Changing role of Mass Media
Through the history of Indian media, commercialisation of mass media over the years has affected its credibility. Media in the olden days covered topics of importance to the masses in greater depth
Soon after the printing press came to India in 18th century, there were efforts to start newspapers. Initially, the British residents in India started the weeklies and then dailies. For example, the first newspaper, The Bengal Gazette, in India was published on January 29, 1780 by James Augustus Hicky, which came be popularly known as Hicky’s Gazette. Gradually, the number increased and Madras, Bombay and Delhi became the centres of publishing newspapers and magazines by the mid-19th century.
Of course, the first newspapers were published in English language, but soon Indian language newspapers also appeared. Samachar Darpan (1818), published in Bengali, was the first newspaper in an Indian language. The Bengal Gazetti, the second Bengali newspaper, appeared in the same year. The first Gujarati newspaper Bombay Samachar started in 1822 and was published from Bombay. The first Hindi newspaper, the Samachar Sudha Varshan, began in 1854.
Soon newspapers and magazines appeared in Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Telugu, and many other vernaculars. The British lumped all Indian regional languages and called them as ‘vernaculars’. The word ‘vernacular’ was often used to demean Indian languages and the press was looked at with suspicion. The vernacular press was considered as more rebellious and needed to be controlled.
However, the real change came after the ‘great war of independence-1857’, when a large number of Indians started producing newspapers and magazines. Reformers, politicians and underground resistance groups found advantage in spreading their ideas through printed books, pamphlets, newsletters and journals.
The British government always was more worried about regional language press and brought Vernacular Press Act of 1878 to curb their freedom. This act came to known as ‘Gagging Act’. Gradually, entire media had to be controlled because of its symbiotic relationship with the freedom movement led by Indian National Congress. In 1909, Newspaper Act was passed and then again, within two years, the Indian Press Act 1910, which had all draconian feature of Vernacular Press act of 1878, was passed. This act was again revised in 1931. All these acts were driven by only one objective - suppress the voice of rising people.
Freedom movement and mass media
Speeches of Gandhi and other leaders of Indian National Congress, trial of Bhagat Singh and his associates in court, the murder of Chandrashekhar Azad, resolutions passed during sessions of Congress, Quit India Movement (1942), Dandi March (1930), Poorn Swaraj (1929), are but a few examples when despite repeated bans even the leading newspapers and magazines of that time gave wide coverage to these events.
In fact, the day after Bhagat Singh and Rajguru threw a bomb and pamphlets in the House of Legislative Council (today’s Parliament House), Hindustan Times carried the entire text of the pamphlet on the front page. Soon, there was a ban put on even printing Bhagat Singh’s or Rajguru’s photograph in any newspaper or magazine.
By the time the British Government woke up, the damage had already been done. The text of the pamphlet had reached every nook and corner of the country. There are thousands of examples where the press had used highly creative and timely methods to help resistance movement to grow.
Demise of old business model
As the number of private channels increased by late nineties, the old business model started developing cracks. Channels competed with each other for advertisements, but to get advertisement from the industry, they had to show their TRP rating. In order to increase TRP, wide visibility of the channel was the basic requirement. The visibility depended upon the local distributor.
Therefore instead of collecting money from the local distributor, TV channels started paying, or bribing them to ensure local distributors showed their programmes. In fact the competition became so vigorous and messy that some channels bribed local ‘cablewalas’ to blackout the rival channels.
Since then, India has changed a lot. In fact, today’s ruling party was accused of blocking telecast of NDTV India and recently it was raised in Parliament that a programme against Prime Minister Modi was disrupted by ABP news channel itself, and two senior journalists were later forced to leave the channel.
But going back to the past, the power to make a TV channel inaccessible or accessible to the viewer now rested upon the local distributors. The result was that survival of a TV channels, now, did not depend upon subscription money, it solely depended upon advertisement. Soon, corporate houses saw an opportunity and entered the business of distribution, those who were called middlemen or cablewalas were completely wiped out. The corporate became the middleman. These days, we are quite familiar with the names such as Tata Sky, Dish TV, Airtel Digital TV, Videocon and Reliance Digital TV, etc. When a local person does business, he or she is called middleman making undue profits and therefore should be eliminated, but when a corporate house becomes middleman, they are called pillars of economy.
The private sector advertisements & products being advertised, including private education and health, can only be consumed by middle and upper middle classes
Who chooses the readers
The advertising money is not a value-free donation. It is given to a newspaper for a purpose and the purpose is to reach potential buyers of those products, which are being advertised. A cursory look at any popular English newspaper tells you that most of the advertisements are published by the state and central governments. If we look at the private sector advertisements, the products that are being advertised, including ‘private education’ and ‘private health’, can only be consumed by the middle and upper middle classes. Therefore, on a media channel, there will always be a pressure from both the advertisers, government as well as private sector, to choose 100 citizens who are potential purchasers of their products.
But the pressure will not stop there. The two major advertising agencies will also set boundary conditions on the nature of news coverage. On the one hand, the private advertisers will not tolerate any news coverage against their interests and on the other hand, government and the ruling party will also tighten the noose whenever the media channel criticises it or speaks against its policies. If we have understood the fact that the choice of the readership is restricted by political and economic interest, let us also look at the nature of news coverage. Naturally, the news coverage or articles will also be restricted to the likes and dislike of targeted readers. Let us call this targeted reader or viewer as ‘the third player’.
The Government and corporate houses will have a tendency to control all five senses of the reader or viewer, but ‘the third player’ has his own likes and dislikes, aspirations and ambitions, and desires and needs. The media channel will be forced to mediate between the advertisers and the third player. If there is a democratic government, the media channels will have far more freedom within the boundaries set by inherently restrictive model. However, a fascistic government led by persons like Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, will allow no breathing space to any channel. Even asking questions will be construed as and attack on the ruling leadership. The media will be completely asphyxiated. It will be undeclared emergency.
Under fascistic rule, there will be an increasing tendency to bribe, buy, threaten and even kill the journalists. Crony capitalist, in their zeal to support the favourable politicians will purchase as many media channels as possible and directly control them. Hire those who toe the line and fire those who don’t will become order of the day. Independent and professional journalism will become a dangerous act. This is what we see happening in the news channels in today’s India.
Even under democratic rule, suicide of farmers, workers protest, Adivasis’ struggle for protecting their land, problems of government schools and colleges, rising unemployment, escalating prices, mob lynching are the issues that are covered only when they start affecting middle and upper middle classes. The classic example is recent coverage of an attack on a car in Delhi by ‘kawariyas’. Every one knows that ‘Kawariyas’ who go to Haridwar to fetch water on foot, in large numbers, carry cricket and baseball bats. They play havoc on route in small towns and villages. Year after year they have attacked shops, markets, religious places and individuals. It has become a ritual and people living in localities near the ‘Kawar route’ are scared and keep away from them. Such news is normally completely blacked out in the mainstream media. It is only after they attacked a middle class family in Delhi and clips of incident went viral, the ruling classes woke up. They felt that their security is threatened now. Thus the incident was given wide coverage in mainstream newspapers.
Why news at all?
Some one can turn back and ask a question, if I am arguing that the major objective of a modern day news channel is to advertise, then why do they publish news at all and waste space (in news papers) or time (in TV or radio channels). They can do away with the news and publish only advertisement and save the cost. The answer is that if they do not publish or telecast news or films, songs, serials, etc. the reader or viewer will not subscribe the channel. Let us not be under illusion that the objective of mass media is to ‘entertain’, ‘educate’ or ‘inform’ the viewer per se. The primary objective of corporatised mass media is to inform viewer or reader is to inform what products are on sale. The news and other programmes are only a hook to catch eyeballs. This compulsion comes from the reader or viewer not from advertisers.
If there is a democratic government, the media channels will have far more freedom within the boundaries set by an otherwise inherently restrictive model
Where is the hope?
Today corporatised media is a prisoner of its own business model, therefore, I place no hope in the mainstream media channels, but there are thousands, if not lakhs of small newspapers and magazines that are published in every part of the country. Some of them are registered, most are not. They run on personal money, as was the case during freedom movement. They are born and die in quick succession. There are thousands of examples that individuals or small groups, disenchanted with mainstream media, take initiative, collect money and start a magazine or a weekly or a daily newspaper, they run it for some time and then they run out of resources, the publication dies. Some of them are just an issue-based publication, when the issue dies they are also closed.
Let me use the analogy of boiling water. If we imagine that the society is a container and the media is like water boiling in that vessel. Then the un-evaporated stable water is like mainstream media, which has a fixed business model and will not raise peoples issues, but there are thousands and thousands of bubbles, which appear to be dancing on top of it. Each bubble occupies small space and lives for a short period of time. But at any given point of time there are thousands of them and together they occupy the entire surface.
I am sure that the issues of common citizens, poor and marginalised will keep the cauldron of social conscience boiling and there will always be large number of local newspaper, magazines, pamphlets and now a days social media groups and web-channels which will defy and challenge the dynamics of corporate model of mass media. These local efforts will never be at the base of the pyramid as some intellectuals believe and suggest, they will always occupy the top surface of mass communication.