For many, many of us, the nightmarish picture Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman present in their book “Manufacturing Consent” is a bit outlandish. They argue that many respected and liberal news media organisations actually work in cahoots with corporates to control public opinion. But, we think of our favourite newspaper (or news anchor) and their scoops and stings and it is difficult to imagine anything other than pure public interest behind them. Chomsky is certainly overstating his case, as usual, you would think. Corporates, politicians and PR guys joining hands and manipulating the single thing left in our hands, our opinions (that is to say, our votes): that is something we can very well imagine in a dystopian novel of the 1984 variety, it might be happening to a small degree (paid publicity on page 3, for example), but democracy on the whole is going strong.
This perspective from Chomsky will help in navigating a few grey zones when we debate the Niira Radia tapes.
For example, they say that Vir Sanghvi, Barkha Dutt and others were after all merely discussing developments with a source. In the business of news gathering, you have to deal with all sorts of people and also keep the conversation going too.
If you want to make sense of a court judgment on a very complex issue you can consult an industry expert, or lawyer, or if you are Vir Sanghvi, the Ambanis themselves. A PR executive is not a source under any definition of that flexible term. Similarly, if you want the latest info on cabinet formation, you can speak to party spokespersons, possible candidates, or if you are Barkha Dutt, Sonia Gandhi herself. What does a PR executive got to do with it? Keep the above-mentioned perspective in mind and the answers to these questions will show up by themselves.
Take another example. Why have all of the print and electronic media players (except for the Outlook, Open, Mail Today and of course Governance Now) refused to take note of it? In the last few days, the newspapers have given us all details of a ‘royal’ wedding (with photographs), TV channels have debated the proper timing of a certain kind of reality shows (with video clippings), but not a word on the Radia Tapes. Why?
Prima facie, it would seem, to any industry insider as well as outsider, that the Indian media players prefer not to speak about each other, no bitching, no praising the rivals/non-rivals. No giving credit, no blaming either. Remember the Paid News controversy? A majority of publications treated it they would treat a news item on a UFO sighting. Curiously, some of those few publications which took note of the Paid News scandal have maintained a silence this time. Why?
You don’t need to read Chomsky to work out that if the lady represents three of the biggest corporate tycoons, who are among the biggest ad spenders, you don’t mess with her. What else would explain the fact that while the old media is quiet, it is the new media that is still debating the Radia aftermath. Blogs and social media sites, which don’t depend on corporate ad spends, have been able to say what the mainstream papers have shied away from. Sitting here, that very much looks like a silver lining in the proverbial clouds.
(This is a reproduction of a column which appeared on governancenow.com on November 24, 2010, by Ashish Mehta, deputy editor at Governance Now)