Democracy and the Perils of Bending Reality

I thank Shri Abhimanyu Chandra and the Academe India for inviting to give the keynote address in for this years’ India Journalism week.

The theme, Journalism as the Fourth Pillar of Democracy, induces conceptual speculation. Architecturally speaking, human endeavour generally is to create structures in consonance with the laws of gravity – stable, balanced and self-sustaining. Structural engineering permits it to be uni-pillar, bi-pillar, tri-pillar or multi-pillar depending on functional requirements, aesthetics, individual preferences and prejudices. Each of these plays a role in determining shape and size; equally relevant is the subsoil and its strength to support the structure.

The structure we are discussing today is democracy and the relevance of journalism to it. Speaking on parliamentary democracy in Pune in December 1952, Dr. Ambedkar added his own definition of it after citing the standard definitions by Abraham Lincoln and Walter Bagehot. Democracy, he said, is ‘a form and a method of government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed.’ He went on to list seven conditions for its successful functioning: (a) no glaring inequalities in society (b) strong opposition (c) no tyranny of the majority over minority (d) equality in law and administration (e) observance of constitutional morality (f) functioning of moral order in society (g) public conscience.#

In democratic theory the individual citizen is sovereign and practices democracy through ‘open discussion. In actual practice however the citizen does not have the knowledge to make judgment on all matters in the public domain and be ‘an active and intelligent participant’. Access to information therefore is critical and this is where fact-finding individuals and agencies are required. What hold good for individual is most of the time equally true of groups. Many years back, Walter Lippman had observed that ‘the force of public opinion is partisan, spasmodic, simple-minded and external’ and that even ‘when power, however absolute and unaccountable, reigns without provoking a crisis, public opinion does not challenge it. Somebody must challenge arbitrary power first. The public can only come to his assistance’.#

That ‘somebody’ is often a well-researched report in the media.

If journalism’s primary role is to inform and educate, it needs human and technological wherewithal to do it and has the right to do so without unreasonable constrain. In other words, the functioning norms and modalities of journalism are necessarily impacted upon by the atmospherics in which it functions.

A journalist of another generation had given a description, in contrasting expressions, on the role of the press in different societies: ‘the role of the press in a democracy is different from that in a totalitarian state. Democracy is government by law; totalitarian state is government by authority; in the former decisions are arrived at by discussion, and in the latter by dictation; in the former the press acts as a check on authority, in the latter it is the hand maid of authority; in the former the press makes the people to think, in the latter to obey without question; in the former the press is necessarily to be free, as without free press there is no free discussion, in the latter the press supports authority.’#

This provides the rationale for journalism in a democracy. A simple description of its functions is to inform, educate, guide, and entertain. Each of these is a valid and essential function, more so in modern societies whose size and numbers need means of communication other than direct face-to-face ones. This is sustained by law. The Supreme Court has held that ‘the fundamental freedom under Article 19(1)(a) can be reasonably restricted only for the purposes mentioned in Articles 19(2) and the restriction must be justified on the anvil of necessity and not the quicks and of convenience or expediency. Open criticism of Government policies and operations is not a ground for restricting expression. We must practice tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.’#

The legacy of our freedom movement includes a distinguished record of the role of the Indian press. Gandhi ji was probably the first editor to have started a newspaper for the express purpose of breaking the law governing the publication of newspapers. This mood was well reflected in the Urdu couplet:

Khincho na kamanon ko na talwar nikalo
Jab top muqabil ho to akhbar nikalo

The consequences of this in non-democratic setups can be troublesome. Some in this audience may recall that the Intelligence Bureau of the British Indian government kept a close watch on politically provocative poems. Some years back a researcher in the National Archives published a selection of these.

It was therefore not surprising that independent India set up a Press Commission in 1952 whose first recommendation was to safeguard the freedom of the press and help the press maintain its independence and adopt practices and procedures to this end. Its report in 1959 was given legislative shape by the Press Council of India Act, 1965. The underlying logic was Gandhi ji’s caution that “an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy” and Nehru’s observation that ‘if there is no responsibility and no obligation attached to it, freedom gradually withers away.’

A second Press Commission was set up in 1978. Its report in 1982 put the focus on development and opined that a responsible press could also be a free press and vice versa. It recommended that newspaper business should be separated from industries and commercial interests, there should be a Board of Trustees between editors and proprietors of the newspaper, there should be a fixed proportion of news and advertisement in small, medium and big newspapers and the Government should prepare a stable Advertisement Policy.

While the Press Council’s charter aims to preserve the freedom of the press and maintain and improve the standards of press in India, it has no authority as a quasi-judicial body to impose punishments or enforcing its directions for professional or ethical violations. Its objectives nevertheless remain laudable. Thus the 2010 guidelines state that ‘the media today does not remain satisfied as the Fourth Estate, it has assumed the foremost importance in society and governance. Such is the influence of media that it can make or unmake any individual, institution or any thought. So all pervasive and all-powerful is today its impact on the society. With so much power and strength, the media cannot loose sight of its privileges, duties and obligations.’


What is the ground reality? Is this being done, and to what extent?
The socio-economic changes of recent decades have highlighted a facet of the Fourth Estate that was less adequately appreciated earlier. The media now has an identifiable business and commercial persona and has been integrated in the market. Today’s media organizations are large business entities with thousands of employees and huge financial and other assets. While their primary professional duty is to their readership for keeping them informed and appraised with news, views and ideas, the commercial logic brings in a new set of stakeholders; I refer to the shareholders of these companies.
These developments have brought into play a new set of considerations that guide the professional decisions of the press. The days of the great editors who had a decisive say in newspaper policy on public issues are perhaps a matter of the past; instead, we have a basket of considerations in which the demands of professional journalism are carefully balanced with the interests of owners and stakeholders of media companies and their cross media interests.
The interplay of these conflicting demands is evident and subject of public debate. The phenomenal growth in the media industry, and intense competition in it, induces journalists and their supervisors to look as much at the top line and bottom line growth as at headlines and editorial content. An eminent journalist observed some time back that ‘even editors who support the liberalization of the Indian economy have become increasingly concerned over the growing control that advertisers wield over news content’ and had expressed the apprehension that the media’s ‘growing distance from its historic role as the provider of public information threatens to transform communities of citizens into islands of consumers.’
A perusal of the print and electronic media today is suggestive of the tilting balance between news and advertising content and the fading distinction between editorials and advertorials. The emergence of the Internet and 24×7 television as also of social media reporting have put additional pressure on the print media.
The phenomenon is global. Earlier this year a former editor of the Guardian newspaper, Alan Rusbridger, wrote a book on the remaking of journalism and concluded that ‘journalists no-longer have a near monopoly on news and the means of distribution’ and that ‘journalism has to rethink its methods; reconfigure its relationship with the new kaleidoscope of other voices. It has to be more open about what it does and how it does it.’#
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the development of grass root journalism, subject of an interesting study by Alan Gillmor two years before Twitter was born. He opined that ‘tomorrow’s news reporting and production will be more of a conversation…The lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we’re only beginning to grasp now. The communication network itself will be a medium for everyone’s voice, not just the few who can afford to buy multimillion-dollar printing presses, launch satellites, or win the government’s permission to squat on the public’s airwaves.’ #

Some aspects of this paradigm shift in the production, transmission, and consumption of media products are worthy of mention:
Technology is value neutral. It is only an instrumentality and not a panacea. The work of defining and implementing a value system and a vision for an organization, a society or polity can not be substituted by technology.

The collision of journalism and technology is having major consequences for three constituencies: journalists, newsmakers, and the audience. The evidence seems persuasive that something big has happened.
The convergence between news media, entertainment and social media has eroded the demarcation between journalism, public relations, advertising and entertainment. It is a continuum of information in which traditional definitions of news overlap and blur.

This has created new ethical dilemmas that lie at the core of many issues of public debate today and pose questions: who sets the terms of the public debate? Is there enough media space for the marginalized, the disposed and the vulnerable? Have sections of the media developed stereotypes? Has the media upheld the social and political compact that our people given to them through our Constitution?
It is not clear where public interest ends and private interest begins, where profit ends and the not-for-profit begins, where government ends and the non-government begins, where one’s fist ends and the other’s nose begins. There are no easy answers to these questions. The room for introspection remains. This has to take into account the political atmospherics of society.
Our democratic state structure dedicated to pursue a development model premised on justice, equality and fraternity is in reality, as Rajni Kothari put it, ‘characterized by the politicization of a fragmented social structure through a wide dispersal and permeation of political forms, values and ideologies.’ Others have spoken of institutional decay and cancerous growth within them. One observer of the national scene has resorted to a line from the poet Yeats to describe the situation: ‘the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ Lost in the process is Ambedkar’s focus on public conscience and the observance of constitutional morality. There has some debate of late about this latter term but, as a former judge of the Supreme Court has observed, it comes under three aspects: equality, liberty and dignity.#

This general malaise across all sections of society has its media version. The World Press Freedom Index for 2018 based on a set of known parameters including media independence, transparency, and violence against media persons has given India a ranking of 138 in a total of 180 countries. It was 136 a year earlier and 105 in 2009. Similarly, the Freedom of Press report of the Freedom House categorizes India as ‘party free’ with an overall score of 43 (out of 100). The Press Council of India is dismissive of these ranking but does not assign reasons for it.

Violence against journalists remains a matter of serious concern. It has two aspects: firstly violence by those in segments of militant pubic who do not want coverage of misdeeds, the Gauri Lankesh case being the most condemnable instance of it; and secondly by the authorities in the shape of local security forces who do not want the media to report strong-arm tactics used against public expressions of outrage in specific happenings. Correctives to the latter are few and rarely prompt, as in the Hashimpura killings case of 1986. In most of these, there is usually state complicity in acts of omission or commission. Both transgress what the law permits; both violate the Rule of Law.

Some writings in the media are candid about a crisis of credibility, internal constrains, curtailment of dissent, and an atmosphere of intimidation highlighted by specific instances of violence. One commentator has also attributed this to lack of economic security: ‘if you challenge the government you run the risk of losing your job. Yet for many this is not just their livelihood but the anchor of their (and sometimes their families) existence.’# Pronouncements of government personalities are occasionally suggestive of derision of the media. The phenomenon of fake news, ‘alternate facts’, and trolling has added to it in good measure. A former Chief Election Commissioner has recently commented on the adverse impact ‘in a big way’ on voter behaviour in elections and the need ‘to bring in a robust mechanism for conduct of social media platforms.’#

In most cases, the working conditions of journalists are not in consonance of legal requirements and this has its impact on their work. Some in this audience might recall that in hearings before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology (whose report was submitted in May 2013) a witness had observed that ‘there are two types of journalists, those who are not influenced by ideals and principles of journalism, they are happy, and those want to be really journalists, they are unhappy.’
A instance of the despicable practice of ‘paid news’ came to public notice a few months back in the revelation by the website Cobrapost on the effort to influence media owners to bent content to political opinion of certain religious propensities. A single-judge high court ex parte injunction given at the behest of one of the named parties was vacated by a larger bench on the ground that the courts cannot stifle debate unless offending content is demonstrated to be malicious or palpably false. The exposure was significant enough for the Washington journal Foreign Policy to carry a detailed report on it which observed that it ‘reveals the ease with which the Indian press seems to be willing to peddle a political agenda’.

There are others that have wider bearings. I refer to the Editors Guild’s statement of August 8 this year titled ‘an increasingly challenging environment on freedom of the press.’ It ‘condemned the manner in which the right to practice free and independent journalism is seen to be undermined by a combination of forces – some media owners’ inability to withstand political covert or from the political establishment and frequent instances of blocking or interference in the transmission of television content that is seen to be critical of the government.’ It cited specific instances, decries ‘all attempts on the part of the government to interfere in the free and independent functioning of journalists, either put under pressure directly, or through the proprietors.’ The statement urged media owners ‘not to cow down to political pressure,’ described as ‘Owellian’ the interference with TV signals, and demanded that corrective action be taken. It decried the tendency ‘on the part of the government and the political class to ‘use selective denial of journalistic access as a weapon.’

What is the system’s response to it? The term ‘regulator’ is anathema to democratic vocabulary yet its end result can and is achieved by means indirect or subtle. One aspect of it, often invoked for reasons of convenience and/or ‘national interest’ is called ‘the administrative truth’ that on transmission to a believing media becomes ‘the media truth’ and the two together get transmuted in many instances into ‘the judicial truth’ psychologically satisfying to a believing public.

In our system, advertisements emanating from government agencies and PSUs are a major source of income for sustenance and both are known to be used for influencing the media. Similarly, the most effective de facto media regulator happens to be the advertisers and sponsors who determine the bulk of the revenue stream of our media industry. Their aims and desired outcomes, however, might not align with public policy goals of the government or markers of public interests and may, instead, stand in opposition to them.
Each of these trends in the changed and changing media world is an instance of bending reality to convenience, to becoming a propaganda model of manufacturing consent and ‘news filters’ about which Chomsky and Herman have written so powerfully. Does this serve the objectives of democracy, of speaking truth to power, of journalism being the watchdog of democracy, of standing up for the rights and freedoms of citizens?

Vibrant journalism is based on professional ethics and should be the rule in a democracy, rather than the exception it has come to be. Last year an eminent former judge rightly observed that ‘the strength of a nation is not gauged by the uniformity of its citizens (but) is revealed when it does not feel threatened by its citizens expressing revolutionary views; when its citizens do not resort to violence against fellow citizens, merely for expressing a contrary view.’ #

Anything less than this would be an admission of succumbing to pressures, governmental or market or a mix of both however subtle; it would tantamount to impuissance.

There is perhaps an imperative need for a Third Press Commission to examine the qualitative changes that technology and changing public perceptions have brought forth, to study the impact of cross media holding, the decline of the institution of Editor, the phenomenon of fake news, and to find ways to strengthen the media, while ensuring its financial independence alongside its editorial independence.

Allow me to conclude. I have ventured to give expression to thoughts of a concerned citizen about disturbing trends in dire need of correctives. A couplet of the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz who in his various incarnations was also a journalist is expressive of my approach:

Hum sheikh na leader na sahib na sahafi
Jo khud nahin karte wo hidayat na karain ge

I am neither a sheikh, nor a leader, nor a follower, nor a journalist
I shall not recommend what I myself do not do.

Jai Hind.