Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Indian media's role as the fourth pillar of Democracy

This is a compilation of a few pieces I wrote for an online debate in which I participated recently. The topic for the debate was "Indian media's role as the fourth pillar of Democracy". So here goes.


Unlike a Communist or Feudal system, where, media is mostly controlled by the state, and thus, the general public gets to hear only what their government wants them to hear; in a democracy, the media, apart from informing the public of the latest happenings in the country, has the added responsibility of being independent of the state in obtaining the correct data, and also being impartial while presenting it in public.

However, the world does not work in such an idealistic manner. For example, while the media has to sound impartial while delivering the news, it has the added responsibility of "moral conditioning" of the public. If the sample population has a skewed sex-ratio, the media not only has to inform the public of the latest figures from the Census, but also to impress upon the public, the ramifications of such a situation in the future.

To this end, media has significantly lived up to its expectations. Before going further, we should note that the term "media" doesn't end at the daily newsreaders and journalists, it expands to prime time television, movies, magazines, etc. The media has significantly helped the cause of woman empowerment, caste and religion differences, communal harmony, freedom of expression, right to information, etc.

But thats where the rosy story ends.

Over the past decade, the media has become much too powerful at a very fast pace. It is only natural for the Indian political parties, the corporates and various religious organisations to acknowledge its power as a powerful propaganda machine.

With huge amounts of money pouring in, the old plain clothed media has now become a glamorized behemoth working day and night for higher TRPs. Wherever there is huge money involved, corruption is unavoidable. This is what happened with the Indian media. And this phenomenon is more pronounced in the chic English media with more eyeballs coming from an ever expanding middle class. What started as a secular, left centered wave among a few renowned journalists has now become a statement for today’s generation of media leaders.


Today, any large-scale investment in the industrial sector towards setting up modern, state-of-the-art industrial facilities and power plants are vehemently opposed by the entire spectrum of the media. Hoards of journalists descend on the sites of the proposed projects, and, as it seems in most cases, polarise the local public as well as the country as a whole against the project in the name of agricultural land and plight of the affected farmers after their only source of livelihood is snatched away from them. No journalist ever talks about the advantages of such projects for the country as well as the indigenous populace. They won't mention the fact that the same local people will get absorbed as manpower and get better paying jobs with an assured flow of income throughout the year, as also the increase in business activity and thus creation of even more jobs in their neighbourhood, and improvement in the village infrastructure if the project goes through.


The “moral conditioning” has thus become “opinion building”, which is largely influenced by the individual journalist's interpretation of the scenario, and what should have been a private and personal decision for the common man is now razed by opinion polls and heavily biased talk shows, all run on the egos of a few distinguished journalists and money, huge money flowing in from corporates, political parties and their lobbyists.

However, all is not lost. As exemplified by the recent “Nira Radia controversy”, there are still some ethical media groups that are fearless in their journalistic duty and have exposed this nexus.

Maybe, the Indian media is in a transitory stage, into becoming more vocal about its allegiances like its western counterparts.


I think we now have a fair idea about the state of affairs in today's media, the issues that are hampering its ability to function as a strong pillar of the democracy.


This discussion holds significance in light of the fact that democracy is the soft-quality that draws the rest of the world towards us as compared to the steely grip of the communist regime on all aspects of the society and economy in China. This distinguishing feature of our country needs to be nurtured and protected at all costs for us to remain a champion of democracy in a world embroiled in recession and conflict. This puts the Indian media on the center stage as the voice, eyes and ears of the largest and the fastest growing democracy in the world. If it fails in its duty, it may have a profound effect on our global standing.

We determined the role played by the media, both positive and negative, in different situations. How in some cases it provided justice to the common man and fought the war on behalf of the man on the street against the almighty bureaucrats and politicians; and how in certain cases, perhaps in a bid to flaunt its apparent secularity or in lieu of some vested interests, it distorted facts, sensationalized news, created mass-hysteria, thus spreading hatred, and straining the communal fabric of the country.

We determined the impact of Globalisation and Liberalisation on the media, the advent of the 24 hour news, the entry of commercial aspects in reportage, display of trivial attention grabbing material and obscenity in order to boost TRPs and finally the role of lobbyists in reportage, not only influencing policy, but also public opinion.

For my part, I would suggest the following ways in order to make the media more accountable to its increased power and reach.

  • For the media houses, I suggest that they start being more upfront about their loyalties, towards corporate and political parties alike. By trying to create an impression of partiality while reporting biased views suitable to individual interests and undermining other’s, they are affecting public opinion in the worst way possible. The movement has already started. A renowned journalist had recently accepted his leanings towards a particular national party. In addition to this, they should have people monitoring the content at different levels to ensure that facts are not distorted in favor of a particular individual or organization.

  • As for “unbiased” media houses, they have a far greater responsibility as they have to ensure that the tone of the public discourse at no time should seem to be leaning towards a particular candidate, and if it does, proper evidence instead of random statements from the rival camp should be submitted before the public. We cannot afterall have Supreme court judges as journalists, now can we? And the most important of all, instead of planting opinion, they should let the public decide for itself on all issues based on again their own “unbiased” analysis.

  • The media houses should also ensure that their editors are able to distinguish when a sensational news becomes damaging towards national interests, as was evident during the 26/11 Mumbai attack and the reportage of the Gujarat riots. In such cases, economic aspects should not be the motivation behind reportage. During national calamities, journalistic duty should be the supreme driver.

  • Also, though it is matter that is for the media house to decide, and cannot be thrust by anyone, the news channels should not model themselves as entertainment channels, though it may be argued that one always has a host of other channels to fall back upon for the viewers, and in times of news shortage, they have to telecast something, broadcasting clippings from reality shows or vague sounding hysteria over the end of the world in a variety of ways, trivializes certain news that is important for the public to know.

  • As for the laws, I believe that the legal framework regarding media coverage is pretty extensive especially after the 26/11 attacks. All that is needed is effective implementation without any prejudice or political calculations by the government in the said implementation. In effect, I suggest an independent public appointed authority as a watchdog for the media.

  • Though it takes us away from the topic at hand, and it of course is my personal belief but I think the goverment should legalize lobbying, both corporate and political. It should be realized that lobbying is unavoidable in such a commercialized world. It will be easier for the public to ascertain intentions of both the media and politicians alike, if we know who is supporting whom. This is an established practice in the western media, and I think should be introduced in India also, for it to evolve as a democracy.


In the end, I would like to reiterate the fact that the purpose of this discussion was for the participants and the subsequent audience to better understand the role of media in shaping both our present and future civil societies rather than expecting some change on the ground. It would after all be foolish of us to expect that a mere discussion on one of thousands of ongoing debates will somehow grab the attention of the leading media houses and cause a change of heart. I presume none of us are actually in any way connected to the media to influence its policies. All of us are at the end of the day, engineers, not journalists. But we still are well-educated and responsible citizens of our country. It is prudent of us to at least be aware of the functioning of media, and make informed decisions in the future based on their analyses, not only for our own sake, but for the sake of the millions who are too busy scraping for their lives to have the luxury to ponder on such matters.

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