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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 25 New Delhi June 8, 2019

Valuable, Critical Insights into the Inner Workings of the Media in Contemporary India

Sunday 9 June 2019


by Naren Singh Rao

Media’s Shifting Terrain: Five Years that Transformed the Way India Communicates by Pamela Philipose; Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi; 2019; pages 320; Price: Rs 575 (paperback).

The character of the Indian media has undergone a radical, dramatic change in the past two decades, particularly after the advent of the new media. This change essentially is a reflection of the paradigm shift in the domain of the Indian economy, popularly known as economic liberalisation. Needless to say that with the change in the economic paradigm, the politics in India has transformed profoundly. The nexus between media, politics and business has become much more solid and murkier. The Indian society has been turned into one of the most mediatised societies in the world. Against this backdrop, the publication of Media’s Shifting Terrain is a very welcome addition to the growing body of literature on the political economy of the media in India.

The book essentially analyses the social and political impact of media proliferation and convergence which took place during the “mediatised half-decade”, that is, from the year 2011 to 2015. Philipose selects five media-fed mass mobilisations that significantly affected India’s political communication and culture and, in turn, “brought about a tectonic shift”. The five mobilisations are: the 2011 India Against Corruption (IAC) protests, the 2012 protests over the gang-rape of a young girl, symbolically known as Nirbhaya, the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi in 2013, the re-emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the national level in 2014 under the leadership of the Hindutva leader Narendra Modi, and the landslide victory of the Aam Aadmi Party in the 2015 Delhi State Assembly elections. The common thread among these diverse mass mobilisations was: the optimum use of multiple media platforms and the hyper-active role played by the media in agenda-setting and manufacturing public opinion.

The author locates the five mass mobilisations in the context of the rapidly-transforming communication sphere with its “ever widening gyres”. She points out that by the year 2011, social media communication attained an altogether different dimension since 67 per cent of the Indian people had become mobile users. The penetration of mobile connection amounted to 50 per cent, significantly higher than the traditional media such as television. On the other hand, the “global inflow” of capital invaded the “media space” in a big way. The “never-ending expansion” and influence of global internet giants such as Twitter, Google and Facebook ultimately ensured further “augmentation of media”. This, in turn, posed a challenge to both content-creators as well as the audiences. Even social thinkers and commentators also found this phenomenon quite perplexing in many ways. New media widely began to be hailed as the most intimate, instant and interactive mode of communication, transcending the socio-economic barriers. The process of content creation and opinion formation did indeed become comparatively ‘democratised’. At the same time, the same ‘democratic’ space began to give birth to the Goebbelsian monsters such as paid news and trolls.

Philipose’s analysis of the IAC campaignis quite captivating. Indeed, corruption at last became an issue, albeit without any concrete reference to its root cause, she points out. She appropriately quotes Marc Saxer who states: “Corruption became the signifier of that old system, while ending corruption signified a modernising project, one that was in consonance with the neoliberal concept of ‘good governance’. In fact, it can even be argued that the global anti-corruption campaigns should not be seen as a reaction to neo-liberalism, but as part and parcel of its agenda.” The fact remains that the media did not break any story on institutional corruption (such as the 2G scam, Delhi Commonwealth Games scam, Coalgate scam) that took place at the governmental level prior to and during the “mediatised half-decade”. Indeed, the big-ticket corruption was exposed by the actors operating in the realms of civil society. This was achieved through the citizen-activism tools including the RTI. As a matter of fact, the mainstream media initially ignored the corruption stories and, in some cases, tried to sweep them under the carpet. However, due to the overwhelming presence of the issue on social media, the mainstream, corporate-run media was ultimately compelled to pick it up and run prominently. Thereby the social media ended up acting as a catalyst to garner the “impressive convergence of media presence that marked the IAC protests”.

The Nirbhaya case, which was a paradigmatic change in the realm of the law and policymaking, reached extreme fervour through the same platforms of social media. The story of the gang-rape breached the confines of the “intra-national and international boundaries” within a short duration of time. The consistency and rigour the Indian media showed in pursuing the case is quite remarkable, given the fact that the Indian media since independence always relegated gender-based violence stories as “soft news”. Philipose meticulously analyses as to why this particular case became so significant at a time when so many unreported cases of rape were taking place across the country. She insightfully points out that the protesting urban middle class could relate to Nirbhaya’s case due to the minute-to-minute coverage (of Nirbhaya’s deteriorating health) mediated through the social media. By that time, the IAC protest had already given an impetus to the concept of public protest. However, the author remains critical of the media and holds that the role of the media was essentially meant to cater to their own “requirements of market consolidation”.

Specifically, the author has devoted two full-fledged chapters to the elaborate coverage provided by the mainstream media to the then cults-in-the-making, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal. There is no doubt that through “media framing” the mainstream as well as social media projected Hindutva leader Modi in an unprecedented, unabashed, shameless and highly problematic manner. In turn, the media “in their variegated avatars” played the role of “an empathetic sutradhar in propelling Modi onto the national political stage”. The 2014 elections witnessed a “quantum leap” and since this juncture the nature of election campaigning has changed once and for all. It is a matter of record that all the elections that have taken place since the 2014 General Elections were essentially premised on the creation of “hyper-partisanship” through the most sophisticated use of media platforms and technologies. Philipose remarks: “When hundreds and thousands of demonstrators converge at a particular spot in real time through Facebook posts and live television coverage; when newspapers get their leads from tweets put out by demonstrators ring-fenced by police; and when an election campaign speech at a rally in rural Madhya Pradesh reaches multiple audiences through WhatsApp, we are talking about radical transformations in the way converged media content is being transmitted, received, negotiated and acted upon in India.”

Surely, the dramatic change in the media space is significantly transforming the process of mediatised political communication in India. In the age of “communication conundrum”, this book is a remarkable initiative towards bringing together seemingly disparate incidents and establishing the missing link, thereby making sense of the symptoms of the “spiral of mediatisation”. This shifting terrain seems to be the precursor to a potentially massive “tectonic change” in the Indian media sphere.

It is worth mentioning that though Philipose views the Indian media through the prism of the politics of mediatisation, she does not at all essentialise the role of the media. She does acknowledge the limitation of the media’s role in societies such as India which are primarily marked by a “great homogeneity of communities”. Conclusively, Philipose holds that the adoption of “modular media practices” is a dangerous trend which has a potential to “hollow out democratic politics”, and related to this is a “major conundrum that is inherent in many mediatised societies: technological inclusion is easier to achieve than social inclusion”.

In a nutshell, the book offers valuable, critical insights into the inner workings of Indian media and fast-transforming politics in the age of mediatisation. Indeed, it is a must read for anyone who wants to make sense of the unfolding of the economic liberalisation in the age of “post-truth”.

The reviewer is a Delhi-based media academic.

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