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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 13, March 16, 2013

Political Bias of the Media in Bengal: A Sociological Perspective

Wednesday 20 March 2013

MEDIA

by Arani Basu

Bengal, the epicentre of many political upheavals affecting the nation’s democratic trajectory, has always had a very strong media1 capturing the voice of dissent and public opinion on issues affecting the citizens of Bengal in particular and India in general. However, the relationship between the media and politics in Bengal per se, has undergone huge transformation over the years; in which the role of the media ranges from being a platform for people’s causes to one of a mindless mouthpiece of the govern-ment. Thus, the political bias of the media in Bengal is not a nascent feature; nevertheless, one has to acknowledge the shifts in its nature and concerns.

The media’s political inclination and biases were essentially driven by the political elite of the State of Bengal during the 1970s, which gradually tilted towards the economic elite right after liberalisation (in the 1990s), especially with a growing nexus of interest between the two categories. This study is an attempt to analyse the theoretical paradigm that captures the dialectic relationship among the media, society and politics. For doing so, two political events—the political Emergency of 1975-77 and Assembly elections 2011—have been selected, as they capture the changes in the nature of the media’s political bias in Bengal over the last four decades.

I. Media and Politics in Bengal:

A Brief Overview 

The first newspaper in India—Hickey’s Bengal Gazette—was published in Kolkata in 1870. The year 1818 marked the beginning of Bengali journalism with the birth of Samachar Darpan—the first newspaper in the Bengali language published by Serampore Mission press on May 23, 1818. The first Bengali daily to adopt modern methods of production was the Basumati (1880), edited by Krishna Kamal Bhattacharya. In 1922 came the Ananda Bazar Patrika, followed by its English counterpart, Hindustan Standard, and Jugantar in1937. Post-partition, Bengali papers suffered due to loss of a good part of their readers in the new East Pakistan, that is, present-day Bangladesh. However, the biggest challenge for journalism and the media in Bengal and the whole of India in general came during 1975-77 when the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, declared political Emergency in India.

During India’s political Emergency, the media in Bengal witnessed hitherto unprecedented press censorship on the one hand, and an upsurge of newspapers including The Statesman, Amrita Bazar Patrika, Hindustan Stanard, Ananda Bazar Patrika, Jugantar, Basumati, and Satyayug on the other. The Statesman, Hindustan Standard, Ananda Bazar Patrika and Satyayug were largely critical of the Congress Government both at the State and Central levels, while Amrita Bazar Patrika, Jugantar and Basumati tilted towards the govern-ment. Calcutta came second after Bombay to have a radio station in India during 1927; the first television station in Calcutta (Doordarshan) started in 1975. Both Doordarshan and Aakash-vani were fully government controlled and became a strong platform to voice the govern-ment’s opinion.

In June 1977, the Left Front led by Jyoti Basu, uprooted the Congress and stormed into power in Bengal. In the early 1980s three new newspapers entered the marked—The Telegraph (1982), Aajkal (1982) and Bartaman (1984). Apart from these, the CPI-M started their mouthpiece in Bengali Ganashakti and CPI started Kalantar; in 1992 Sambad Pratidin entered the media parlance in Bengal.

Soon after this, Bengal saw a boom of electronic channels from the early 1990s due to the liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation (LPG). Doordarshan was the first to launch an infotainment programme called Khash Khabar; followed by private news channels like Tara News, ABP Group’s Star Ananda (now known as ABP Ananda), and Zee Group’s 24 Ghanta. By 2011, there were about 15 satellite television channels broadcasting Bengali news. The Left Front’s downslide in Bengal during the Assembly Election 2011 marked a watershed in the history of Bengali politics and the media. The Trinamul Congress (TMC) had already picked up their pace from 2006 which gradually led to a bi-party situation in Bengal. As a result, the electronic media also came to exhibit a bi-polar nature—with ABP Ananda supporting the TMC, 24 Ghanta being pro-Left. News channels and newspapers in Bengal almost turned into mouthpieces of these two major political parties especially during the pre-election period in 2011.

II. Media-Politics-Society Inter-relation:

The Sociological Perspective 

Marxist Approaches to Media and Communication 

There have been several variants of Marxist-inspired analysis of the modern media, merging into the present-day ‘critical political economy’. (Murdock and Golding, 2005) The question of power is central to Marxist interpretations of the mass media. While varied, these have always emphasised the fact that ultimately they are instruments of control by and for a ruling class. (Murdock and Golding, 1977:15) Marxist theory posits a direct link between economic ownership and the dissemination of messages that affirm the legitimacy and value of a class society. These views are supported in modern times by the evidence of tendencies towards greater concentration of media ownership by capitalist entrepreneurs (Bagdi-kian, 1988, McChesney, 2000) and by the much correlative evidence of conservative tendencies in the content of the media so organised. (Herman and Chomsky, 1988) Marxist media research includes the analysis of representation in the mass media (for example, political coverage or social groups) in order to reveal underlying ideologies. (Chandler, 2007) In fact, revisionist versions of the Marxist media theory in the 20th century concentrated more on ideas than on material structures. They emphasised the ideological effects of the media in the interests of a ruling class, in ‘reproducing’ the essentially exploitative relationships and manipulation, and in legitimating the dominance of capitalism and the subordination of the working class. (McQuail, 2010)

In the case of Bengal, Marx’s observation regarding the ownership issues is highly relevant. Whether owned by the state, as during the Emergency period, or by big business barons today, newspapers and news channels have been often co-opted by the owning class. During the Emergency period, newspapers were often barred from reporting against the government; though several newspapers expressed political affiliations quite overtly, the content and message of news was largely decided by the Congress Government alone. On the other hand, during the Assembly Election 2011 in Bengal, newspapers like Ananda Bazar Patrika and Bartaman exhibited their non-Left sentiments very openly, whereas Ganashakti ardently supported the Left Front Government. However, the difference between the nature of the media’s political bias during the two periods here is this: most of the media houses today are owned by the business barons with high political connections. Therefore, political bias in the case of the 2011 Election stemmed not from the media’s political affiliation only, it is now also about the political and economic inter-relations that decide upon what makes news. Next, depending upon the nature of political bias in the media in Bengal, one can read the Marxian analysis of the media as a superstructure—voicing only the message of the rulers. If in the Emergency period it was only about pro- and anti-government, now it is also about the economic elite who have emerged as a crucial decision-maker in a democracy.

Jurgen Habermas: The Frankfurt School 

Jurgen Habermas (2006), one of the pioneers of the Frankfurt School of ‘critical theory’2 saw media and politics as integral to the communi-cation system in the public sphere. According to him, the centre of the political system consists of the familiar institutions: parliaments, courts, administrative agencies, and governments. At the periphery of the political system, the public sphere is rooted in networks for wild flows of messages—news, reports, commentaries, talks, scenes and images, and shows and movies with an informative, polemical, educational, or entertaining content. These published opinions originate from various types of actors—politicians and political parties, lobbyists and pressure groups, or actors of civil society. (Jay, 1973; Hart, 1991) They are selected and shaped by mass-media professionals and received by broad and overlapping audiences, camps, subcultures, and so on. From the spectrum of published political opinions, we can distinguish, as polled opinion, the measured aggregate of pro or con attitudes to controversial public issues as they tacitly take shape within the weak public. These attitudes are influenced by everyday talk in the informal settings or episodic public of the civil society at least as much as they are by paying attention to print or electronic media.

There are two types of actors without whom no political public sphere could be put to work: professionals of the media system—especially journalists who edit news, reports, and commen-taries and politicians who occupy the centre of the political system and are both the co-authors and addressees of public opinions. (Habermas, 2006) Mediated political communication is carried on by an elite comprising of lobbyists,advocates,experts with professional or scientific knowledge, moral entrepreneurs and intellectuals. Together with the journalists, all of them join in the construction of what we call “public opinion”, though this singular phrase only refers to the prevailing one among several public opinions. Public opinions are hard to pin down; they are jointly constructed by the political elites and diffuse audiences from the perceived differences between published opinions and the statistical records of polled opinions. Public opinions exert a kind of soft pressure on the malleable shape of minds. (Habermas, 1993, p. 26) Thus, Habermas’ recognition of the two fundamental elements of the political public spheres, that is, politicians and journalists, hold relevance for this study. During the Emergency, journalists and politicians shared certain camaraderie or disharmony, depending on the political equation they shared; however, during the 2011 Assembly Election it was observed that a third factor playing havoc in determining the level of amity between journalists and politicians was that of financial power.

Jean Baudrillard: Simulacra and Simulation 

Baudrillard has built his whole post-1970s theory of media effects and culture around his own notion of the simulacrum. In Simulacra and Simulation (1994), Jean Baudrillard states that no longer have we a relationship with that which is ‘real’, but that our experiences and actions are based upon simulacra. According to Baudrillard, simulacra refer to signs without a reference in the real world; such a sign only gains its meaning through mutual dependence—as a copy without an original. Therefore, we are living in an era of ‘hyper-reality’, a simulated reality in which distinctions between reality and illusions are blurred. In our cultures we take ‘maps’ of the reality like television, film etc. as more real than our actual lives. Now these ‘simulacra’ or hyper-real copies dominate our lives; the ‘real’ empire lies in tatters but the hyper-real map is still unbroken.

In The Precession of the Simulacra (1981) he argues that in a postmodern culture dominated by television, news media, films and the internet, the whole idea of a true or false copy of something has been destroyed: all we have now are simulations of reality, which are not any more or less “real” than the reality they simulate. So, the news we watch on television becomes more ‘real’ to us than the non-media physical reality that surrounds us, in our day-to-day life. Similarly, in The Ecstasy of Communication (1987), Baudrillard discusses how we surrender ourselves in an ‘ecstasy of communication’, to the seductive power of the mass media—television, magazines, newspapers and advertisements.

Baudrillard’s theory of simulation can be incorporated here in this context to understand how the media’s political bias eventually shapes public opinion, and in turn, contributes back to the production of further political bias by the media. However, in this case, distinction between the political bias between the Emergency and 2011 Assembly Election in Bengal is not one of difference in nature but of degree or scale of bias. Simulation works better with technology, the more complex and advanced the technology, the stronger and longer is the effect of simulation. In 1975, Bengal had newspapers to simulate its readers’ minds, which was less obtrusive as the latter could only see letters and no visuals. Therefore, the political bias that a newspaper would project would retain only a part of the message in the reader’s mind. On the other hand, due to globalisation there is no dearth of news channels in Bengal today. therefore, in the 2011 Assembly Election, the media’s, especially the news channels’, political bias was much more easier to reinforce as it involved visuals that could be edited.

Noam Chomsky: Propaganda Theory

In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (2010), Chomsky and Edward S. Herman first suggested the propaganda model in which they described five editorially distorting filters applied to news reporting in mass media—a) Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation: the dominant mass-media outlets are large firms which are run for profit; b) The Advertising Licence to Do Business: since the majority of the revenue of major media outlets derives from advertising (not from sales or subscriptions), advertisers have acquired a “de-facto licensing authority”; c) Sourcing Mass Media News: Herman and Chomsky (2010) argue that “the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidise the mass media, and gain special access (to the news), by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring and producing news; d)Flak and the Enforcers: Flak refers to negative responses to a media statement or programme (for example, letters, complaints, lawsuits, or legislative actions), flak can be organised by powerful, private influence groups (for example, think-tanks), the prospect of eliciting flak can be a deterrent to the reporting of certain kinds of facts or opinions; and e) Anti-Communism: Chomsky argues that since the end of the Cold War (1945—91), anti-communism was replaced by the “War on Terror” as the major social control mechanism.

Later, in his much celebrated book Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda (2011), he mentioned that state propaganda, when supported and backed by the ‘intelligent, educated’ classes which, as he suggests, includes the media, can have a big effect. Further, propa-ganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state, as Chomsky (2011) opines. In a democratic state, the technique of propa-ganda changes; thus the bludgeon, represented here by the State and its immediate functionaries, uses the media to communicate its logic clear to the rest of the people, namely, the citizens. Thus, again, it is the common people who succumb to the ‘democratic dogmatisms’ as they fail to figure them out.

Chomsky brings out the essential features and inner crisis of a representative democracy here. In case of Bengal, the State that once used ‘democratic dogmatism’ (the Emergency period of 1975) to communicate their decisions to its citizens, is now largely supported and often replaced by the profit orientation and advertising licence of the owners of media houses (the Assembly Election 2011). Whether it is the government or business barons, it is the general public who are the receiver of concocted, biased and filtered news content that Chomsky elaborates through his propaganda model.

III. Media-Politics-Society: A Sociological Analysis 

The media, mostly represented by newspapers during the Renaissance period in Bengal, began its journey as a voice of the common people; newspapers would continuously encourage and inspire the general public to raise their voices against the atrocities of the British rulers. However, gradually newspapers and news channels came to constitute a crucial instrument for the state to consolidate its decisions and impose them on the people—a classic example is the imposition of state-induced censorship on the media during the Emergency period in Bengal. Next, as the Marxists observe, the media in Bengal has shifted from a zone of pro-mass to one of pro-class. The post-L-P-G period has witnessed a sudden mushrooming of newspapers and news channels on one hand, and a merger between the State’s economic and political elite on the other. It is the commonality of the vested interest of the politico-economic elite duo that decides the fate of the State and its role today; since we live essentially in a knowledge economy, information and news break and make demo-cracies.

It is in this context that Chomsky’s propaganda model becomes highly relevant. Today, news is edited through various editorially distorted filters to meet the private interests of the business barons and power-monger politicians in Bengal. During the 2011 Assembly Election, newspapers and news channels would print and broadcast the manifesto of only that political party which the former support for their own interests. Therefore, voters would remain confused as to which political party to trust; however, here Habermas opines that even if opinions are formed within the public spheres, it is ultimately the individual voter who decides the fate of each vote. On the other hand, it would be relevant to bring Baudrillard’s concept of simulation here. Courtesy globalisation, the media is digitalised to the extent that all the information we receive today is simulated. Therefore, television broadcast is easily edited to suit the purpose of the owners of the news channel; what we see is never what it is. Thus, the media’s political bias in Bengal today is of a distinct nature and temperament, very different from what we had during the Emergency period when there was no globalisation.

Also what is specific about the media’s political bias in Bengal today is that of the emergence of a new genre of elite—the media elite (Litcher, Rothman, Litcher, 1990)—hybrid of what Pareto and Mosca (1939) called the economic and political elite. Mills (1956) took the theory forward to blur the difference between the political and economic elite by using the term ‘power elite’, a term that includes the economic, political and military elite—primarily in the American society. Here in the case of Bengal, it is the media elite that have emerged to replace the military elite.

To conclude, Bengal represents a peculiar case where the media, once epitomising the freedom of speech and expression, has come to constitute essentially the voice of the powerful today. As a part of the superstructure, or as a mouthpiece of the government machinery, the political bias of the media in Bengal thus calls for extensive sociological engagement for capturing the emerging trends in its manifestation of political bias in the State.

List of Selected References

Books 

1. Baudrillard, Jean, 1994, Simulacra and Simulation, The University of Michigan Press, Michigan.

2. Bottomore, Tom, 2000, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Blackwell Publications, New Delhi.

3. Chakaravarty, Debashis, 1992, If the Dog Does not Bark: Study of Bias in Indian Press, Print Media, New Delhi.

4. Chomsky, Noam, 2011, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, Seven Stories Press, New York.

5. Chomsky, Noam, 2010, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Random House Publications, New York.

6. Jeffrey, Robin, 2000, India’s Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian Language Press, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

7. Habermas, Jurgen, 1991, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society, MIT Press, Massachusetts.

8. McQuail, Denis, 2010, MacQuails’s Mass Communication Theory, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

9. Litcher, Robert, Rothman, Stanley, Litcher, Linda S., 1990, The Media Elite: America’s New Power-brokers, hating House Publications, New York.

10. Sengupta, Barun, 1982, Pala Badaler Pala, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata.

Journals 

1. Fuchs, Christian, “Some Theoretical Foundations of Critical Media Studies: Reflections on Karl Marx and the Media”, International Journal of Communication, Vol.3, 2009, pp. 368-402.

2. Habermas, Jurgen, “Political Communication in Media Society: Does Democracy still enjoy an Epistemic Dimension? The impact of Normative Theory on Empirical Research”, Communication Theory, Vol. 16, Issue 4, pp. 411-26, November 2006.

3. Hackett, Robert A., “Decline of a paradigm? Bias and Objectivity in News Media Studies”, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Vol. 1, Issue 3, 1984.

Footnotes

1. In this article, the term is primarily restricted to newspapers and news channels; radio and new forms of social media, that is, blogs etc., have been not considered.

2. The Frankfurt School was established originally to examine the apparent failure of revolutionary social change as predicted by Marx. Apart from Habermas, other significant contributors of this school include Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

The author is a freelance journalist from Kolkata, with an interest in writing on history, democracy, globalisation and political bias in the media.

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