Barely a few years after India’s independence, Jawaharlal Nehru used the phrase “jute press” to refer to the leading barons of Indian media. The phrase was a thinly-veiled dig at some of the prominent newspapers owners – like the Jains, Birlas and Goenkas – who had first made money in the jute business.
It’s unclear as to whether the country’s first prime minister chose the phrase for how “jute” rhymed with “jhooth”, or falsehood. But it was evocative of his misgivings about corporate-media ties – it sought to tap into the stereotype of villainy that the socialist regime reserved for the business class.
But that didn’t stop the mastheads owned by the “jute press” from becoming India’s leading English newspapers. The frontrunner among them, the Times of India, even got into the top league of global English newspapers with the highest circulation. This also meant that these news dailies grew into professional media houses, equipped with full-time journalistic staff for news-gathering and editorial processes, as well as a commentariat for opinion and analysis.
At the same time, they diversified into publishing newspapers in Indian languages. Their readership was large enough to become a key constituent of India’s mainstream media space, and even a part of the language press. More significantly, by the turn of the 21st century, they were seen as becoming a part, as well as the creators, of post-independent India’s public sphere – a concept that German thinker Jurgen Habermas used in studying the evolving forms of mass media in Europe since the 18th century. In fact, it was even more evident in India’s language press.
In his study of this growth in the news industry in at least 13 Indian languages in the last two decades of the last century, scholar Robin Jeffrey traced how the marriage of capitalist initiative and technology ushered in “India’s newspaper revolution”. In the Hindi press, for instance, – and was, in turn, shaped by – a number of factors in the post-economic liberalisation phase. In the meantime, the country saw the widening of the media space to include new forms like television and online news.
This expansion and the new entrants in the news industry, however, also meant that bogey-raising about corporate-news media ties became shriller.
In the last two weeks, for instance, a set of reactions to the Adani group’s bid to acquire a significant stake in NDTV echoed the same alarmist pitch. Predictably, the bugbear of the threat to the independence of media was evoked, and the purported proximity of Adani to the current regime at the centre was cited to buttress this concern.
The motives behind the bid are a matter of conjecture. But these reactions tend to miss far more than they claim to see. In the process, such anxieties are a subset of a larger misreading, or a very partial reading, of the general interventions in content produced by a news media platform. It also overlooks the different sets of actors shaping the tilt.
There are many ways in which such blind spots reveal themselves.
First, in general, a news media consumer has to grapple with two primary sources of bias: one that emanates from the owners or promoters of a news platform, and the other rooted in who constitutes the editorial staff. But the bogey-raising about threats to “independent” content often creates a pecking order of biases; it gives precedence to how owners might influence content over the biases, agendas and slants brought in by editors and reporters. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that both intervene in their own ways, or in tandem, to produce a biased news and commentary product. Both have their share of gatekeeping exercises – what has to be carried (and in what proportion) as well as what should be given a miss. Even if the tokenism of a divergent view is grudgingly given space, the general tone and tenor of the news platform can be easily grasped.
A section of news consumers are already aware of this, far more in times when a polarised media space is seen through the lens of narrative-hunting. One may, for instance, look at the divided opinion among media consumers about NDTV. The channel and its digital arm, primarily owned by a media business family, evoke different responses of being “biased” and “fair” depending on what section of news consumers you ask.
It isn’t only because of how news consumers look at owners, but also because of how they perceive the inclinations of the channel’s editors and reporters. In 2010, for instance, when the Radia tapes controversy hit the news media, NDTV’s group editor’s proximity to a political party and its effect on the channel’s content was noticed far more by viewers than where the family owning the channel stood on the issue.
Sometimes, the widely perceived biases of owners is emphatically reinforced by editors in ways that put even the owners at unease. In the last decade, it was obvious through a turn of events that unfolded at the Hindu, primarily a family-owned newspaper.
In 2013, explaining the decision to divest Siddharth Varadarajan of his role as the paper’s editor, N Ram had said there was “editorialising in the guise of news coverage”. In a , media critic Sevanti Ninan remarked on this episode: “This was later spelt out as ‘editorialising in the guise of news coverage’, ‘unfair and exaggerated reporting’ and ‘banning or downplaying the coverage of certain personalities with personal preference and prejudice’. (All quotes are from N Ram ’s reply to dissenting board of directors of the company.)”
Second, in the last few years, initiatives to create non-corporate and supposedly “independent media”, mostly in the digital space, have disappointed in their claims of “fairness”. Now, what is obvious is that this space is split into echo chambers, largely driven by the combined effect of biases, ideological leanings, and interests of the promoters, as well as editorial directions in general. Either in their own ways or in tandem, this has undermined the promise. Among other factors, it’s also a result of how alternative media became of being “counter” to something or the other.
Moreover, a third element has been added by new modes of fundraising – subscriptions, donations or some form of crowdfunding. The lure of confirmation bias means that a significant section of subscribers coalesced to in ideologically aligned new media initiatives. In the process, they emerged as a third group whose capacity for agenda-setting and reinforcing editorial biases cannot be discounted.
Third, an offshoot of this has been attempts to attack the commercial motivations of mainstream media houses, particularly their ad-driven revenue earnings. This is how a number of non-corporate startups promising “independent” and “alternate” media pitch their initiatives. However, such a simplistic take on the working of the mainstream space is rooted in a flawed understanding of the interplay of commerce and the expansion of news media in the country, and the role of the mainstream media in creating the public sphere.
In her study of the widening reach of the Hindi press, Sevanti Ninan brought out how these processes actually added new realms of discourse in the Hindi heartland, reinventing the public sphere.
In her work Headlines from the Heartland, Ninan wrote: “In fact when commercially-driven newspaper barons pushed their products into small towns and villages with the help of price incentives, the effect wasn’t of degenerating public sphere. These newspapers democratised debate so that an impoverished head-loader could figure in it, as much as chief minister...they also raised public expectations that the state would respond to the needs and grievances of ordinary people, aired in these newspapers.”
Besides the civic function, the sheer scale of news-and-views dissemination in the mainstream space means that it remained indispensable even for consumers of alternative media. The news-deficient and far more ideologically-driven alternative news media has been no match for the mainstream media’s news basket and spread of viewpoints.
Moreover, the fears about corporate takeovers undermining diversity of players and voices in the news space seem increasingly anachronistic in the age of internet-driven information highways. In one way or another, an idea or piece of information now has far more avenues to be out in the public sphere than the actors denying space to them.
The understanding of the strands of the news media-public sphere interplay shouldn’t lose its way in the simplistic binaries of corporate and non-corporate media. The quixotic ideas and ensuing fallacies about the unmediated media space only add more layers of bias and erect self-deluding echo chambers. Perhaps coming to grips with elements of relativity, scale and specific approach can better aid the understanding of the evolving public sphere and its multiple creators in the country.
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