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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Collective hypocrisy or selective bias: Why Bharatiya media reports the way it does?

Newspapers, news channels form a part of our daily routine. As an aware citizen, we all like to know the happenings around the country and the world. Ideally, such main stream media should be unbiased and transparent. They must report the real facts and should not favour any specific political party or idea. But the reality is somehow different. Every element of this main stream media seems to be a spokesperson of some or the other political party and advertiser of a specific ideology. How can we, the common men, read the real news and decide our point of view in the light of actual facts? It is practically impossible for a person sitting in one part of Bharat to know happenings in some other part unless media covers and reports it in a balanced and unbiased manner. Here is an article that talks of the same.

As an avid newsreader I start my day by going through newspapers around the globe spending most time on reading online editions of Bharatiya newspapers and news magazines. Every passing year this time share has dwindled for good reasons. Rising instances of biased news have meant that rational Bharatiya citizens rely lesser and lesser on the mainstream media for their individual decision-making. The separation between writing and advertising has blurred. Yet many still expect the newspapers to do the immense amount of thinking for their part. Just like governance was sourced to our elected representatives and selected babudom, we voluntary agreed to let media help us with abstruse issues ranging from economy to national security and use that information to make an opinion and electoral choices. And its not just common citizens. Be it government reports or court pronouncements, many of our highest policy interventions and judicial decisions make use of media reporting. Bharat’s courts and statutory bodies likes National Commission for Women and National Human Rights Commission regularly take suo motu cognisance of news reporting.

Constitution of Bharat guarantees freedom of speech (which covers news reporting and subjected to reasonable restorations defined under Article 19–2). Press freedom in Bharat can not be correctly measured by laughable and flawed rankings like those coming from World Press Freedom Index that ranks Bharat at 138th out of 180 countries behind nations like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Media intimidation is surely a reality but a threat faced mostly by local reporters based in smaller towns and mining areas where murder of journalists rarely manages to draw a wider attention on the issue. Particularly since 2014, I observe a growing trend of a selective bias in media reporting by major Bharatiya newspapers. The claim of gross media bias in reporting is now a fact accepted by majority of journalists and citizens alike even when they disagree on factors and forms of this bias. While instances of media bias are nothing new (Going back to good old Doordarshan that was regularly used as a propaganda tool by PM Indira and son Sanjay), it has now stretched far beyond the tolerable limits.

Changing Media landscape

Press freedom in Bharat is vastly protected and is only threatened by ever growing nexus between politicians and corrupt publishers. Bharat is home to one of the biggest and rapidly expanding media industry in the world that is also a major source of employment. A career in journalism requiring no minimum qualification has opened doors to engineers, diplomats, doctors and lawyers alike. There happen to be over 100,000 publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India in a country that is deemed to be the second largest newspaper market in the world. According to the Indian Readership Survey, 39% of Bharatiya “read” newspapers with growing readership volume. Most of this circulation is dominated by regional languages lead by Hindi (38%) and followed by English at 16%. Hindi and English newspapers together make more than half of the total circulation. But when it comes to influence, that’s a different story. Blame it on colonialism or social attitude, it is the English ‘elite media’ that has the most influence on politics and culture. This has effectively surged with “corporatisation” of journalism and interference of political appointees in the editorial boards of the major newspapers. When I say “major Bharatiya newspapers” I refer to the big 4 of the Bharatiya media — The Times of India, Indian Express, Hindustan Times and The Hindu. Together these 4 newspapers set the narrative and the course of political debate on a daily basis. In last 4 years we have also witnessed a rapid expansion of a number of online media outlets be it Scroll, Swarajya or HuffingtonPost India or the latest addition in form ‘The Print’. But most of these are mere smart phone friendly and attractively packaged spinoffs from the media barons who were in the past associated with the big 4 of the Bharatiya media. Beside this, we have the powerful and influential electronic media with strong domestic viewership. Bharatiya media space is now effectively controlled by this electronic media with pronounced set of political affiliations. Thanks to massive investment from corporate players, electronic media is the battleground for political and electoral debates. While until 2014, Bharatiya electronic media space was completely dominated by Congress backed media houses like NDTV, it is no more the case anymore. Emergence of news outlets like Republic TV and Times Now (part of Times Group) have helped increase the plurality in news reporting while older players like NDTV now devoid of political patronage are finally facing the law for tax frauds. Here one has to be mindful of the fact that majority of the players in electronic media are owned by same publishing groups that own the mainstream media in Bharat. But the bias in news reporting can neither be driven out by competition from a rival news agency nor by media with an opposing bias. Those who expected the growing media competition to correct this bias problem have been proved wrong. Market competition has failed to check the expansion of media bias and sponsored news content.

And then there are the vastly resourceful foreign media players like New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian that hold substantial power in terms of leading a ‘global discourse’ about the Bharat story. It is this foreign media that works as the window to Bharat for foreign investors, tourists and even governments. Most of the Bharatiya mainstream newspaper also source their reporting from American and international publishers. No wonder, Bharatiya government is far more sensitive and responsive to their reporting compared to local language media with far greater readership among the electorates.

Where’s the bias?

Now that we have a background, let me come back to the issue that troubles me. Has the Bharatiya media really become more biased than in the past? Unlike in the past when sections of Bharatiya media could be identified with their ideological affiliations, the current Bharaiya media suffers from a political affiliation that is undermining the freedom of press and fair reporting. Headlines in mainstream media has seen a surge on connecting every incident of law and order breakdown to the office of the Prime Minister and a failure of the BJP current government in its first term. That’s not to say that there is no bias in favour of the ruling BJP. Surely there is, but it is too minuscule when compared to a dominant narrative that favours the Congress-Communist alliance. This is most evident when one looks at the reporting of violent incidents, crimes and recent political scandals.

An organised attempt to paint Bharat as a land of rampant caste discrimination and communal hate, riots, rapes and “intolerance” has been the key narrative in last 4 years. But here too, the big 4 of the Bharatiya media selectively pinpoint cases to suit this set narrative. As such, certain rape cases in one part of Bharat leads to a national outrage while others are cornered. A custodial death in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao is a national headline while brutal killing of a youth in custody of Kerala Police is not. The coverage of Islamic terrorism in the state of Jammu and Kashmir is regularly presented as a problem of dialogue and integration. Death of a Muslim man in a train seat dispute is bracketed as a “lynching by Hindu mob” but a crowd of thousands of violent Muslim men is referred to as “stone-pelters”. In last two years, many sections in the social media have questioned headlines that refer to religion of the victim or the perpetrator. While such headlines would be termed grossly communal in every civilised society, somehow it is a communal issue for Bharatiya media only in cases where highlighted perpetrators are from a Muslim background. Whether an incident is a law and order problem, riot, communal violence, lynching or hate crime is conveniently decided, declared and dumped as headline by a lobby.

This media bias is also visible in political and religious issues. The ailment and subsequent medical situation of Congress matriarch Sonia Gandhi comes under the “privacy clause”, but same rules are not applicable for Goa CM Manohar Parriakkar or Union minister Uma Bharti undergoing treatment. Similarly, reaching out to business interests of BJP President Amit Shah’s family is heralded as an investigative endeavour but questioning or for that matter even covering ‘secret’ foreign trips of Sonia Gandhi is absent. While we regularly come across the coverage of PM Modi’s family in various forms, reaching out to the family of Congress President Rahul Gandhi is out of question and presumed to be in violation of privacy. When Congress President meets Lalu Prasad Yadav, mainstream media narrative will not cover it as a meeting between an out on bail Congress President and a scamster convicted in fodder scam. Hindu organisation like RSS are questioned on an almost daily basis while highly deplorable fatwas issued by Islamic seminaries or secessionist speeches coming from religious leadership among the Islamic community or outfits like AIMPLB are a non-issue. Drawing cartoons of Sita-Ram to poke fun on certain view is celebrated and “retweeted” by celebrity journalists who will never dare to do the same using caricature of Muhammed. This is nothing but bias wrapped around hypocrisy at best!

Some in the social media has referred this as the “big media bias”. A closer look in to the ownership pattern and editorial control leads us to interesting findings. Thanks to reforms in our electoral system, we are updated on background and assets of our political representatives who are required to file a sworn affidavit at the time of elections. But it is not the case for media barons who run the media enterprise of Bharat. A handful of families and individuals that today own the entire mainstream media are not a creation of yesterday. They acquired their holdings by openly supporting political elites like Nehru-Gandhi family for years. As of today, the Indian Express is managed by its chief editor Raj Kamal Jha. Mr. Jha who is a vocal critic of Bharat’s PM Modi also happens to be the cousin of a national spokesperson for the Congress Party. But this is just tip of the iceberg. An influential consulting Editor and political commentator at The Indian Express is wife of senior Communist leader Sitaram Yechury. Perhaps a coincidence of sorts? Another member of the big-4 is Hindustan Times group that publishes the Hindustan Times newspaper. Shobhana Bhartia who comes from the illustrious Birla family inherited the post of chairperson and editorial director of the Hindustan Times Group from her father. The close links between the Nehru-Gandhi family and Birla go way back in time. With in a year of UPA coming to power, Shobhana Bhartia was awarded with Padma Shri by Sonia-Manmohan government (beside other pro-Congress media names like Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt). The following year, she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Beside these two newspapers, The Hindu and Times of India are equally vocal about their affiliations. The Hindu is owned by N Ram who enjoys close links with Chinese communist party to the extent that her daughter earned the privilege of spending a year in China “teaching English”. Malini Parthasarathy is former editor of The Hindu and its current co-chairperson of the Group. She is a close friend of Sonia Gandhi and never miss an opportunity to eulogise her leadership. As for the ‘Times of India’ under Vineet Jain, they seemed to have gained from everyone in power and masterfully use the craft of a balanced bias. The extent to which Times of India and its sister publications compromised its journalism during the last Uttar Pradesh Assembly election coincided with opening of its private university (Bennett University) in UP that was completed with an active backing from former CM Akhilesh Yadav. The ‘Times Lit Fest’ organised by Times of India group that see attendance of every major name from politics, sports and culture gets it sponsorship from a pan-masala company (a tobacco product). What’s better than chewing tobacco over some literary discussions.

Most of the challenge to this Congress favoured bias in mainstream English print media comes from the electronic media where likes of Zee News and India TV are seen as pro-BJP media outlets. But they do not enjoy the grasp on the narrative which is securely restricted with the big four as for now.

All this has huge implications on how Bharatiya media is perceived by the general masses. Many a journalists have used their connections to launch a political connection. While there is no bar to that, a compromise on fair and balanced reporting has made the Bharatiya media as one of the least trusted institution in the country. This crisis of credibility has vastly undermined the political discourse in the country. There has been a surge in defamation cases against the journalists and increased instances of murdering investigative journalists. There is an ongoing demand for a minimum media regulation but every such initiative comes with political undertones amid claims to compromise independence of the press. But surely our media and journalism is compromised when politically aligned names like Shekhar Gupta or Rajdeep Sardesai turn out to be its most influential voices. The lack of marginalised and backward Hindu communities in the powerful positions of Bharatiya media is a major cause of concern for media’s credibility. There is a clear class basis in the editorial boards of English media that favours the privileged convent educated and foreign returned kith and kin of bureaucrats, politicians and “eminent intellectuals”.

A leading journalist who was named and much maligned in the 2010 Nira Radia Tapes Scandal continue to enjoy much fanfare among the national and global media. The then government in power and the mainstream media closed its eyes to the scandal and no public probe on the lines of Leveson Inquiry was ever commissioned. This absolute disdain for any sense of accountability among the media professionals is the new norm. Surely this compromise the effective voice of media in shaping public opinion and reduces it to mere propaganda tool for the political masters. The issue is further complicated by poor editing standard, deplorable quality control and inaccurate reporting. The expansion of “Fake News” has strengthened in Bharat and vastly helped by the political class that see it as an opportunity for electoral gains. A compromised Bharatiya media has no qualms in putting narrative over facts and regularly misquoting statements under the garb of translation.

Media bias can have a variety of sources. While a small part of this bias can be blamed on professional laxity and lack of editorial supervision, much of this comes from a selective bias of the media barons and owner of the news organisation’s. It can be well distinguished when one looks at the use of terminologies. So whether a victim of a violent crime is identified by his age, caste, religion or geographical location is adapted as per the narrative. This bias originates with journalists having a preference for news reports that fit in to a form that can help construct outrage. Editors and publishers tolerate this bias since it provides political patronage and help increase profits through election advertising in a nation that is perpetually on an election trail.

Guardians, Gatekeepers or Cheerleaders?

Our free press is presumed to be one of the great achievements of Bharat’s thriving democracy. Perhaps right next to our comparatively independent judiciary. The conscience of a journalist is as much a guardian of our democracy as that is the valour of armed forces and prudence of a judge. Media can no longer claim to be the shield against the sword of authoritarianism when it deliberately and systematically suppresses facts in lieu of a political compromise by some senior editors. As it stands today, dominant sections of Bharatiya media is selectively picking news reports to attack chosen target. Therefore, pulling down of a Lenin statue on a private property in Tripura that recently witnessed a change in guards after decades gains wider media debate over blatant attacks on democratic institutions in West Bengal or frenzy of political murders and expansion of Islamic radicalism in Kerala. The conversion of media space in to an ‘information industry’ is worst impacted when journalist become henchmen of a political party and its desperation for relevance as happened in the amplified media coverage of Justice Loya case. A deliberate attempt to misinform the Bharatiya public and attack democratic institutions like judiciary is part of this trend.

It is for the wider Bharatiya media and journalists to stand against this selective bias or otherwise accept their complicity in a collective hypocrisy. While it is the discretion of the editors alone to decide which news has to be covered or probed and to what extent, ignoring news of equal magnitude because it does not suit the editorial agenda can not be accepted. In this age of social media (that has emerged as the antithesis to this selective bias), no newspaper can get away with lapses in accurate reporting of facts.

As Bharat heads towards the general elections due next year, this issues gains urgent attention. Media will be the platform for debate on performance of Modi government and questioning the government on its many shortcomings. There is a growing demand for a US Presidential style debate among contenders for the post of the Bharat’s Prime Minister. But can the mass media mired with hypocrisy and biased barons be trusted with this rather crucial task? I have serious reservations about that. We have seen how easy it was for despotic Erdogan regime in Turkey to shut down the voice of media once media lost credibility among the voters. Congress government of Indira Gandhi had censored media in the past and later her son Rajiv Gandhi came close to doing that. PM Modi regularly question the dominance of “news traders” yet continue to interact and exchange with the mass media. This speaks for his commitment towards the wider Bharatiya journalism that has started to resist the politically motivated bias among its dominating section.

Though an uphill task, the only solution ahead for the Bharatiya media is to pledge itself towards a course correction and point down those compromising journalistic ethics in newsrooms or opinion pages and bringing disrepute to the profession. The lobby of big publishers is very strong and shall surely resist this any such effort coming from the media industry. The publishers directly gain when peddling “paid propaganda” disguised as news in favour of politicians and as such will be quick to deter any effort for increased transparency by making overused claims of “attack on media”. Media bodies like Editors Guild of India lack national representation and has members with an active political role and open affiliations with political parties. The primary objective of this organisation is now attacking any opinion that dare take upon the big media bias. The complaint mechanism under the statutory Press Council of India has fallen short of its objective. As such, there is a greater responsibility on part of the readers who must develop a culture of scrutiny of the press by demanding bigger say to reader feedback on published news. Government must step in as well where needed by creating and updating institutions for self regulation and penalising propaganda coming from headlines to incite communal hate. Our constitution has tasked the state for for protection of free speech and strengthen the constitutional guarantees of an independent media. The cases where news reporting is in violation of the law of the land including instances of publishing name or pictures of dead minor must be penalised in strictest forms.

The role of media in a democracy is informing the public about issues with fairness and accuracy using objective and factual reporting. This is not the case among the mainstream media of Bharat which is ideologically biased and politically aligned. News reporting has become opinion-mongering by celebrity journalists with their western rooted ideas on liberalism and tolerance delivered with a conscious and intelligent manipulation. We can not let the Bharatiya media be run and managed by media proprietors running profit-maximising news organisations. They have turned our newspapers into real estate advertising pamphlets and this must be resisted. The freedom, independence and pluralism of the Bharatiya media is at stake.

– By Ravi Kant

(This article first appeared on the author’s medium blog )

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