We live in times when rotting journalism is banging its drums as hard as possible, not with the intention of letting people listen but that of making them deaf, to the extent of ruining their rational hearing abilities. The lecture which P. Sainath delivered on the 1st Neelabh Mishra Memorial Lecture ‘Freedom of the Purse: How corporatisation of the media harms the Indian democracy’ attempts to engage not with the hard banging journalists or anchors; instead, it maps the knots of the problem, which is much more structural.
The initial part of the lecture plots the media as the ideological arm of the corporate world – a quotable quote, as Nivedita Menon, the Chair of the day termed it. The fundamental flaw lies in the disjunction between the mass media and mass reality. The media houses are politically free but have been sabotaged by the market. Corporate hijacking has slowly evolved into a corporate takeover. The notional wealth of most of the media houses is being trapped into the market. Major privatisation in this country has taken place in the last 25 years and the media houses have remained prominently quiet on it, as they themselves have been the biggest beneficiary of it. Journalism has been trivialised to a revenue stream.
Neither the monopolisation of the media nor the corporate takeover of the media is as important as the media itself developing as a corporate giant. The media houses today do not see a difference between working as a PR in a company or as a journalist. For Sainath, the media has become the worst part of our democracy due to the exclusionist role it has succumbed to. He quotes Alex Carey, an Australian Scholar who says, “The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” The fine lines between media, business and politics have completely eradicated with a revolving door erected between them. One could be revolving and playing in every sector, making no distinction in any of the fields and rather diluting them into interlocking ownerships and new convergence.
A significant reference was made to the pre-political independence era of India due to the culmination of some of initial and best works of journalism. Sainath referred to the spirit of the political leaders of the 20th century who, through their inter-disciplinary approach and their affirmative action, transcended multi-dispensary fields of work. Bhagat Singh, at the age of 21, was writing and circulating newspapers in four different languages. Singh, Gandhi and Ambedkar were all great journalists. India has been commemoratory due to its injunction with the masses. It has seen times when BG Tilak, another journalist of the freedom struggle, when persecuted under sedition for inflammatory speeches, was supported by the textile workers who came on streets in protest. They came for the person who once spoke for them and on that day, could not speak. However, today it is hard to even see any solidarity and camaraderie in the journalist fraternity itself.
“It is not an emergency censorship but a trend of corporatisation being institutionalised in the media.” – Sainath quoted the lines from Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s speech in the 50th Jubilee of the Assam Tribune.
In this single line, the person next likely to become Chief Justice of India has distinctly noted the crux of the matter. In this situation, what does the newspaper have to do with news? There are two forms of journalism which exist today, one is journalism and the prominent one is stenography, that too stabilized by the corporate. Mukesh Ambani, who is the 19th richest person in the world, owns the maximum of media houses in India. Ambani, in a single year from 2017 to 2018, added $16.9 billion, from $23.2 billion to $40.1 billion to his wealth. There are 23 billionaires in India who have made to the Forbes list, while India ranks 131 out of 188 countries in the Human Development Index. In the World Press Freedom Index, India ranks 138, just one spot above Pakistan, out of almost 180 countries. For Sainath, the danger is at the most critical stage as it is the time in history when the ownership concentration is the highest.
The internet is amongst one of those technologies that humanity is finding to be liberating and proliferating today. Sainath is in support of the internet but cautions us to be very skeptic about it and secondly alarms us not to romanticise it. Digital monopolies, he believes, are the greatest; they are owners of our data and they are trafficking and selling it. Sainath terms these digital monopolies as ‘human data traffickers’. This is also to bring attention to the resistance which is resisting state monopolies while accepting private monopolies.
Gauri Lankesh’s death hadn’t quite left the memories of the people when on the eve of Eid, we experienced the death of another great journalist, Shujaat Bukhari. These are great losses to journalism, in particular, and democracy, in general. They are dead because they posited challenging journalism, working in small towns in regional languages, covering crime, business and politics. These journalists are more vulnerable than the mainstream English journalists sitting in their comfortable houses and also, safeguarded due to their social backgrounds.
There is another problem. Working journalists who produce magazines, pamphlets and editorial columns are undervalued as progressive rationalist people critical about the government. The fact that Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi were primarily journalists is neither mentioned nor accepted by the ‘journalists’. This is a double killing of journalists.
The 1st Neelabh Mishra Memorial Lecture was conducted on the 58th birthday of Neelabh Mishra, a veteran journalist who believed in establishing journalism in the true spirit of the ethics of the masses and rural India. He died due to liver failure on February 24 this year. I believe this was the best way to celebrate a life of a passionate journalist. P. Sainath’s lecture and the event, all in all, would have been most inspiring for young students, scholars and journalists. I am among those young students who are not only inspired but are thankful for being engaged in such critical and expansive body of thoughts which will always give light the fire in our thoughts as well.