|Degrees of deception|
Antara Dev Sen
In his recent interview with Pakistan’s President General Musharraf, television personality Prannoy Roy pointed out that the General was "a great communicator" who lives "in a state of denial". His method of dealing with a problem is to deny that it exists. He denied that there was cross-border terrorism or that Pakistan was ever involved in the Kargil war in Kashmir, and later admitted to both. He denied that there were Al Qaeda members in Pakistan, then several of them were arrested in the country. "Isn’t it better to just accept reality and then discuss a problem, rather than deny it?" asked Roy. The General, who had been smiling charm- ingly through all this, invoked the ever-dependable phrase used as much by politicians as by journalists: national interest. "There are grey areas, and national interests have to be kept in mind," he smiled kindly. This denial is part of every country’s strategy for guarding their own national interests, he clarified, and went on to imply that there are different answers for domestic and international consumption, especially in situations like India and Pakistan. But it’s difficult to have a dialogue if you are busy denying that the problem exists, countered Roy. You have to be diplomatic, said Musharraf, dead serious by now.
He was right. Words are not always to be taken at face value; we have learnt to read between them to figure out what lies beneath. Deception and denial inform all areas of life. It is particularly obvious in politics because it is so high-profile, like its incestuous cousin, journalism. Between the two, they are capable of causing enormous damage, if they escape detection.
Playing to your constituency is a basic tenet of both politics and journalism, and as constituencies change, so does the message. In media, such double standards become pretty clear if you compare the regional press with the national press. They respond to the same situation with completely different stories. Or you find that the national press is silent on what the regional press is screaming incessantly about. Or vice versa. Or maybe it’s the same story, but with different slants.
English versus other Indian language media
This is also true for the English language media versus other Indian language media. Take the case of Gujarat last year. The most influential chunk of Gujarati media was strictly backing the state government’s anti-Muslim line, inflaming passions against minorities and playing to the Hindu galleries. It was the English press and some television channels which took a stand against that sectarian wave by relentless coverage of the carnage, responsible reporting, sensitive handling of stories and visuals and highlighting the administration’s role in not containing the violence. The role of these news channels and the English press at such a time of crisis must be lauded, but it would be rather simplistic to conclude that all Gujarati newspapers have a deep Hindu bias while all English publications are wonderfully secular. The basic nature of a market-driven enterprise cannot be ignored — it plays to its constituency. And there are two reasons why their constituencies differ.
First, because deep within the sunless folds of the language beats the hidden heart of the nation. The language carries its own values, the comforting fam iliarity of its age-old prejudices. Whatever we may have done over the last two centuries with the language of the British to make it ‘fully’ Indian, it fails us when we need to quickly and mindlessly sink into the depths of our vestigial fear of the ‘other’. Second, the message is contained within the language constituency, and English has no regional base. The only ‘national’ language, English opens up the message to a pan-Indian, maybe even an international, audience. It has its uses, and it has its dangers.
Politicians have thrived on this difference for ages, shifting between regional and national agendas with natural ease, assisted and protected by the language barrier within media. Appealing to the lowest common denominator is best done through basic instincts. The grooming and preening can be done for the educated and aware English-speaking handful later. But now this doublespeak is threatened — there are too many recorders and cameras, too many journalists in national and international media poking holes into the sheltering sky of language and regional constituencies.
In short, though there are several exceptions in both categories, by the very nature of their language and audience, the English language media is generally smarter and more secular than other Indian language media. Also, because most Indian newsmagazines are fashioned after Time and newspapers after The Times of London or The New York Times, occasionally The Guardian (unless it was actually set up by the British, like The Statesman). From format to design to editorial style and even content, our publications have been deeply inspired by the press overseas. But does that make English language media squeaky clean and ethical? Not really.
New agendas for old
Newsmedia has never been without an agenda. In any democratic country, its aim has largely been to inform and educate, to create reasoned public opinion and thus strengthen the democratic process. So agenda-setting has always been a part of journalism. But the agenda changes in step with changing socio-cultural priorities. That’s why journalism’s code of ethics is important. As in any country, in India the news providers are mostly male, middle-class, urban, from privileged backgrounds and dominant religious groups — and the voices they project reflect their prejudices. This perpetuates stereotypes that become the norm and are widely followed by female, non-urban, non-middle-class, non-Hindu media producers as well. This prejudice, which is prevalent in every sphere of public life, has a devastating power over the lives of individuals. It could be about religion, like when after last year’s carnage in Gujarat, the Police Commissioner was busy explaining on national television how the police were human too, how as Hindus they were also affected by the inhuman Godhra incident where Hindus were burnt alive, so they couldn’t contain the violence that followed against Muslims. No significant follow up on this comment was noticed, maybe because it was part of a larger disbelief of and deep distrust for the administration and its motives.
Add to that the demands of the market and political and economic power groups, and you get media that is largely exclusionary, elitist, aspirational and self-centred. As Noam Chomsky had pointed out years ago, "what appears, what doesn’t appear, the way it is slanted, will reflect the interest of the buyers and sellers, the institutions and the power systems around them." Chomsky and other scholars have alerted us to the dangers of corporate conglomerates and monolithic media corporations, which pursue a narrow profit-driven agenda and stifle democracy. In India, different media houses own various regional and national media. So, although cross-media ownership (like the Times of India owning an FM radio channel or India Today owning the television channel Aaj Tak) on a large scale may be a danger at some point, and the concentration of media power in the hands of a few — which is happening around the world — remains a potential threat to the democratic process, at the moment that is not the biggest worry. Our immediate danger is in losing ourselves to the demands of the market and the politics of the day — something that individual media houses individually choose to do. And smaller voices may die out, perspectives may be lost, sensitivities trampled on.
In pursuing profit, mass media needs to understand what the audience wants. My point is that we do not try to understand — we just steal what seems to be a winning formula. We look up to the Western models of television and print media and unquestioningly copy their design, their style, their language and their subject areas, even their pretty women. But needs differ from culture to culture, from region to region, from user group to user group. And here, rather than reflecting the market, the English language media creates one: a market for a Eurocentric, escapist, aspirational, feel-good culture. This is part of the new trend of news as entertainment that has been perfected in India over the last decade. Homogeneous media programming driven by light entertainment, politics and sensationalism leads to a systematic lack of information that is necessary for a healthy democracy. Especially since society is not a homogeneous whole, certainly not in India. This is where commercial media becomes deceptive. Because we choose our own target audience — and for English media it is a demographically small group in the intricate texture of the Indian socio-economic canvas — and pretend that they constitute most, if not all, of society.
Treating these narrow target groups to their kind of news and passing it off as all the news that’s fit to print leads to a systematic silencing of the voices that fall outside that group. This in turn undermines democracy and enhances the lack of understanding of the ‘other’.
Antara Dev Sen is editor of The Little Magazine. She lives in Delhi