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Networking or Nexus.

India, Nov. 11 -- A conventional democratic understanding of polity envisages media as the 'Fourth Pillar' as well as the 'Watchdog' of democracy. Consequently the notion of 'Free Press' is taken for granted. Banking on the freedom of the press and certain idealistic communication theories, media in general, irrespective of the size, reach and types enjoy an easy ride across the globe except few geographically and ideologically defined areas.

But a zoom-in reveals that there are cracks in the fourth pillar too as the other pillars of democracy have. The teeth of the so called watchdog have also become unbelievably blunt. Though it barks so volubly, but it's only for its own masters' vested interests.

A few days ago, Mr. Navin Jindal, an entrepreneur-turned-Member of Parliament from Kurukshetra in Haryana and owner of Jindal Power and Steel Limited (JPSL), came out with a big break. He disclosed evidences of blackmail from Sudhir Chaudhary, business head of ZEE News, allegedly asking advertisements worth Rs. 100 crore to withdraw allegations against his business as his company unduly benefitted from the controversial coal block allocations.

Jindal masterminded and conducted a sting operation, an exclusive journalistic task to a certain extent, when the media group increased its demand from the earlier 25 crore to 100 crores. What does it mean? Was Jindal ready to give advertisements worth 25 crore in the initial negotiations? Why the Zee Network was so greedy to raise the bar? Was the bargaining done according to the 'usual practices' in the media industry?

But because of the seemingly extreme greed, the masters of Zee Network with 'nose for news' couldn't be smart as Jindal was. A cat always prefers to close its eyes while drinking milk! But for Jindal it was so crucial to save his political face. If the pretended negotiations during the sting operation were recorded by ZEE Network itself (it's not a big deal for those smart guys), the clips could have been used at least to blackmail or counter the Jindal group! Hence let it be a basic lesson for the media organizations indiscreetly searching for fodder for their lap dogs.

Zee Network sued 150-crore defamation case against JPSL and in turn JPSL also filed the same but the demanding compensation is quite high - 200 crore. Let us wait and see who will win the battle between politics and media, the most powerful entities of our times - kings and the king-makers.

It's not an isolated incident in the Indian media. There have been a number of shameless instances of paid news from north to south and east to west of the country. Media developed a brilliant strategy - hide and highlight - i.e. to hide the unpleasant realities along with the interests of the commoners and to highlight the irrelevant and socially unproductive things along with the interests of the influential groups. Truly the watchdogs start to bite the common man.

In India, there have been various incidents of aberrations from the established and long tread journalistic ideals. Scams and tragedies have become feasts for media. Corruptions related to 2G, Commonwealth Games and Coalgate allocations and even terrorist attacks in Mumbai served splendid meals to the so called watchdogs. The 24X7 news channels cause unwanted noise pollution in the Indian drawing rooms.

Such incidents not only pertain to the news media/channels. Once a south Indian Television channel, focussing more on popular programmes, made a documentary on the marble industry in Rajasthan detailing how the agencies and showrooms in South exploit the people in terms of quality and price of imported marbles. Having realized the business possibilities, the marketing head decided to blackmail the marble showrooms for advertisements and personal perks. The rest anybody can infer.

The convergence of media in terms of ownership, technologies and content has opened up enormous possibilities of exploitation or wrong doings by media. Most recently, social media has become an easier and accessible platform for the fakes. There have been much celebrated attempts to cultivate the art and praxis of doing politics into the new arenas of social media. The followers of celebrities and politicians are counted in millions. Nobody bothers the bare fact that in social media multiple-existence is possible and it multiplies the heads while counting.

There are reports that the number of followers of Mr. Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat and a perceivably self preparing Prime Ministerial candidate, in the social media (twitter, Facebook and google+) is not true, but simply a gimmick for undue hype. According to 'People Status' an internet tool, 46 % of his one million twitter followers are fakes and another 41% are inactive followers. It means he has only 1.3 lakh active followers. Is it a big deal in a country with a population of 1.24 billion?

There are number of Indian celebrities with more than one million followers in the social media. Amitabh Bachhan, Shah Rukh Khan, Shashi Tharoor and others have more followers than Modi. But the distribution pattern of fakes and inactive followers is almost same. Arindham Chowdhary, a 'Management Guru' and author who owns IIPM, a controversial management institute, has more than one million followers in Facebook. It's interesting to note that the UGC issued a public notice stating that the degrees of IIPM are no longer valid, still it flourishes on excellent media management and advertisements.

Even Santosh Pandit, an unknown Malayalam film-maker who made a low cost (below 5 lakhs) film -- Krishnanum Radhayum -- explored the marketing possibilities through YouTube and spotted with more than a million hits. Thus he earned crores. Hence the number of followers doesn't ensure popularity. Even popularity is not an indicator of acceptance and credibility.

So Modi's claim of becoming a modern day politician by actively participating in the social media as well as the hype about it in the mainstream media which is reciprocal in nature are timely tricks for eyewash.

The mutual appreciation and promotional initiatives between the mainstream media and the new media benefit them mutually and exclusively, but not the public or the public interests. Unfortunately, the media consumers -- viewers or readers -- have become simply prey to the well planned strategies of the so called business and political classes.

With a critical look at even the civil society groups and their movements, we can easily understand their well defined media strategies and management. They know what is meant by newsworthiness probably more than the journalists do. So they hit the bull's eye with the breaking stories of corruption against the big wigs like Salman Khurshid, Nitin Gadkari, Robert Vadra, Sharad Pawar and so on.

In India media have been instrumental for big exposes like defence scams, cash-for-vote and taking money for Parliamentary questions and so on. Once, the Indian media acted as the public conscience with a number of dedicated and proud editors and journalists. In course of time, they could derail certain corrupt political power houses. But now, the irony is that the Indian media at large is undergoing a great crisis of credibility. So what we see, hear and read may be far from the truth and it may even be manipulated.

Now doing politics also demands high end media management and tactics of public relations. Major parties in the national as well as the regional politics have devised and implemented well planned media strategies and deployed an array of presentable spokespersons with acumen and rhetoric skills. But a comprehensive analysis of the connectedness between politics and media in the Indian context seems ambiguous and even suspicious. So how do we feature it? Is it a network or nexus? Obviously the former term has certain positive elements, while the latter indicates the mystery aspects.

Generally media enterprises are intolerant towards criticism, even though it's fundamentally sustained in the idea of freedom of the press. Dogs won't eat dog's meat! Against any sort of criticism they come forward with lame justifications. By doing so they undermine the basic principle that doing journalism without a profound sense of self-criticism and willingness to correct the mistakes is destructive and defeating the very purpose.

The description of media as the fourth pillar of democracy sounds quite good. But is it justifiable in the milieu of present day media practices? Is the depiction a self-endorsement by media? Is democracy square or round? Round doesn't have corners but square does. Are corners wanted in democracy, since it presupposes existents/occupants in the corners (far from the centre), cornering processes and elements?

If it's round, considering the geometrical principles, media/press as the fourth pillar is an unwanted addition since a round can be sustained by just three pillars. Even if it's square, three pillars perfectly arranged can hold it. Do media want a square democracy with its established pillars dislocated and fractured and thereby a fourth pillar status assured?

This argument concludes that media is in a struggle to assert itself either by celebrating cracks on the other pillars in a square-shaped democracy or trying to make the round a square; in both the cases the purpose is to grab a key role. The aberrations associated with media are the by-products of this continuous struggle for space and attention in a functional democracy. Aren't they?

Doesn't the attribute 'watchdog' hint something odd? Dogs have to be fed for survival. No doubt. So also the masters have to find out more means? Imagine the scene if there are more dogs and the new generation dogs have high appetite and consumption rate. Here only the fittest can survive in the competition for existence. So the masters have to make them fit to survive. Is it the case with media - the watchdog of democracy? Have the watchdogs become unaffordable to keep?

Increased consumption and large-scale production of goods both wanted and unwanted and the enlarging spectrum of advertisements with infinite possibilities have been serving sumptuous meals for the 'dogs' in this analogy. So we have to look at how they bite the 'human interest' stories -- the bones -- for a long time under the banners like 'exclusives, breaking stories, live' and so on. If they don't get anything/enough to bite, the masters won't hesitate to cook something, because it's the question of sustenance.

For this, they coined fascinating combinations like "Advertainment, Infotainment and Advertorial" and incorporated a media mix of Fashion, Sex and B/Hollywood to get quick eyeballs. Their excuse that "it's what people want" doesn't withstand close scrutiny. News dailies have become advertisement dailies.

Unwarranted greed can grow into psychological disorder and too much appetite also can lead to physical illness. Same is the case with the watchdog of democracy too. Often 'here the world is going to end' attitude of TV Channels and biased and imbalanced presentation of news and events seem hysterical as rabies infected mad dogs. The symptoms and causes of this great crisis have to be diagnosed and treated for the well-being of our society as well as the democratic practices in our country.

Why is the media so powerful and people, the consumers of media, are powerless? There are allegations that advertisements and related business interests dilute the morale of media. It's quite true. But what about the quality of media consumption the people have at large? Are we able to deny a media narrative even if it's found untrue and infected with interpretations and vested interests?

As long as we are in the grip of these semantic noises, we are destined to be in a polluted media environment. Networks and nexus of media with its manifold support bases seem never to cease. So the way out rests with the people and in their ability to distinguish what is true and not true. Here also liberation starts with oneself, and not from the system.

Tail Piece: After the recent reshuffle of the Union Council of Ministers, Mr. Manish Tewari, the Congress spokesperson, became the Minister of Information and Broadcasting with Independent Charge. It is viewed as a reward for his vigorous firefight in the Television debates for the party as well as UPA II -- a task quite impossible -- defending the indefensible. Now there are questions coming up. If he continues to be the talking head, how the aggressively shouting news anchors call him simply Mr. Manish or Mr. Tewari in the prime time debates? Or will they change their tone?

-Albert Abraham

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Publication:Indian Currents
Date:Nov 11, 2012
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