The Art of Lobbying by the 4th Estate: How Gullible Are You?

Posted on May 14, 2012 in Politics

By Tarun Cherukuri:

“Not a single person from the two villages has committed suicide”

A newspaper story in India three and half years ago, presented a success story of genetically modified seeds. This was a time when the debate was raging about the merits of the new technology. Interesting enough, the article got republished 9 months back in the same newspaper word to word.

P. Sainath argues in detail in an opinion article on May 10th 2012 that the true story is shockingly different. Take for example, the truth that there have been 14 suicides as revealed by the villages to the Parliamentary committee. The original newspaper article claims a benefit of additional earnings of almost Rs.20, 000 per acre. The reality of a farmer’s gross income according to him is Rs.1400 per acre.

The articles fall broadly in the category of a market driven print media phenomena called “paid news”. The euphemisms for such covert lobbying by the print media are “consumer connect initiative” or “marketing feature”.

The taped conversations of lobbyist Niira Radia published by Outlook and Open in December 2010 made us confront the new reality of a happy nexus between the 3 pillars, 4th estate and business. These transcripts – which involved conversations between Niira and a range of renowned and commonly respected journalists and editors like Prabhu Chawla, Ver. Sanghvi, Barkha Dutt, Senthil Chengalvarayan, MK Venu, Navika Kumar, Ganapathy Subramaniamet al – ridiculed the common person’s naiveté. Even the most discerning readers (if I can include myself here) were shocked to realize that they were gullible after all.

Elsewhere, Mcmillan and Zoido(2004) in an academic paper present a case on how Fujimori’s government in Peru appropriated about US$ 600 million (300 crores) and were able to do this by restraining the whistleblowers through a bribe economy. The police chief ran the secret economy, methodically buying out judges, opposition politicians and the media. While these parts of the findings are not surprising, what is interesting is that the price of loyalty was differential. The politicians averaged $300k per month (1.5 crore) and judges $250k per month (1.25 crore), the media buy-out cost over $3 million per month (15 crore).

Why was the media so expensive to buy out in comparison to politicians and judges? It is a power balance which hangs delicately between the private interests of politicians/businessmen and the public reputation, information dissemination power of media outlets. The day the agreement falls apart, the media in a free press country has all the power to bring down a political or business empire. Murdoch family discovered the taste of their own medicine when News of World had to be pulled out of publication because of the vigour with which the other media outlets went after them for the telephone hacking scandal.

The closed door economy has created a new job market for ‘professional lobbyists’ in India. It is a disconcerting trend and we seem to be destined following the route of the US where lobbyists exert a lot of political and media influence.

Max Weber, the German sociologist, is nuanced in his articulation of power dynamics. “The modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination. It has been successful in seeking to monopolize the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory. To this end the state has combined the material means of organization in the hands of its leaders, and it has expropriated all autonomous functionaries of estates who formerly controlled these means in their own right.”

It is disturbing to note that his words are even more relevant today. The day when the state completely expropriates the autonomous function of 4th estate, as is already happening in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh with political parties owning the media, lobbying might be a null and void profession. It is all going to be brazen and naked. The only question then is if there will be kernel of truth left amidst all the noise and will readers like us be discerning enough to see through the gullibility trap?

Will Satya meva Jayate (Truth alone triumph)?