The Mystery of the Godi Media

Curiously enough, the mainstream media does not make money out of propaganda. What, then, is driving this phenomenon in Indian journalism?

'Akhand coverage—Ram is Coming': a billboard from 'India's No.1 news channel' (file photo)
'Akhand coverage—Ram is Coming': a billboard from 'India's No.1 news channel' (file photo)

Aakar Patel

In 2014, India became familiar with the phenomenon of ‘godi media’, a phrase coined later by the Magsaysay Award-winning journalist Ravish Kumar. It refers to media playing lapdog to the prime minister, whose name rhymes with Godi.

In his book a few decades ago, American scholar Noam Chomsky wrote that the media in democratic nations was not really independent and did not simply perform the task of ‘informing’ the public. In particular, he highlighted situations where overreach by the state saw the media engaged in what he called ‘manufacturing consent’ in favour of the government and various business interests. He defined a model where the mass media are ideological institutions putting out propaganda, without overt coercion, being reliant only on market forces and restricted only by self-censorship.

The defining aspects of such a model were the following:

  • first, that media was owned by corporate interests;

  • secondly, that its revenue model depended on advertising;

  • thirdly, that the government made it ‘dependent’ — by giving access only to a select few pliant reporters and anchors and by withholding licences;

  • fourthly, that this compromised and pliant media then marginalised dissent and attacked the political opposition, acting as a government mouthpiece;

  • and finally, that it created ‘bogeyman’ distractions that took attention away from real issues.

As may be noted by alert readers, all of these conditions apply to mainstream media in India. Per some of these parameters, such as licensing and advertising, our media is even more dependent than those in the West.

Having said that, it is quite revealing to see that the revenues of India’s six listed news media companies have not risen in the last decade. The total sales of these companies in 2014 was Rs 6,325 crore and the total in 2023 was Rs 6,691 crore. The total profits in 2014 were Rs 761 crore and in 2023, they in fact fell to Rs 254 crore.

Adjusted for inflation, these six listed companies (which represent some of the nation’s largest news channels and newspapers) are now half the size they were in 2014.

So the question really is: Why is the godi media acting against its own interest? They have not only made no money, nor benefitted their businesses, but have actually shrunk.

There are several reasons that are obvious.

One stems from the nature of media having changed in the last 20 years. Online advertising now takes a large share of the revenues, and most of this is money that goes to just two companies, Google and Meta (Facebook, and not Instagram too).

The other reason is that the economy has not been in good shape, particularly the part of it related to consumption.

Neither of these factors is in dispute. However, I felt that to understand what was going on, I should speak to people actually working in these media groups. I asked each of them four questions:

  • What incentives are there for channels to back the government and attack the Opposition?

  • To what extent are news channel operations dependent on advertising (and other favours) from the government?

  • Do ratings generally indicate audience preference for content that is communally polarising over that which might be conventional news?

  • Do ratings indicate audience preference for journalism that bolsters and justifies the government?

The answers I got were interesting.

To the first two questions, the replies were that “If there were ways to make money, media would find a way to do so with a taller spine” and that “Political pressure is not the No. 1 cause; it is the broken revenue model”. The ‘broken model’ refers to the shrinking of the media revenues that we have noted above.

Another reply was that “Revenue from the government has become dependency to a large extent, given falling revenues overall”, and one cannot antagonise the hand that is feeding one.

Another reason is that large parts of the media are now owned by magnates like Adani and Ambani, for whom the media is a side business and serves a larger purpose.

On the second set of questions, related to content, they said that there was no evidence to suggest that divisive or communal material received more TRP ratings compared to other stories, but nor did material that was polarising lead to a dip in viewership — meaning that it was acceptable to the audience. Sometimes, however, what was in the news at the moment saw ‘pick-up’ when it was broadcast as hate speech.

For instance, when the government associated Muslims with the Covid-19 pandemic, it triggered a slew of coverage that alleged Muslims were deliberately spreading the coronavirus.

My interlocutors also said that the overt majoritarianism under Modi has produced a condition where “existent bigotry is given a platform to be amplified”, as many channels now show.

Interestingly, since there was no evidence to show that supporting the government and attacking the opposition produced higher viewership or was even popular, there must be another motive for doing so.

This was the feedback when I asked insiders why the godi media was doing what it was doing, and I hope it helps readers understand the phenomenon a little more.

But now, finally, the 2024 election results mean that the opposition can no longer either be ignored or attacked in the way that it has been. For this reason, it will be interesting to see how the media behaves from here on — whether there even is any change in its behaviour.

One hopes that there is, because as a journalist, one has been witness to what has been undoubtedly the worst and most shameful phase of Indian journalism.

It is a phase that we need to put behind us for the betterment of our democracy, our politics and our society.

Views are personal. More of Aakar Patel's columns can be read here

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