This is an excerpt from the introduction to The Hoot Reader: Media Practice in Twenty-First Century India edited by SUBARNO CHATTARJI and SEVANTI NINAN. The Reader commemorates a decade of TheHoot.org, still the only media-watch platform of its kind in India.
The notion of media power has come to loom large in India over the last decade, and has led to inevitable scrutiny of those who wield it. The men and women chasing stories become stories themselves when their first take is scrutinized to present a second take, to judge if that first draft of history was a job well done, or whether it was lazily or unethically constructed. Media criticism had been dormant in India over decades of journalistic practice, but its advent and subsequent blossoming are celebrated in this volume. Because, to report how the media covers India, is to report on the complexity and promise of India itself.
The decade of 2001–11 was when coalition politics took firm hold, terrorism began to rival militancy in attention commanded, naxalism spread, digital communication expanded, and the media became a noisy beast that grabbed more mind space than before. The North-East became less of a blank spot and Kashmir remained a media Mecca. Through it all, the old challenges remained as the media stories here bear witness—hunger did not disappear, women in flooded areas looked for secluded spaces to defecate in, caste prejudices thwarted aspiration, and so on. As subjects sexy and dreary competed for space, many stories also went untold.
The task of maintaining a focus on the have-nots in a bustling, newly consumerist economy became a major ethical challenge. In examining media practice in India, THE HOOT looked at the larger questions: whether it fulfils its mandate of providing public debate in a democracy, of giving voice to the powerless; and whether its expanded influence and reach comes into conflict with institutions which wish to protect their own domains, whether political, bureaucratic, or judicial.
Questions of power, influence, and jurisdiction jostle uneasily and often in contradictory fashion as existing norms and frameworks are interrogated. In the decade gone by, the media focused on criminality and corruption within domains that were often not subjected to relentless scrutiny, such as the judiciary. In the process, not only were misdemeanours revealed but the role of the media and its practices became an issue in itself.
Media is ubiquitous, taken for granted, and influences ideas, prejudices, notions of ‘normal’, or ‘Indian’, or ‘Muslim’, or ‘merit’ or ‘terrorism’, or ‘development’. Media bias, ethics, and practices are not merely professional matters for journalists. Nor do they relate only to seemingly abstract concepts such as democracy and the public sphere. A lack of media accountability or structures of self-correction or misreporting has profound consequences for individuals and communities. The media may move on to the next story but the scars of media impunity leave behind real victims.
Media practice also relates to sensitization—whether it be with reference to caste, gender, religious affiliation. The last is particularly important in a country with a large Muslim minority populace often subjected to injustice in contexts of riots or acts of terror. The media reports truth as it sees it. The lens of subjectivity could derive from skewed access or an ideological filter. Media bias is evident not only in its police derived coverage of Islamic terror but also in its initial silence over its Hindu counterpart. Silence over caste atrocities or inequality are equally inimical to ethical media practices and further disenfranchise already marginal peoples.
Over this decade, the media ecology of a globalizing country with many ethnicities grew fascinatingly diverse. It enriched the media landscape, expanded democratic domains, and empowered citizenry in ways that were not conceivable earlier. By 2011, there were 700 plus satellite television (TV) channels in many languages, impacted by global media environments, both in terms of ownership patterns and programming formats. From Rupert Murdoch’s STAR TV to Latin American tele-novellas adapted in Hindi, to the influence of news channels like Fox on news shows here, the transnational frames have been influential. These ‘imports’ were then hybridized and indigenized.
The soap opera, for instance. The STAR stable adapted it to the politics of Indian joint families; a later rival, Colours, piggybacked contemporary social problems on it, rather successfully. Through the decade, a debate on their alleged regressiveness unfolded even as gender remained their central motif. As a defender of the genre and its manifestations wrote to The Hoot, ‘The female life is being rather thoroughly examined—the child bride, the new bride, the wife, the mistress, the mother, the businesswoman, the ruler, the matriarch. Not even Bollywood has paid us that compliment.’
In the print universe, the dominance of the English-language press went on to be decisively challenged by the regional-language press, both in terms of circulation and influence. Even if regional penetration and district editions were made possible essentially because corporate media was offering a platform to advertisers, it had the effect of making ordinary people the focus of news. What began in the late 1990s expanded considerably through 2001–8, bringing a vast rural catchment inhabited by a hitherto unreported populace into their ambit. While the newspapers worried less about the quality of public space being created, and more about market share, rural scribes in some cases became loose canons. Yet, there was a democratic dividend: grassroots politicians found their world opening up through their access to newspapers which the gram panchayats began to subscribe to.
Radio, which opened up to the private sector in 2002, created a whole new frequency modulation (FM) universe beyond All India Radio, even as the same year saw the initial permissions being given for community radio, which expanded the boundaries of democratic engagement and gave voice to the powerless. But how far has what goes by the name of community radio got where community ownership, management, or programming is concerned? Did it get only as far as becoming nongovernmental organization (NGO)-run radio? The same government, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also opened up FM radio sans news, which quickly became many things to many people—in Orissa, Kashmir, and Meghalaya.
And finally there was social media, where news and views proliferated with ease, but with a primarily urban and middle/upper-class reach. Bloggers tested existing laws of defamation as well the commitment to free speech of service providers like Yahoo, MSN, and Google as governments increased their takedown requests and demanded they reveal the identity of offending bloggers. The media practices which emerged from this diverse ecology and the questions they began to pose, find place here.
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The beast called media evolves. When did journalism begin to become something else? In the decade under review, TV channels registered as news channels grew inventive in their quest for audiences wider than the conventional ones. The sting operation which made its spectacular debut with Tehelka and Operation West End as an investigative tool, using entrapment rather than just fly-on-the-wall techniques, then lent itself to more dubious uses as the decade wore on and competition grew.
In 2005, India TV aired some sexually explicit clips of some well-known Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP) politicians indulging in sexual dalliance. The channel chose election day to expose them, as one of them was a candidate for the Bihar Legislative Assembly. That the intent was titillation was hard to doubt, and it raised the question of where to draw the line between public and private. This was followed some years later by a fake sting operation in Delhi involving a municipal school teacher. Tehelka itself meanwhile was found to have used women as a lure in its Operation West End. The more experimental media became, the more it tested prevailing notions of ethics. Indian news TV meanwhile developed its own hybrid format which combined activism with studio-based kangaroo courts. The competitive quest for a breaking news edge would sometimes lead packs of reporters into a frenzy which missed the point6 or resulted in appalling invasions of privacy. But the sheer ferocity of the TV news culture which developed impacted political discourse, political activism, and diplomacy.
Media marketing also evolved into an inventive innovation called paid news, which began as the Times Group’s answer to the rise of public relations (PR) and morphed into a country-wide election time malpractice so tenacious that India’s Election Commission struggles to uproot it. Marketing’s twin was PR which, in its benign form, remained PR but in the hands of more aggressive practitioners, led to the watershed in media ethics which came to be known as the Radia tapes.12 It was a rude wake-up call for the profession, opening their eyes to nexuses which could no longer be ignored.
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Subjectivity is always a professional hazard. But when does it become outright bias, or worse, distortion? Nothing demonstrates better the power of media to shape the truth than an examination of how different media cover the same story.
A year after THE HOOT was launched, an Indian Naval Chief was sacked by the government. It was unprecedented, so was the kind of coverage the incident got. It became a case study of sourcing and the biases it produces, of the willing jettisoning of practices such as the right to reply, and of the inability of a single newspaper or magazine of the time to give equally both sides of the story. It was a classic case of truth lying in the eyes of the beholder; in this case, the reporters and editorial writers.
And finally, this volume looks at the coverage, in 2009, of the conflict in Lalgarh, West Bengal, and how radically opposite perspectives were projected in the media. Was it straight political rivalry or genuine tribal resistance?15 There were mainstream media versions, there were citizens’ fact-finding reports, and there were the security experts’ versions. The more media there is, the more perspectives they feed into the public discourse. In what ways then should a nation learn to grapple with it?