Sangita P. Menon Malhan – Hamartia and The Indian Media

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Hamartia and The Indian Media – Sangita P. Menon Malhan, author of The TOI Story: How a Newspaper Changed the Rules of the Game. Harper Collins 2013 

India’s elections in April-May 2014 saw the media play a larger role than ever before. The scale of the exercise – nearly 400 news channels and every large and small newspaper and magazine worth its salt, fussing and gushing over politicians – and the stunning span – almost non-stop reportage from September 2013 – beats everything else in terms of election coverage.

Elections in India have always been a mega event of noise and colour playing out on dusty roads and vibrant streets; somehow retaining order and method beneath the visible chaos and the charming madness. It would, however, be fair to say that this time around, a parallel spectacle of overwhelming proportions played out in India’s newsrooms as well.

Sadly, though, this election also brought the limitations of the media. More appropriately, it was the Hamartia of the media – the errors of judgement and the tragic flaws of the protagonist as described in Aristotle’s Poetics – which emerged during this saturated election coverage. There was also hubris on show, of course. 

It was, therefore, with some trepidation and with a little excitement that I realized that the role of the Indian media in the recent general elections had all the attributes of a classical Greek tragedy. An entire generation of newsmakers (and the now-well known `news traders’) has had the collective distinction of having being played by the environment and by their common goal – survival, with or without meaning to do so. Have they been helpless? Yes, and No.   

By the end of the jamboree, it was clear that unless the media reinvents itself significantly from here, its high point would actually mark the start of its rapid decline. Underlying trends, notably social media and the democratisation of opinion, suggest that Election 2014 might have been the peak – the point from where begins the journey downhill.

The media has been criticised for not being objective in its election coverage. There is data to show, for example, that Mr Narendra Modi (now Prime Minister of India) got a disproportionate share of airtime. In many cases, hagiography and melodrama passed off as news feature. Even leading media houses failed to ask tough questions of Mr Modi, often grateful for being allowed to interview him at all in the first place.

Public theatre ruled the day and rackety visuals sought to hold the attention of a disgruntled – and cynical – electorate. Beginning mid-December 2013, and particularly in March and April 2014, the din only got louder. Is this to say that the media entirely lost the plot, or did they go on to the stage with their eyes open!

A pre-determined narrative, the pressure to compete and to fill airtime with sensational, juicy distractions, offering easily consumable content – all these redefined news coverage and made it entertaining and light in every sense of the word. It often neutralized the distinctive voice and made clones out of a seemingly dissimilar Press. Most organizations copied one another, and said the same things, with no conscious desire to provoke dissent or opposition in thought and definitely not in word.

Most media channels did not do much, if anything, to scrutinise the claims by political parties through objective on-ground reportage.  Channels happily aired footage of public rallies from the political parties conducting them. Shooting public rallies became nothing short of an art form, with camera angles used to exaggerate participation and play up the response to politician speeches.

The channels got into the act in prime time panel discussions in the evening. These mostly centred around inane issues, trying to deconstruct speeches and bytes of the day and locating meaning where none existed. All this, done by the same faces, day after day. Many among the second and third rung politicians learnt to make the most of it. Hurl provocative statements during the day, and end up basking in prime time fame for that one evening.

This perverse drill meant that viewers were deprived of scrutiny, objectivity and analysis of key issues. Election coverage became a non-stop soap opera, severely eroding the role and credibility of mainstream national media. Although the election speeches were replete with mentions of development, jobs, battling corruption, communalism, and so on, the media rarely chose to go beyond the rhetoric.

The central question, however, is why did media coverage of the elections turn out this way? One part of the explanation is in terms of ideology and partisanship. Indeed, the 2014 elections has been termed as a highly “polarised” election. Especially on issues of communalism and minority rights, there seemed to be a divide, real or perceived. The polity was seen to be sharply on either side of the divide.

Some of that ideological fervour may have seeped into the media.  There were clear instances of partisanship in media coverage. It did appear at some stage that you were either “pro Modi or anti Modi”. The media played along. It took sides, often in brazen ways.

Bias and prejudice are by themselves serious issues for the media. Integrity and objectivity are central to the media’s role. But on delving deeper, one finds that underlying this behaviour were more serious factors relating to the long term health of the media.

The fact is that media is a loss making business in India. Barring a few leading houses, most media companies are bleeding. This includes several media outfits that have a long track record of competence and credibility. In a wildly fragmented and intensely competitive market, there just is not adequate advertising money to keep everyone going. Especially in an economy that has slowed.

In this situation, media is increasingly having to rely on big business for survival.  Under the impact of debt, some of the leading houses have had to obtain a bail-out, as it were, from financers and business houses.

It turned out that many of these channel owners, like much of big business in India, were pro-Modi during these elections. They viewed the outgoing Congress government as indecisive and ridden with corruption, notably in the last two years of its regime. It is just that big business did not keep this bias to itself. It leveraged the media under its control to further this cause.

There were instances of leading journalists being cautioned against tweeting against Mr Modi. Editors were under pressure to toe a line. Some that did not were asked to leave. There was a clamour among journalists and media observers to make public the ownership and cross holdings of media houses. Lack of transparency, they argued, was making election coverage murky.

 To be sure, some of these journalists used rhetoric and hurled shallow and careless comments in their famed panel discussions to discredit candidates. They did not have well-reasoned, measured and factual content to speak with conviction. All in all, none of the sides of the mainstream English media covered itself with glory.

Unfortunately, the print medium followed suit. They seemed overwhelmed by the image-led mega spectacle being created by the television media. Their coverage remained devoid of issues and balance for the most part. They first contributed to building the Modi wave, and then surrendered to it.

None of this is a comment on the capabilities or otherwise of any candidate. This is not an argument that Modi won on the back of an unprecedented media support, or that it was even decisive in his landslide victory. Rather, this is a narrative only about how the media succumbed, big time.

The most notable part though is that despite the scale, size and homogeneity of the media coverage, mainstream media was in fact rendered irrelevant by competing factors because Modi’s campaign was itself unprecedented in ambition, planning and execution. It appears that no other election campaign, barring Obama’s presidential campaign in 2012, comes anywhere close.

According to the Business Standard newspaper, between September 2013 and May 2014, Modi travelled 300,000 kilometres across 25 states, addressing 437 public meetings. He also participated in 5500 video conferences, public events and 3D holographic rallies.

Combined with this was a relentless campaign of advertising, perfectly orchestrated with a great sense of timing. This raised questions – muted towards the end – about the source of funding such a mega campaign. But the fact is that mainstream, traditional news media was in that sense completely swamped by the alternative channels of communication. They were bypassed.

It also left one wondering whether the media is relevant beyond a point, in a play of such grand magnitude. Do newspapers and television channels set precedents and influence trends any more?

To be charitable to the traditional media, some of its failings can be attributed to the fact that it was struggling to remain relevant in the face of the barrage of social media, advertising and on ground effort that marked Modi’s campaign. They no longer enjoyed the status of being the primary channel of communication between politicians and their voters. They were left with little space within which to set the agenda of the elections.

Add to this Modi’s charisma and his exceptional communication abilities. These were tailor-made to win in the image led spectacle, especially against rivals who were particularly mediocre in this aspect. So if the media reasons that its Modi obsession was driven by viewer ratings and nothing else, we may have to grant it to them to a certain extent. “Do not blame Caesar; blame the people of Rome who have so enthusiastically acclaimed and adored him.’’ (A quote attributed to Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero).

Those who lament the role of the media in the 2014 elections must accept the factors underlying it – bleeding bottomline constraining resources for quality programming, new sets of owners with limited experience in running the media, the power of the social media and on ground efforts challenging the monopoly of newspapers and television as mediators between politicians and voters.

Unfortunately for the media, this does not end with the elections. The 2014 elections only brought these underlying trends to the forefront. Social media, with its innovative models of customised communication and advertising, is striking at the heart of traditional media business models.

Unlike the West, social media may be constrained by relatively low penetration of the internet and smartphones. A generation brought up on morning newspapers and family viewing of television may take a while to switch to online and digital. But this is only a matter of time. The writing is on the wall.

This is leading traditional media to bend over backwards to humour advertisers. Newspapers creating multiple front pages to humour advertisers, evident in recent weeks, is one such “innovation’’.  Puritans scoff at it. But we have to realise that the traditional media is battling for long term survival.

At the same time, the carpet bombing coverage of Mr Modi’s mass mobilisation initiatives and overseas visits, suggests that the shindig-as-news mode of television is not going anywhere. If anything, it has intensified.

The 2014 elections have thus been defining for the Indian media. It showcased their size and stamina, but also made stark their limitations. Let’s just hope that there is some retribution at the end of this all. Time will surely tell!

Says Mephistopheles to Faust in Goethe’s eponymous masterpiece, “I’ll be your servant here, and I’ll not stop or rest, at your decree. When we’re together on the other side, you’ll do the same for me.’’ ….. ?

(The eroteme… is mine.)

© Sangita Malhan

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