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A crumbling fourth pillar, and the forgotten politics of boycott: Manav Bhushan

February 7, 2013

Guest post by MANAV BHUSHAN

Assaulted as we are by the deafening cacophony of India’s 24-hour news channels (183 of them, as Manav Bhushan tells us below), there are some of us who for a long time now, have simply refused to appear on TV “debates”, to give them sound bytes to be seamlessly incorporated into their endlessly looping mindlessness. Essentially, we have exercised a politics of refusal – we will not add to the din. At a recent meeting on media ethics at the Indian Women’s Press Corps, I had expressed a fervent desire that every single 24-hour news channel should shut shop for one week while they went into deep introspection – one week of blessedly blank screens, one week of healing quiet in which people could once again learn to listen, to remember that there can be more than 2 or 3 sound-bytes through which to capture the complexities of the world in which we live. MANAV BHUSHAN makes a more radical suggestion below –   that we exercise the only power we have under capitalism, our power as consumers, and exercise a week-long boycott of a news channel for specific reasons, to force drastic changes to its policy and style of functioning. “In an age where each channel depends more on our TRPs than we do on any one of them, we hold enormous, albeit unrealized power,” he says. Over to Manav:

In a speech delivered at the Reuters memorial lecture in November 2012 at Oxford University discussing the Indian news industry, Prannoy Roy candidly said that ”Indian news is currently in a race to the bottom”. He further added that upon comparing the average TV viewership in India (1 hour) to that in the US (5 hours), one is led to the utterly dismal conclusion that this race is far from over. Of course, this is nothing new, and anyone who has followed the ‘debates’ (if you can call them that) on the extremely unfortunate incidents at the LOC can testify that the shows conducted by Arnab Goswami and Barkha Dutt were less news and more war-mongering. In fact, the brutal truth about the flourishing news industry- which has gone from one state-run news channel to 183 independent news channels in just 25 years- is that many of its members are in the business of blackmail, of selling sex, violence and are prepared to go to any lengths for the sake of advertising revenues. And there is a difference, though subtle, between advertising revenues and television rating points (TRPs). 

Running a positive story on Jindal may not get you high TRPs, but could ensure a sweet advertising deal. Similarly, as P Sainath noted in one of his lectures, running a half page story on the rapper Eminem in a Hindi newspaper (as was done by Dainik Bhaskar) may be totally meaningless for the readers, but will create an advertising space for certain consumer products. However, high TRPs usually guarantee a high advertising rate, and this is where Arnab Goswami’s success, and our abject failure comes in.

The most frightening aspect of the Caravan biopic on Mr. Goswami is not the unflattering light in which his own personality has been painted. It is the fact that we, the viewers, have validated his confrontational, jingoistic style of reporting by rewarding Times Now with unprecedented TRPs. What is even more disturbing is how willingly other channels have followed suit. Of course, in other departments, such as promoting tabloid news on the front page (or the home page of the website), other channels such as NDTV have left even Times Now far behind. So if you were surprised by how prominently NDTV features celebrity stories in general, and the ‘Kingfisher Calendar hunt’ in particular, then you may be interested to know that one of the NDTV channels is partly owned by the UB (Kingfisher) group. However, to single out reporters and channels is to miss the wood for the trees. The basic point is that there is something rotten in the state of Indian news, and the fact that people have started looking back at the Doordarshan days with a sense of warm nostalgia is a cause for alarm.

The reason that countries like the UK and Germany have adopted forms of public-sponsored, not-for-profit news is that they feel that there are grave dangers of a news industry that functions only for profit. And these dangers are presenting themselves in all sorts of sinister ways in the world’s largest democracy. Before the horrific Delhi gang rape, one of the previous cases to be reported was that of a Spanish woman raped in her flat in Bombay. What was most striking about the coverage of this ghastly crime were the irrelevant and totally inexplicable details that had been provided in ALL reports covering this story, including NDTV and Times of India. Now voyeurism is nothing new, and appeals to the most base of the human instincts, but the kind of voyeurism displayed in these stories- using the details of a rape crime to further their own ends (read advertising revenues), and garbing it as ‘news’- is enough to make one feel sick to the stomach. One look at all the advertisements featured on the Times of India page with this story illustrates this point beautifully: three advertisements for weight loss, one for a dating website, and four links to other articles showing scantily clad women.

Of course, no one bats an eyelid, because everyone is so accustomed to the script. And no one is alarmed when, at the other extreme, the gang rape of a Dalit woman is presented only as a caste-issue, where violence against women is merely incidental. There is absolutely no doubt that the rape of a Dalit woman is a caste issue, which makes this case even worse than others. However, we need to understand what motivates the use of such vastly different lenses in reporting different circumstances surrounding the same crime. The gang rape in Delhi evoked a public outcry because people could identify with the victim, because they felt that she was ‘one of us’. On the other hand, the detached language and overwhelming emphasis on the word ‘Dalit’ in a story of a woman’s rape in Haryana is designed to create a boundary between the middle-class consumer of news and the lower-caste victim.

After all of this, when the entire country is up in arms protesting about violence against women, our TV news anchors have the gall to sit and preach to the advertising industry, the film industry and everybody on the streets about how they should not try to sell sex and should be conscious of the misogynistic attitudes that they help to perpetuate. Yes they should, and yes we should and most importantly- so should you. During the same panel discussion, the cameraman repeatedly picks out and focusses on only the attractive women sitting in the audience. The panel discussion is followed by an attractive model reporting on cricket, and then the ‘news’ switches to the latest scandals from the Bollywood gossip industry.

So what should be done?

The phone-hacking scandal in the UK recently culminated in the Leveson Inquiry report, which recommended legislation to set up an independent regulator with punitive powers to monitor the media. However, like so many commission reports in India, this report has almost been consigned to the public dustbin in the UK. Thus, what I suggest is not a new law or commission of inquiry- although in a utopian scenario, where laws are passed and then not misused, this would be most welcome. I suggest that instead of cursing the rapacious capitalism that has brought us to this juncture, we exercise the only power that it gives us – our power as consumers. If the boycott of foreign cloth could be organized at a time when there were few alternatives, and if it could become a vital part of an independence struggle, there is no reason why a week-long boycott of a news channel cannot result in some drastic changes to its policy and style of functioning. In an age where each channel depends more on our TRPs than we do on any one of them, we hold enormous, albeit unrealized power.

In fact, the tool of a peaceful boycott could also be used to communicate our condemnation of misogynistic songs, films and consumer-products such as vagina-fairness creams. But the real question is whether we as a society are mature enough to collectively decide on a target, and whether we can keep sight of the all-important distinction between a boycott and a ban imposed by government (or violent organizations such as the Shiv Sena). While the former is a voluntary expression by individuals of their fundamental rights, the latter is a curtailment of the same rights by a bully, and must not be accorded any space in a democratic society.

Even though a boycott is dependant upon the isolation of one particular individual or entity, it is important to understand that it serves a much wider purpose. The cancellation of one concert didn’t just affect Honey Singh, or make a scapegoat out of him- it (hopefully) served as a warning for all singers hoping to profit from misogynistic lyrics. A more sustained, but judicious use of this instrument could go a long way in sending a strong message to the powers that shape our society (usually for the worse).

One of the only positives of the last two years in India has been the spontaneous outpouring of people on the streets protesting against issues like corruption and gender-inequality, which affect all strata of society. Whatever the criticisms of this middle-class awakening may be, it is undeniable that the protests are linked to a feeling amongst the middle classes that going out on to the streets may make a difference, and that their voices could matter. This realization – that “collective action” is not just a meaningless phrase, but an instrument of real power – needs to be taken further and used to repair the crumbling fourth pillar of our democracy. For if we don’t act now, we may soon find that the roof has fallen upon our heads.

The author is a final year PhD student at Oxford University, and an assistant editor for freespeechdebate.com.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2013 12:04 PM

    Boycotting commercial news media in a capitalist society is a well meaning but fanciful answer .To avoid trash we can not deny ourselves information we need as citizens . We are not just consumers . We are also citizens .We should demand public sponsored , not for profit news outlets including television Improve media and consumer literacy.Promote more quality broadcasting and encourage quality anchors .As Nivideta suggests we should refuse to join phony debates either as panelists or studio audience .All these can hopefully lead to incremental improvement in TV programming. But real change can come only with the replacement of capitalism by a system where profit is not everythingl.

    • February 8, 2013 12:02 PM

      Indeed. When I read Nivedita introduce it as a more radical suggestion, little did I know that I was about to read up on my unrealized power as a consumer. When Gramsci had looked at this a century ago, his call to action may have been similar (at a superficial level) but it was substantively different in both argument and conclusion. It’s extreme poverty of praxis that even a radical call to action cant go beyond the confines of the market.

    • Manav permalink
      February 9, 2013 10:03 PM

      With all due respect, I would say that boycotting ONE news outlet or product will not deny the citizens essential information. And I would also say that it is a BIT less fanciful than replacing all the current news apparatus with not-for-profit news. And certainly less fanciful than the ‘replacement of capitalism by a system where profit is not everything’. Would you agree? I think we all agree that both these things would be very desirable, but perhaps it’s also time to be realistic and talk about goals that we can actually achieve..

  2. February 7, 2013 6:30 PM

    I liked the idea Nivedita proposes: “a fervent desire that every single 24-hour news channel should shut shop for one week while they went into deep introspection – one week of blessedly blank screens, one week of healing quiet in which people could once again learn to listen, to remember that there can be more than 2 or 3 sound-bytes through which to capture the complexities of the world in which we live.”
    Compliments to both Nivedita and her Guest.
    Time to start this protest at the earliest.
    As for me I am already doing this for the past few months!

  3. February 8, 2013 12:56 AM

    Nothing can be sadder than the utterly speculary nature of the liberal intelligentsia’s critique of TV news. The author mentions 183 news channels but can only talk about two – both english language channels. English news channels make up just 0.5% of total TV viewership in India, which is 10% of that of Hindi news channels. 8-10 lakh people tune-in to Ravish Kumar’s debates on NDTV India every night at 9 PM. That is 8-10 times higher than the viewership Arnab Goswami gets. I invite anyone to watch Ravish and then decide whether it is any less informed or complex than what appears on Kafila, It is a tragedy that liberal voices choose to boycott television debates and make it a no-contest for the right. The uncharitable would say that this intelligentsia is unable to simplify its narrative to take on the simplistic prose of the right, that it is fearful of losing a polemical battle that requires turning conceptual arguments into slogans. The old communists had the skill to do that. Today’s liberals are unable to translate their discursive practices into a different problematic. By not doing that, by failing to engage, today’s liberals are failing to take the power and reach of TV news seriously, It is failure that will have long lasting consequences for democratic politics.
    (Health warning: I am the managing editor of NDTV India)

    • February 8, 2013 1:55 AM

      Couldn’t agree more with your critique. But Ravish told me his show’s viewership is more like 3 lakhs

      • February 8, 2013 12:18 PM

        Ravish is perhaps referring to ‘ratings’ which is measured as a proportion of viewer minutes spent on a show. This is then multiplied by the size of the universe to arrive at the size of viewership. The actual number of viewers who have tuned-in (called ‘reach’) is always higher. I won’t go into this any further here, since this distinctions have a meaning only in a esoteric world of TRPs.

    • Manav permalink
      February 8, 2013 7:13 AM

      Aunindyo, I myself am a big fan of Ravish’s shows and his style of conducting shows, and I’m sure there are a few others in his category. And that is PRECISELY why I advocate of some particular channels on some particular issues. A boycott of a particular entity is premised on the fact that there IS a difference between the players in the same field. And the reason I give 2 examples (I could give a hundred more if you like) is to give a brief but representative sample. I don’t think you would argue that there are more TV anchors like Ravish than like Dutt or Goswami or Sameer Ahluwalia?

      And I also agree that engagement is necessary, but sometimes it runs the risk of being seen as an acceptance or a validation- so I would say that it is important to choose your battles carefully..

      • February 8, 2013 12:38 PM

        Dear Manav, I agree entirely with you that Ravish (or NDTV India) is probably unique in the industry right now. My point, however, is that his show is watched by more people than the three names that you have mentioned. Not because he is better or more popular, but simply because the size of Hindi viewership is much larger. In sheer numbers then Ravish’s uniqueness is a more relevant and representative sample of news viewership in India than all three combined.That is why I called your critique speculary, in fact ‘doubly speculary’ in the words of the much maligned Paris strangler.

        I do not defend the news media at all, and our attempt to make NDTV India different comes from our own internal critique of what we see around us. I am inviting you – and other on Kafila – to take the right head-on in television studios. Ravish can give you umpteen examples of how our attempts to chase left liberal voices has failed repeatedly. LIberal India has to take TV news seriously, because it is the site of reproduction of populism of various sorts, as well as the creation of a political community of viewers. Boycotting a news channel will not make an iota of difference to anyone who looks at TRPs. TAM meters are never installed in English speaking households. The boycott won’t even register as a blip,

        P.S. The so-called image of the media as the fouth pillar is a convenient myth invented by bourgeois or civil society. Let us not forget that Joseph Pulitzer virtually invented yellow journalism.

  4. February 8, 2013 10:48 AM

    Shivam, Aunindyo is right. I would say more accurate than me. I was saying with some restraint. I didn’t differentiate between reach and tune in kind of complexity. I said it on basis of rough guess. English market is so small that it would be hard to believe that it’s that small. Insignificant. Hindi market size is so huge that you should talk about this genre more than English. Aunin is not making the point to talk about us only. But get out of the lutyens zone of our elitism. We are all trapped in it.

    • rakeeb permalink
      February 8, 2013 2:37 PM

      Aunindyo (and Ravish), I completely agree with you. But can you give us more data (and the sources) about viewership on the basis of which you are making these points. Also, the fact remains that one channel (with seemingly very limited viewership) was single-handedly able to create unnecessary hostility during the LoC incident recently. How did it manage this coup? Please share your thoughts.

      • February 8, 2013 11:13 PM

        Dear Rakeeb,

        The data I have used is published by TAM every week. For example, for the latest week Ravish’s show on NDTV India got exactly 10 times the viewership that Arnab got for the same period.

        I will have to say that I do not agree with your second point. I would ask different questions – why did the army ‘leak’ the story about the beheading of the soldier? Why did another part of the government ‘leak’ the other story that beheadings are routine and happen on both sides? The answer – albeit speculative – perhaps lies in the fight within two arms of the state (in fact within the government itself) over what kind of alliance should India have with the US and what role is it willing to play within the US administration’s attempts to reign in the Pakistani army.

        It is clear that America has no need for a civilian dispensation in Pakistan as long as it can have a reasonably compliant military. India’s reactions should be seen within that context.

        The ‘unnecessary hostility’ was not created by one channel. It was created by the government of India.

    • Manav permalink
      February 8, 2013 11:42 PM

      Ravish and Aunindyo- we are debating 2 slightly different issues here. I am in complete agreement about the fact that the left-liberal voices need to engage on at least the few sane platforms that are available in order to reach out to the people of the country. However, the other issue is the urgent need for reform within the media.

      As we all agree, Ravish and NDTV India are exceptions- not just in the entire spectrum of Indian TV news, but also within the Hindi channels. So I think the fact that English news only accounts for a small percentage is irrelevant. The Hindi and regional channels are as bad (if not worse) than the English ones with respect to confrontational styles, jingoism, voyeurism, etc. In fact, many people would argue that Arnab has modelled his channel and show exactly on the same lines as some Hindi news channels.

      There also various other malpractices that are rampant in the news industry, which I have not mentioned in this article, and in those too, the Hindi and regional channels take the lead. The Jindal-Zee incident, the Guwahati molestation case, and numerous other cases where the TV crew has had prior information about violent acts that were going to be committed (by Shri Ram Sena, Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, etc), and have arrived at the scene with TV cameras instead of the police, are all related to Hindi and regional language news channels.

      So while engagement is certainly necessary, we cannot run away from the fact that the news industry is in dire need for reforms. And I think that if the news-makers and news-watchers fail to devise ways of affecting reforms, then we will be unwittingly providing the government with an excuse to step in- which may be worse for everyone concerned. Boycotts certainly may not be the answer, but the point is that we desperately need to start thinking of ways to stem the rot.

  5. Saira permalink
    February 9, 2013 11:06 PM

    I apologize for writing this after reading only the initial part of your article (and I will go back and re-read it fully) but I do feel you are belabouring the obvious and pleading for unnecessary tokenism.

    I stopped watching news after the 2002 Gujarat Riots and being thoroughly disgusted with the media (in fact I threw out the TV). Nor have I had occasion to regret my decision at any point – thanks to the Internet we can be far better informed than we would be by listening to the rubbish non-stop ‘breaking news’ sensationalism (and about the few seconds of Barkha Dutt’s hideously orchestrated ‘debates’ that I’ve seen – the less said the better). What’s the need to boycott for a week? It hardly matters how one-sided and bakwas NDTV reports are when you can access newspapers from different countries online (the first thing I do to follow a news story involving Pakistan is to look at what papers from Pakistan and three other countries are saying about it). There are blogs, alternative sites, from aljazeera to kafila or wherever, journals and academic papers, activist sites, there are a range of informed places to go to for news and not only that – just like this discussion thread, you can even pick up on actual discussions/debates. Who needs NDTV rubbish to tell us what is news? You don’t have to listen to their terms, or be a passive consumer. I forgot to mention the amazing benefit of throwing out the TV 10 years ago – not having to hear every 5 minutes (on news channels!) how a range of rubbish products are essential for your life.

    Television and staged debates are utterly irrelevant. Nobody needs to consume a 5 minute for/against snippet on a complex issue like abortion or rubbish polls about ‘should there be death penalty for rape’. In fact, now is a great time to think about what exactly is ‘news’ or an ‘opinion’ and read and listen more to the plethora of people and perspectives that we are fortunate enough to have access to, and make up our own minds (and really, do we have to take a ‘stand’ on everything? how about just learning something through our awareness of it – imagine a news channel gunning for that pitch). The Internet is a far better site for the formation of public consciousness – of those who follow English news anyway – than by following ‘news’ (I’m tempted to say advertisement) programmes.

  6. Eric Pinto permalink
    February 13, 2013 1:22 PM

    One thing we can do is lobby for an independent tv regulator comprising jurists, academia and discerning citizens. The self regulatior fig leaf called NBA is useless. I wrote to it several times when I felt that reporting on Anna Hazare’s agitation was more proganda for him than objective reporting. The Economist headlined its report ” I, The People”, but all media could have called itself, “We, Anna’s Vanguard”.
    Change.org is a good forum and I hope Nivedita Menon starts a campaign. After attending a Citizen Journalism course conducted by JN Foundation and taking to heart Aloke Thakore’s principled ethics, what i realise is that tv news is tripe suitably dressed and presented.

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