What is Indian “paid media” all about?

A well-meaning friend recently asked me: “What is this phenomenon of “paid media” that you routinely carp about on Facebook?” It got me thinking, and keyboarding.

He has indeed asked a very pertinent question that many Indians ought to understand as we approach 2014. The key phrase in the post below is “enlightened citizenry.”

It’s natural for a human being to be nostalgic (i.e. “We had very credible journalists, our journalists were highly ethical etc”). Therefore, his natural instinct is to look at the current situation as worse than his supposed glorious past. Then, an enlightened friend must indeed call his bluff and show him the reality: the brighter side of the current day and the darker side of yesterday.
When it is the reverse i.e. when the current day situation is much worse than yesterday, but the citizen believes (typically misled to believe) otherwise, it becomes the duty of the enlightened friend to point that out too. It’s not out of hyperbole that a lot of Indians, especially those active on social media, have stopped trusting media. Rather, the apprehension of paid media has solid backing.
The root of the answer to your question lies in how media has evolved in India, particularly post-liberalization. In the Doordarshan and Akashvani days, which also coincided with one-party rule, there was only one point of view to be propagated: government’s and party’s. Anything inconvenient to this POV was either hidden or silenced. However, print journalists formed a credible fourth pillar of democracy out of commitment to ethics, free speech, and courage. Ramanath Goenka’s blank page on the day of imposition of Emergency, Arun Shourie’s and Chitra Subramaniam’s expose on Bofors scam, S Gurumurthy’s articles on Reliance’s hegemonic hold on government come to mind. The I&B ministry typically silenced such “abnormal” journalists by either coaxing the management to remove them from service or threats to suspend government advertising.
The last point is crucial. Government of India, by virtue of playing such a large role in the nation’s economy, is typically the largest advertiser for almost every media house accounting for 20-30% of revenue (you must have seen full page ads on RajivG’s birthday, a minute long Bharat Nirmal ads etc.). GOI also routinely uses other levers to control advertising funnel by the way of cozy relationships with private businesses who form the other chunk of advertisers. The rest of the revenue, typically a fraction of advertising, comes from readers but that isn’t considered profit because of delivery costs. Therefore, advertising revenue is rightly considered “pure profit.” For English language newspapers and TV channels, such advertising profit becomes critical because of relatively smaller audience compared to vernacular, minuscule price of newspapers due to touch competition, and high delivery costs (which is why you see a lot of ads and less news in papers like TOI. This is not rightwing hyperbole, you may verify yourself. :-)).
What liberalization has done is it has tilted scales for how critical profit is to the survival of a media house in the midst of cutthroat competition. Just as with education which was once a hallowed sector now becoming a vehicle for pure profit, new private media houses have mushroomed with a sole intention of profit. Most media houses these days aren’t just “news houses” but rather “conglomerates” offering a bouquet of channels in entertainment, sports, regional language channels, newspapers and a news channel. Each division is asked to bring in profits to the conglomerate, and the news division is pitted against the entertainment channel for “performance.” Any sub-par performance on fiscal front will invite layoffs of journalists and editors.
It is such a desperate situation that is made-to-order for unscrupulous parties such as Congress, especially when it heads the government. The various ministries pick winners and losers in the marketplace by adjusting their advertising budget “appropriately.” Any anti-government voice is pushed to the dustbin of history. Today, articles are “placed” strategically for the highest impact on voters for a price. A TV anchor is considered “bought” when she uses her primetime slot to pose leading and motivated questions to steer the interview towards their paymasters. You may have watched Nidhi Razdan’s interview with British MP Barry Gardiner or Karan Thapar supplying helpful answers to Kapil Sibal for his own softball questions on 2G scam. You must have also read TOI’s mudslinging on Modi’s Uttarakhand’s relief effort, and the subsequent apology buried in the inside pages. There was another gem on youtube in which Nidhi Razdan nudges a panelist to push Congress line off-camera (http://qr.ae/NAmWa) over which NDTV laid a copyright claim.
These are only the explicit examples where it’s easy to get caught. The real concern for someone who believes in free speech and an equal platform for a healthy competition of ideologies in a democracy is the often subtle nature of such biases: Indian media routinely minimizes or hides the sufferings of those who do not fall in line with government, exaggerates the voices sympathetic to it, and leads an unsuspecting viewer into the logic of “false equivalences” wherein one anti-government piece will be “balanced out” by an anti-opposition/pro-government piece either by exaggeration or by simply making up a story if none exists. All this is done to be in the good books of the ruling party. You may remember how the national media showed ex-Karnataka CM Yeddyurappa’s grab of Bangalore sites as equivalent to 2G/Coal scam completely forgetting that the former was a case of individual immorality while the latter was a gigantic loot of national resources that destabilizes Indian economy and affects future generations of Indians not even born today. If you’re a less discerning viewer, you’ll probably think “Oh, everyone is the same, all parties must be similar, all politicians must be corrupt.” Such a false equivalence leads to apathy among youth towards politics, and more dangerously, disproportionately benefits the worse of the two/three options that democracy offers (by elevating the worst one to the level of the better options). The false equivalence and youth apathy thereby kills political competition on ideas, and also meaning of democracy.
It’s important to remember how Indian media has evolved differently from Western. Even in US or UK, media houses routinely favor one party over the other but the reasons are grounded in ideology. Given the government’s limited role in a citizen’s life, and strong protection of free speech, its ability to influence the newspaper editorial board rests on the basis of appealing to its ideology and not to their pockets. In India, as a result of both ruling party and new media houses not rooted in any particular ideology (but only wedded to profits), one cannot even make a case of ideology guiding the unscrupulous ones. It’s therefore not a coincidence that Indian mainstream media has space only for the pro-government voices, and not one top player identifies itself with opposition’s ideology. For an observer of US or UK media, this revelation is indeed surprising.
I’m a free-market enthusiast, so I am not apologetic about profit-making. Rather, I think profit-making as the only sustainable way to build a business. But as I’ve shown above, profit and journalism forms a deadly corrosive combination that’s detrimental to the role of media envisioned in a democracy.
All hope is not lost however. There are still highly credible journalists such as Pratap Bhanu Mehra, Tavleen Singh, Pratap Simha (in Kannada) and others. Vernacular print media still remains more neutral in reporting, and therefore reflect people’s aspirations more accurately. The rise of social media has been the single most important trend to be reshaping the direction of Indian politics. People now have a way to vent out their viewpoint to a sizable audience without being filtered out by government. A social media item on the recent Muzzafarnagar riots is more likely to reflect the ground situation than what media shows. Social media is also routinely driving news items in mainstream media as journalists themselves are active on social media.
It’s not that media influencers have sat with folded hands as Twitter and Facebook exploded. For example, this is an excellent expose of how the narrative around Bodh Gaya blasts was deliberately shifted from a terror attack by planting motivated questions on Twitter (http://www.niticentral.com/2013/07/15/how-india%E2%80%99s-elite-manipulates-your-thoughts-104446.html). The difference is that journalists’ bluffs and biases are routinely called out by social media. I direct you to http://www.mediacrooks.com and http://www.newslaundry.com for a sampling of the same.
I, therefore, remain an eternal optimist.
P.S.: If this post has made you more curious about how really paid media works, this is a must-watch:
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