In Dark Times for the Indian Media, the Audience Could Hold the Key

In his Reuters Memorial Lecture, The Wire’s Siddharth Varadarajan looks at how three factors are collectively driving the corporate media’s race to the bottom.

This is the text of a lecture delivered at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on February 18 in Oxford University. The date was just after the Pulwama attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy but before the airstrikes on Balakot, Pakistan by the Indian Air Force.

As if the future that I was contemplating for the media in India were not already bleak enough, the coverage of the aftermath of last week’s deadly attack on Indian security personnel by the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, suggests what lies ahead is even worse.

I don’t wish to get ahead of my argument but just to bring everyone here up to speed, the killing of over 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in a suicide car bombing has led to unprecedented – and wholly understandable – national grief. But it has also led to shrill demands for “revenge” from a prime minister and government who are only too happy to revel in this shrillness as a means of avoiding questions about the failure of their Kashmir, Pakistan and counter-terrorism policies.

From the vantage point of the media, of course, what should worry us is our failure to ask those questions in the first place. Just last month, the defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, told a meeting of Bharatiya Janata Party workers how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s firm leadership had ensured there had been no major terrorist attacks in India since 2014. The claim, of course, was false, as there have been many attacks one would classify as “major”, but even when the Kashmir incident occurred on February 14, no reporter or editor sought her response in the light of what she had said just a few weeks ago.

The fact is that many editors and television anchors, in their zeal to be the news and drive the news, have shed any pretence of reporting it. Some channels have built war rooms in their studios where the pros and cons of different forms of “revenge” can be discussed. In prime time discussions, any voices urging a re-look at the so-called “military option” are shouted down as anchors call for the “social ostracisation” of individuals who are supposedly “pro-Pakistan” and not “standing by the nation”. The positions taken by the government’s political opponents are subjected to minute scrutiny, in order to see how they might have been responsible for the suicide bombing. Obviously, there has been hardly any analysis of what role official policies might have played.

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As the hot air from the big channels mixes with the toxic atmosphere on social media, the range of targets has also broadened. A senior politician from Punjab, Navjot Singh Sidhu, was relentlessly trolled simply for saying one should not blame an entire religion or nation for the crimes of a few terrorists and eventually ousted from his regular slot on a popular television show. Other victims of this quest for revenge have fared even worse: Kashmiri students in different parts of the country have been harassed and intimidated, with a major section of the media preferring to remain silent about this.

The jingoism of a major section of the media is not new, nor is it unique to India. All democracies, at one time or another, get swept up by the rhetoric of revenge and war. People in the United Kingdom know this only too well. But what makes the blood lust of the Indian media especially alarming is the coming together of three broad trends that have adversely affected the independence and integrity of the news industry by allowing the government, the ruling party and big business houses a greater than ever role in shaping and determining the agenda of the media.

The first is the increasing unviability of the existing business model as the move to digital reading habits has further undermined the revenue base for all but the biggest players. This has both increased the dependence of the media industry on advertisers and made them more vulnerable to government pressure of one kind or another.

The second is the effective use of social media as a disciplining device whenever individual reporters or editors or even media houses stray too far from the officially mandated line.

The third is the growing resort to legal means – sedition law, the Official Secrets Act, SLAPP suits etc – as well as extra-legal means as a way of penalising individuals and media who refuse to fall in line.

To be sure, each of these factors do not always operate in a seamless or linear fashion. The digital revolution has made large media houses vulnerable but has also enabled small, scrappy ones like The Wire or the Quint to come up.

Similarly, the BJP’s so-called IT Cell, or the PR machinery deployed by a large business house like the Adani’s, can achieve considerable social media traction, but so do our stories! For all their toxicity, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have allowed The Wire to level the playing field when it comes to distribution – provided governments do not succeed in exerting pressure on them in the future.

But these are exceptions, whereas the rule – thanks to the way these three factors operate – is that the media is becoming more monopolised, regimented and weak-kneed, incapable of subjecting the government and other powerful sectors of society to basic accountability.

Let me talk you through these three factors briefly.

Political economy

Apart from the largest newspapers in each geographical territory, most newspapers in India would be completely unprofitable were it not for government advertising and other kinds of rent that they are able to collect. In the case of television, the situation is even more dire. The fall in print and television advertising revenues has led to a windfall for Google and Facebook but not the media companies whose content still drives the maximum traffic. Different media houses have responded to the revenue crunch in different ways. Apart from slashing news gathering costs and resorting to opinionated ‘news’ content that is cheap and easy to produce and whose gladiatorial quality may even attract advertising, many media houses have resorted to sharp practices in order to squeeze revenue out of “news”.

Paid News – that uniquely Indian contribution to the media industry – was born out of this process. Last year, a small portal, Cobrapost, ran footage of a sting operation it conducted on a range of large and small media companies where its reporter posed as a “godman” who wanted ostensibly religious programming that would be used to build support for the BJP and polarise voters on the basis of religion – and was willing to pay cash for this. Only two of the two dozen media houses approached showed him door. The rest were only too happy to engage with him and encourage him.

Also read: Today, Freedom From Fear Is Freedom From Mainstream Media

Governments come in to the picture because there is always the threat of regulation of paid news, cross-media holdings etc, which media companies fiercely resist. Then many news organisations have taken to organising large events where the presence of top ministers, or even the prime minister, can be leveraged to millions of rupees worth of corporate sponsorship. Some media houses have business interests across other industries. One prominent newspaper wants to diversify into education – where, I am reliably told, the return on investment is much smarter than in the media – but for that they want cheap land, which only the government can provide.

All of these, naturally, become points of pressure for ministers and politicians to keep the media on the straight and narrow. And looking into my crystal ball, I see more and more of this happening in the years ahead, further weakening the editorial integrity of the Indian media.

It is not a coincidence that we have a prime minister who does not believe in holding press conferences or answering unscripted interviews. Normally, politicians seek access to the media, even if this access means not being able to fully control the emerging narrative. In the case of Mr Modi, however, he has been able to use Twitter, as a communications force multiplier for his messaging, and this brings me to the second factor which is defining the contours of what lies ahead for journalism in India.

Social media

Last week, Times of India, the country’s largest and most profitable newspaper, issued an extraordinary apology on Twitter:

Reading this apology, one could be forgiven for assuming the newspaper had run something completely unacceptable. In fact, this was the headline:

What apparently outraged people on social media was that the perpetrator was referred to not as a “terrorist” but as a “local youth” – a fact that is absolutely germane to the story. Yet, the Times of India was forced to grovel.

In my view, social media feedback serves a useful purpose in enabling a real-time two-way conversation between editors and their readers. But when it takes the form of politically-influenced mass mobilisation and campaigning, the consequences for media freedom can be quite deadly. Unpopular opinions and perspectives can be – and are – squeezed out.

Looking to the future, how the Indian media negotiates its way around the democratic promise that social media carries, while avoiding its obvious pitfalls will, in large measure, determine its future evolution. In my view, media editors, driven largely by the chimera of advertising dollars, are already way too dependent on social media trends when it comes to organising their news priorities.

Legal and extra-legal pressure

Let me now turn to the third factor shaping the future of the media in India.

The Wire will soon be four years old. Our annual budget is around Rs 7 crore, or one million dollars. But we are facing a dozen defamation cases from some of India’s most powerful businessmen in which they are seeking Rs 11,450 crore, or $1.5 billion worth of damages! Read the list, it’s a who’s who of the government’s backers: Gautam Adani, Anil Ambani, Subhash Chandra, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Sri Sri Ravishankar and BJP president Amit Shah’s son, Jay Amit Shah.

We aren’t alone in being SLAPPed in this way. NDTV has a case, as does The Citizen and Caravan and others. All of these cases are frivolous, but they are filed not to be seriously contested but to embroil the media is endless litigation that they can ill afford and are poorly equipped to handle. When I was the editor of The Hindu, I had two defamation cases filed against me by the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. But I never had to waste time briefing lawyers or reading long briefs. I just signed the papers brought to me by the legal department. If you are a small organisation, however, you can’t afford that luxury! Especially when pressure of various kinds is also being exerted on large donors to The Wire.

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In at least two recent cases, in which the promoters of NDTV and Quint were targeted, law enforcement officials turned up in pursuit of obscure cases and attempted to harass and intimidate the two news organisations. These are tactics we have seen before and are aimed at signalling to the whole media that this too is an option.

In the state of Manipur, a journalist has been sent to prison for a year under an administrative order for using harsh language – rude language – in a Facebook video that was critical of the prime minister and the chief minister. This kind of legal and extra-legal overkill has also been used across the country to arrest and intimidate ordinary citizen-critics – individuals who would otherwise be celebrated as ‘citizen journalists’ – who use social media to voice sharply critical, or satirical, views against the ruling establishment. Relief from the courts takes time and can be a bit of a crap shoot. At the same time, pro-establishment social media commentary, no matter how inflammatory and incendiary it is, never attracts the sanction of the law.

Against this backdrop, let us now come back to the issue on which I began my lecture.

So what lies ahead?

It seems to me that we entering a very dangerous period for freedom of speech and expression in India, and, consequently, for the media too.

One powerful and influential section of the media has already crossed over to the dark side, and is actually complicit in the ruling establishment’s view that there is too much freedom. The government, in fits and starts, has been talking about the need for greater regulation of the digital sphere. Ministers promote the myth that digital media is legally unconstrained, unlike print and television – a claim that is belied, first and foremost, by The Wire’s experience!

So, if the political trends of the past four and a half years continue, I would expect greater pressure on the legal front on independent media, of course couched in the name of combating ‘fake news’.

Extra-legal pressure on independent media will also likely increase. It is not uncommon for individual reporters and writers to be subject to death threats. Women with strong opinions are especially targeted on social media. Gauri Lankesh, a courageous editor in Karnataka, was assassinated two years ago for her views by a fanatical Hindu chauvinist group that has drawn up a hit list of others too.

Jingoism, war hysteria and phony terror threats to national security will also be used to further clamp down on dissent. Ridiculous cases based on the flimsiest of evidence have been launched to go after prominent lawyers and academics like Sudha Bharadwaj and Anand Teltumbde. Make no mistake: if the establishment is able to get away with this, next in their cross-hairs will be journalists and media organisations.

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I would like to end on a final point. Journalists and the media can and should fight the good fight to uphold democracy but they can only be effective if the wider institutional ecosystem has integrity and respects the rule of law. Structurally, the US media suffers from many of the same ills as the mainstream media in India does but Trump is still subjected to greater pressure and scrutiny than Narendra Modi is. One reason for this is that the checks and balances on the exercise of vindictive power by the executive work far better in the US than they do in India. Given the systematic manner in which one institution after the other has been undermined in India over the past five years – the CBI, the RBI, the Election Commission, the CAG, the UGC, even the judiciary – it is possible that the system of checks and balances in India will see further erosion.

In all this gloom and doom, it is hard to think of what silver lining the media in India can look forward to as it contemplates the future. Yet we must soldier on, in the hope that the reader-viewer-citizen loves her democratic rights more than anything else and will recognise that unless the media is able to do its job independently, it’ll be ‘Good night, and good luck’ for democracy too.

This is the text of a lecture delivered at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on February 18 in Oxford University.