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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 48, November 19, 2011

I am the Electronic Media

Monday 21 November 2011, by Badri Raina

America, as you might know, has the Rifle Association. Nobody, but nobody, Republican or Democrat, may touch it. For the reason that the USP of American democracy is that an American citizen, preferably all White, may fire away at any real or imagined threat to the safety of his person or property. The American Constitution, good Republicans think, was drafted with the singular purpose of ensuring this right, both at home and abroad.

Well, India now has her own answer to this. Born some forty odd years after India’s independence from colonial rule, India’s private-corporate electronic TV channels have over the two decades of neoliberalism come to be established, with complicit aid from the state, as the Indian Rifle Association. Holy cow, rogue elephant, mythical albino pachyderm that everybody seeks and fears, it has come to be all of these. And it is the untouchable-from-above that rarely ever notices the untouchable-from-below.

Upto this day, this animal that traverses across the plethora of channels a spectrum of production from the occasionally sober and urbane to the habitually sectarian, tendentious, jingoist, gauche, superstitious, reactionary, callously exploitive of base instincts and illiteracies, and obliteratively noisy, remains formally unaccountable within the institutional arrangements of Indian democracy, answerable only—as some very senior Indian journalists recently pointed out in a talk show—to a handful of private paymasters. In its recent fulminations against “corruption”, for example, the secret fount of corruption was rarely mentioned, namely, the corporates who crony upto political and bureau-cratic allies that may do their dirty work.

Even as they routinely scream to hold all state institutions—the political class, the bureau-cracy, the judiciary, the state-apparatus—accountable, India’s electronic TV channels remain blissfully and shamelessly outside the ambit of any regulatory mechanism, unlike the print media who are overseen by a Press Council of India, however conciliatory and toothless thus far.

BUT now, something seems set to change. The new Chairman of the Press Council of India is a recently retired judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Markandey Katju. And as he did while he was on the Bench, he means business.

The good old Nehruvaian socialist that he is, as well as one who has a nasty courage of intellectual and political conviction, Katju has been expressing what some polls have shown to be a majority view that the Fourth Estate cannot by any stretch of constitutional arrange-ment be deemed to be above the decencies that must always be observed in public discourse, or above the livelihood concerns that affect and inform the existence of some three-fourths of all Indians, concerns that but rarely ever surface among the coverages of these channels, except now and then as token offerings. Nor may it be permitted the carte blanche to exhibit slanted presentations of events that betray allegiances contrary to one of the “basic structures” of the Constitution, namely, secularism. Equally, the channels cannot be allowed to hold this party or that guilty, often in denigrative and abusive terms, before the courts have so pronounced them.

His proposal to the government of the day that the electronic channels also be brought under the ambit of the Press Council of India evoked upon the instant the predictable howl that Katju is not interested in any rational discourse on the issue of regulation but is simply desirous of gagging the Fourth Estate as it was gagged by the Indira Gandhi Government in 1975.

Another instructive historical instance of how a power-structure that acquires the character of fascist domination cries the loudest for democracy whenever its totalitarian hold is sought to be questioned or brought in line with answerabilities that apply everywhere else.

And often accompanied by resonant ironies as Katju has now underlined. Writing to the News Broadcasting Association, Katju has asked its Secretary, N.K. Singh:

“I would like to know whether the Association is willing to be placed under the Lokpal, which is proposed to be set up in the winter session of Parliament. You seem to be reluctant to come under the Press Council. Are you also reluctant to come under the Lokpal?”

Further:

“You claim the right of self-regulation. May I remind you that even judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts do not have that absolute right. They can be impeached by Parlia-ment for misconduct. . . Lawyers come under the Bar Council and their licence can be suspended or cancelled for professional misconduct. Similarly doctors come under the Medical Council, chartered accountants under their council, etc. …In the recent Anna Hazare movement, wide publicity was given to it by the media. What is the demand of Anna Hazare? That politicians, bureaucrats, judges, etc. should all be placed under the Jan Lokpal Bill. By what logic do you claim to be exempt from being placed under the Lokpal?. . .You claim the right of self-regulation. By the same logic, politicians, bureaucrats, etc. will also claim the right of self-regulation. Or do you claim to be so doodh ka dhula (cleansed by milk) that you should not be regulated by anyone else except yourself? What then were paid news, Radia tapes etc.?” (The phenomenon of “paid news” was uncovered first by that doyen of journalists dedicated to the causes that affect India’s hungry and exploited millions, P. Sainath; it involves politicians paying for sponsored copies of adulation but appearing as news, especially during election times. (See The Hindu, November 9)

These, you might well think, are pretty unanswerable posers that the electronic media houses will predictably seek to meet with self-righteous rhetoric on behalf of democratic principles for which they give not a fig in the first place. Most will stoop, in real life, to however low they must in order to pick up that Television Rating Point (TRP).

In the days to come, therefore, despite the many discussions that may take place on the theme—and not all disingenuous—Katju must expect a concerted gang-up for his ouster from Chairmanship of the Press Council of India. If the real purpose of the Anna Hazare-led putsch, as I have argued more than once, is to oust the government at the Centre that seems chary of jettisoning its social-investment orientations in favour of further reforms calculated to increase private wealth, the corporates, the very same ones who bolster the Anna drive, will also leave no gold-leaf unturned to ensure that this new ominous Katju tendency with respect to their captive hold on the electronic media is nipped in the bud. Pitiful are those senior employees and anchors among these channels who will not but continue to make strident assaults on the state so long as their own slavery to the corporates they serve remains well-paid.

And the hope that a majority of Indians who everyday suffer the inflictions of these channels, often as charmed zombies, and who sympathise with what Katju seeks to do may come out in considerable and visible support must be discounted for now.

To those who are hard put to think where their next miserable meal may come from, the Katju cause, however sane and laudable, will seem not of an order of concern that may relegate bread-and-butter issues. That bread- and-butter issues may indeed be inherent in the Katju concern about privately-owned electronic media may also seem a thought remote from quotidian cognisance.

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