the start.
Robert W. McChesney has rightly said:
The problem of the media exists in all societies, regardless of their structure. A society does not approach the problem with a blank page, but the range of options is influenced by the political economic structure, cultural traditions, and the available communication technologies, among other things. . . . Media are at the center of struggles for power and control in any society, and this is arguably even more the case in democratic nations, where the issue is more up for grabs.
This central problem of the media, especially after adoption of neo-liberal policies by the ruling clique, cannot be understood if delinked from political economy.
In this context, of importance is the report submitted by the Standing Committee on Information Technology to the Parliament in May 2013 on “Paid News”. The introduction sets out that “[t]he trend of presenting the advertising content, that is paid for, as ‘News’ is a serious and damaging fraud on the innocent audiences/readers/viewers/public. It not only undermines/threatens the democratic process but also affects financial/stock/real estate market[s], health, industry and is also a tax fraud. However, according to the News Broadcasters Association it is just a question of ethics.” Quoting from the Press Council of India (PCI) Sub-Committee Report outlining the genesis of “Medianet” and “Private Treaties” phenomena:
In the 1980s . . . the rules of the Indian media game began to change. Besides initiating cut-throat cover-price competition, marketing was used creatively to make Bennett, Coleman Company Limited (BCCL) one of the most profitable media conglomerates in the country. . . . The media phenomenon that has caused considerable outrage of late has been BCCL’s 2003 decision to start a “paid content” service called Medianet, which, for a price, openly offers to send journalists to cover product launches or personality-related events. . . . Besides Medianet, BCCL devised another “innovative‟ marketing and PR strategy. “The Private Treaties” scheme pioneered in the Indian media by BCCL involves giving advertising space to private corporate entities/advertisers in exchange for equity investment — the company officially denies that it also provides favourable editorial coverage to its “private treaty” clients and/or blacks out adverse comment against its clients.
The Sub-Committee Report said:
At the end of 2007, the media company boasted of investments in 140 companies in aviation, media, retail and entertainment, among other sectors, valued at an estimated Rs 1,500 crore. According to an interview given by a senior BCCL representative to a website (medianama.com) in July 2008, the company had between 175 and 200 private treaty clients with an average deal size of between Rs 15 crore and Rs 20 crore implying an aggregate investment that could vary between Rs 2,600 crore and Rs 4,000 crore. . . . In advertisements published in the Economic Times and the Times of India celebrating the success of the group’s private treaties, on December 4, 2009, the Mumbai edition of the newspapers published a half-page colour advertisement titled — “How to perform the Great Indian Rope Trick” and cited the case of Pantaloon. What was being referred was how Pantaloon’s strategic partnership with the TOI group had paid off. The advertisement read: “. . . with the added advantage of being a media house, Times Private Treaties, went beyond the usual role of an investor by not straining the partner’s cash flows. It was because of the unparalleled advertising muscle of India’s leading media conglomerate. As Pantaloon furiously expanded, Times Private Treaties (TPT) ensured that (it) was never short on demand. The TPT has a better phrase for it — business sense.” . . . On July 15, 2009, Shri S. Ramann, Officer on Special Duty, Integrated Surveillance Department of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) wrote to the Chairman, Press Council of India, Justice G.N. Ray, observing that many media companies were entering into agreements called “private treaties” with companies whose equity shares are listed on stock exchanges or companies that were coming out with a public offer of their shares. The media companies were picking up stakes in such companies and in return, were proving coverage through advertisements, news reports and editorials.
The PCI is a quasi-judicial body with no punitive powers.
TRAI’s “Consultation Paper on Issues relating to Media Ownership” noted that “a number of corporate sector entities are entering the media sector. Corporates can use media to bias views and influence policy making in a manner so as to promote their vested interests while generating business revenues for themselves. This has led to emergence of large media conglomerates where single entities/groups have strong presence across different media segments.” The groups listed are Sun TV, Essel Group, Star India, Ushodaya (Eenadu), India Today, The Times Group, HT Media, ABP Group, Bhaskar Group, Jagran Prakashan, Sakkal Media, Malayala, Manorama Group, D.B. Corporation Group, Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group and Asianet Communications.
Some recent deals documented by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta merit attention:
On January 3 2012, the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) — India’s biggest privately-owned corporate entity with a turnover of Rs. 2,58,651 crore in the financial year that ended on March 31, 2011 — announced that it was entering into a complex, multi-layered financial arrangement that involved selling of its interests in the Andhra Pradesh-based Eenadu group founded by Ramoji Rao to the Network 18 group headed by Raghav Bahl and also funding the latter through a rights issue of shares. The deal will make the combined conglomerate India’s biggest media group, according to Bahl — bigger than media groups such as STAR controlled by Rupert Murdoch, and BCCL controlled by the Jain family.
On May 19, 2012, the Aditya Birla group announced that it had acquired a 27.5 per cent stake in Living Media India Limited, a company headed by Aroon Purie. Living Media acts as a holding company and also owns 57.46 per cent in TV Today Network, the listed company that controls the group’s television channels (Aaj Tak and Headlines Today) and a host of publications (including India Today).
On December 21, 2012, Oswal Green Tech, formerly Oswal Chemicals & Fertilizers, acquired a 14.17 per cent shareholding in New Delhi Television in two separate block deals from the investment arms of Merrill Lynch and Nomura Capital.
According to research conducted by Dilip Mandal and R. Anuradha, published in Media Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2011), the boards of directors of a number of media companies now include (or have included in the past) representatives of big corporate entities that are advertisers. The board of Jagran Publications has had the managing director (MD) of Pantaloon Retail, Kishore Biyani, McDonald India’s MD Vikram Bakshi, and leather-maker Mirza International’s MD Rashid Mirza, and also the CEO of media consulting firm Lodestar Universal India, Shashidhar Sinha, and the chairman of the real estate firm JLL Meghraj, Anuj Puri. The board of directors of HT Media, publishers of Hindustan Times and Hindustan, has included the former chairman of Ernst & Young K. N. Memani and the chairman of ITC Ltd Y C Deveshwar. Joint MD of Bharti Enterprise Rajan Bharti and MD of Anika International Anil Vig are a part of the TV Today’s Board of Directors. The board of directors of DB Corp (that publishes Dainik Bhaskar) includes the head of Piramal Enterprises Group, Ajay Piramal, the MD of Warburg Pincus, Nitin Malhan, and the executive chairman of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, Piyush Pandey. NDTV’s Board of Directors has Pramod Bhasin, President & CEO of the country’s biggest BPO company GenPact as a member of its board of directors.
Regarding content, separate study is needed but a few points may be noted. In the case of India, media empires have had to adjust their strategies to suit the Indian context. The Murdoch STAR TV realized that its mainly American oriented programming was only reaching a tiny, although wealthy, urban audience. It therefore started adding Hindi subtitles to Hollywood films broadcast on its 24-hour channel and dubbing popular U.S. soaps into Hindi. In October 1996, STAR Plus began telecasting programs in English and Hindi. In 1999, it claimed 19 million viewers in India and it has grown greatly since then. United States multinationals McDonalds, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Coca Cola and the like have extensively used the information and communication technologies to promote their junk food culture, using popular personalities in India. Most of the Indian television space is now occupied by U.S. soap operas, reality shows and cartoons.
This grim reality of control of all but marginal media by a small group of corporate plutocrats, combined with programming in which the superiority of U.S. cultural imperialism is an ever present tacit assumption, is presented as freedom of press. We also want freedom of press but in a totally opposite and higher sense. To quote Marx:
The free press is the omnipresent open eye of the spirit of the people, the embodied confidence of a people in itself, the articulate bond that ties the individual to the state and the world, the incorporated culture which transfigures material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealizes its raw material shape. It is the ruthless confession of a people to itself, and self-viewing is the first condition of wisdom. It is the mind of the state that can be peddled in every cottage, cheaper than natural gas. It is universal, omnipresent, omniscient. It is the ideal world, which constantly gushes from the real one and streams back to it ever richer and animated anew.
As McChesney observes,
Marx opposed state censorship categorically. Concurrently, Marx was aware from the outset that the existence of a free press under the regime of private property was in jeopardy as a result of its being turned into a business. “The first freedom of the press consists in it not being a trade. . . But is the press true to its nature, does it act according to the nobility of its nature, is it free, if it is degraded to a trade? The writer, to be sure, must earn a living in order to exist and be able to write, but he must in no way exist and write in order to earn a living.”
News media markets have invariably tended toward concentration in the hands of the largest owners of capital as is the present trend in India, have afforded the owners tremendous political power, and tended to marginalize the voices and interests of the poor and working class. The life and death struggle of the poorest, of tribals, of desperate indebted small owners, of brave but propertyless community activists against the imperialist corporate rape of the environment in which they live such as the POSCO struggle, are near absent. What is most relevant to the lives of the majority does not appear. Under these circumstances the claim to be the “largest democracy” amounts to fraud.
To curb the corruption in Indian media, the Parliamentary report has recommended a number of steps but the question of free press has not been addressed. This is a vital question which needs to be immediately debated and discussed. McChesney in the concluding paragraph of his paper “A Real Media Utopia”, presented at the 2012 Annual Conference of the American Sociological Association usefully sets out:
Nations without a quality free press are prone to what has been termed “crony capitalism”. . . [I]n the realm of really existing capitalism the highest priority appears to be the protection and promotion of profit-maximization (and those who immediately benefit from profit maximization) … [above] all else, crony-style or not. At any rate, media struggles will be inextricably linked with battles over the nature of the economy going forward.
Both for those who believe that Indian democracy can yet be brought back from terminal decay, and those who believe the struggle must move on to new and higher forms of democracy, understanding, confronting, and changing the reality of media in India is an immediate necessity.