Why Did The Media Obsess So Much Over JNU When Other Important Issues Needed Attention?

Posted on February 29, 2016 in Society

By Akanksha Narain:

Image Credit: V. Arun Kumar/M.Phil. JNU.

The controversy-ridden Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) protests have captured our imagination for the past couple of days now. Whether you’re in India or an Indian abroad, much like me, there is no way that you can avoid reading, listening to or opinionating about it. Not unless you actively decide to shut all forms of communication and surround yourself in a cocoon. In fact, the controversy has even courted global attention with international news organisations focusing attention on the chaos that has arisen, with academic doyens like Noam Chomsky and others from universities like Yale, Cambridge etc. lending their support to the student protests.

At the root of the controversy, stripped to its bare minimum, is the right to free speech coupled with fiery student politics. However, some sections of the media played an active role in blowing this issue out of proportion and inflaming the tension. In fact, the mainstream media played an important role in letting us down.

It is not worthwhile to comment on how a few media houses unfairly tilted the balance against the JNU students by lambasting them on national television without giving them a chance to defend or even explain themselves. It is also not useful to dwell on how sordid is the state of the media in India as it has, again and again, failed to uphold the principles of accurate, unbiased reporting and allegedly knowingly circulated unverified videos and photos which are claimed to be doctored. This point has been vehemently articulated by a number of sane voices before. What I seek to do is to draw your attention to the failure of media to set the agenda right and focus on the larger picture.

First of all, it seems that the media has forgotten its originally envisaged role. The Fourth Estate, as it is often referred to, serves as the fourth pillar of democracy and seeks to connect the government to its people. On one hand it informs the people of government policies and initiatives, among other things, and, on the other hand, it seeks to voice the opinions and desires of the public. It plays the role of an educator, an informer, and an entertainer and at the same time functions as a watchdog for society. However, despite this, the media failed to zoom out of the ruckus that was being captured through their lens on campus, by the students and authorities, and to not get carried away by seating politicians and soldiers on their panels who prescribed what nationalism is!

Is it too difficult for the media to understand that there are larger forces at work here? That though the events and the consequent discussions have raised a question about what really is nationalism and patriotism, the events that ensued reflect a particular political churning that has been taking place in our society. That those in power are trying to reinvent the national discourse by undermining academicians and activists. No, this is not about ‘saffronisation’ of the academia but the use (read ‘abuse’) of power by political actors to change the discourse in their favour. I repeat that it is not about ‘saffronisation’ because it is not just the elements currently in power who are indulging in such activities and it surely is not being done for the first time. Any and every political party and, in fact, every powerful social, economic, cultural, political entity has attempted to do so.

Many governments have attempted to subvert academic impartiality by appointing persons near and dear to it including the State governments of various regional parties. Strong economic forces have also attempted to alter academic enquiry in order to ensure that its vested interests are protected, may it be tobacco companies funding research on the effect of smoking or producers of certain edible oils backing research on the ‘health benefits’ of the same. The ‘saffron flag’ happens to be just one such force in play. Thus, the focus on ‘saffronisation’ in this case takes our eyes away from the ‘prize’.

Why is it that the media has failed to discuss this? The changes in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and reportedly in the University of Delhi, the crackdown in JNU and the cutting down of fellowships are not independent issues. They are deeply connected as they reflect a well-strategised mechanism meant to shake the educational institutions that have the capacity to hold powerful actors accountable. While I agree that a few of our top-notch universities do have a ‘leftward’ bias, it was highly reprehensible of the media outlets to brand them as anti-nationalists.

The inability of the fourth estate to set the right agenda suggests one of the two things. Either the media simply does not have the intellectual capacity to connect the dots or else it does not want to. Let us cross our fingers and hope that the former is not true thereby suggesting it is the latter reason which explains the problematic state of affairs. The question which then inevitably arises is – “Why not?”

The answer is threefold. Firstly, the focus is on TRPs and profits instead of hardcore factual, objective news. As the Jain brothers of Times of India succinctly put it, “we are not in the newspaper business…[we] are in the advertising business.” It is sad enough that the proprietors of the Bennett and Coleman group call it the newspaper ‘business’ but what makes it worse is that they align more with advertising and revenue generation than with news. Given this irony, news organisations are more concerned about securing their advertising and revenue interests than going out on a limb and reporting hard-hitting news for it may hamper their business interests.

Furthermore, the resulting TRP-game and race for higher profits ensures that news organisations fall into the rut of sensationalism – be it through showing doctored videos or by screaming at the top of their lungs. Surely such a competition for eyeballs can leave no space for intelligent and serious journalism. In fact, even when a few media channels tried to change the discussion concerning JNU and the idea of nationalism, they could not resist taking pot shots at other channels. Moreover, the focus on higher profits, among other things, has resulted in news organisations cutting down on the number of specialised desks like Science, Environment, Rural reporting, Economics (not Business), and the staff manning them thereby reducing the scope for a nuanced debate.

Secondly, media organisations have become incredibly close with various political parties and businesses. The issue of proximity stems from various reasons – desire for favours, political clout, financial gains and even Rajya Sabha seats! The Radia tapes are still fresh in our minds and the comments on media websites left by aware citizens constantly scream about how an anchor and/or a channel are on the payrolls of a particular party. Though I must clarify here that many of those comments are just hate speech!

Finally, comes the problem of the ever-growing media conglomerates and cross-media ownerships that have taken the independent media hostage. For example, Reliance Industries took over the Network 18 group in 2014, which owned CNN-IBN, CNBC TV18, firstpost.com, Colours, etc., making RIL the biggest media group in the country. These conglomerates exude a lot of power and proximity to the political brass which makes matters worse. Such media houses have the power to exclude ‘unwanted’ voices and issues across all media. For instance, will the Times of India cover stories pertaining to the coal mine industry if it were to hamper Bennett and Coleman’s interests? Will Network 18 group be able to do an unbiased story on the KG gas deal?

The monopolisation and corporatisation of media has restricted the adversarial role of the media wherein it would take on the task of holding those in power accountable. Alas, it has gagged the media and stripped it of its ability to set the right agenda for the benefit of the people!