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The Media: Politics, Ethics and the Law

Ethics and the Law The Media and Political Process by Eric Louw; Sage Publications, London;
Electronic Media Law by Roger L Sadler;
Making News: Handbook of the Media in Contemporary India edited by Uday Sahay; Oxford University Press;

The Media: Politics, Ethics and the Law

The Media and Political Process

by Eric Louw; Sage Publications, London; pp 311, £ 19.99.

Electronic Media Law

by Roger L Sadler; pp 446, $ 59.95.

Making News: Handbook of the Media in Contemporary India

edited by Uday Sahay; Oxford University Press; pp 281, Rs 675.

Media Crossing Borders

edited by Rita Manchanda; South Asia Forum for Human Rights, Kathmandu; price not mentioned.

Media Ethics

by K M Shrivastava; Publications Division; pp 305, Rs 100.


he Indian media, print and electronic, has expanded and bids fair to expand further. New issues have arisen, however, on which there has been little study or reflection. The media, moreover, has seen no real audit. Issues have been discussed episodically and forgotten. The fundamentals are overlooked.

On foreign direct investment (FDI) for instance. The press is the Fourth Estate in much more than name. It is, like the executive and legislature, a player in the political process. The judiciary’s rulings affect politics, as does media rapportage and comment. If one recalls some important political events since the Emergency, one is struck by the impact the press has had on India’s politics – on the Janata Party’s split; on Indira Gandhi’s poor performance in office; Rajiv Gandhi’s accords; on Bofors, HDW and Airbus; on the Mandal Report; on Ayodhya and the rest.

Ask these questions. Would you like a foreigner at the helm of any significant section of the media any more than in our Parliament or in the courts? What commitment would he or she have to India? The fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression is confined to citizens. The foreigner will operate on sufferance and will be deferential to those who suffer him/her.

The work of Eric Louw of the University of Queensland is a thorough expose of the role of the media in liberal democracies with a revealing analyses of public relations and spin. The media sells war to the people, fans chauvinism and constructs celebrity and cultural identities. It is not reflective. It tends to be narcissistic and self-righteous. But it is indispensable to democratic governance and its positive contributions cannot be denied.

Bar a few honourable exceptions the American media disgraced itself in the war on Iraq. Our media went hysterical during the Kargil crisis and was particularly uncritical on Operation Parakram. The media and politics are locked in a symbiotic relationship. An unprecedented number of journalists entered Parliament in the last decade, became political operators, if not fullfledged politicians and continued to write.

Louw considers the practice of “political media” and what he calls “the media-isation of politics”. It is a fascinating study of spin-doctoring or the art of political public relations; selling of politicians and creation of celebrity, selling of war and peace and the media’s role in combating terrorism and in the conduct of foreign relations.

In place of charisma we have media creations; celebrities, political or social, are famous because they are media personalities. “We have filled our world with ‘artificial fame’”. “But ultimately, Americans have been the real masters in scripting celebrity performances; developing PR media-management techniques; and successfully deploying the media to steer the masses. US presidents and their staffers have led the way in pioneering political PR and spin-doctoring in the televisual era. But the arts of political PR were not only developed by those ‘inside’ US government or involved in elections, American leaders ‘outside’ mainstream politics, such as Martin Luther King Jr, were equally instrumental in honing and deploying the arts of political PR. King and his team developed various strategies during the 1950s civil rights struggle (to end US racial segregation) that masterfully captured media attention through ‘passive resistance’, ‘mass action’, ‘sit-ins’, picketing and the ‘weapon of love’.” Key players in King’s team, Andrew Young and Wyatt Walker, both commented on how they worked to manage the media in their campaigns: “In essence”, Andrew Young commented, “we were using the mass media to try and get across to the nation what our message was”.

PR in India’s Politics

Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru were adroit media performers. Patel and Azad were notable for their indifference; but not quite. The Times of India’s highly influential political columnist “Condidus” (K Gopalaswami) was very close to Patel and was appointed editor of Bharat, a Mumbai daily, which Patel’s associates launched in 1949-50.

How important is the role of PR in India’s politics. “The PR/spin industry is geared

Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006 to planting stories in the media by using journalists to disseminate stories serving the spin-doctors’ agenda (i e, agenda setting). Good journalists resist being used, and do their best to turn the tables on spindoctors by using PR machines as resources that can serve their own agenda. For example, journalists can use the fact that all serious politicians now have PR machines that are in competition with each other.

“Good journalists can potentially use this competition to play the various PR machineries off against each other in their search for stories. This is one reason why the PR/spin industry is not always successful.”

When the ruling elite’s consensus breaks down, journalists are more likely to unearth “damaging stories” (e g, the US’s torturing of Iraqi prisoners) than during periods of policy consensus (e g, 2001 Afghan War). The author’s warning is of particular relevance to us “perhaps more troubling is the fact that there are many issues where policy elites and journalists share a joint consensus – in these instances the symbiotic relationship between journalists and PRs will generate a total closure of discourse”. Kashmir is a “shining”(?) example of this closure.

Perhaps the most insidious effect of the markedly pro-American policy which India has pursued since 1998 is the uncritical adoption by sections of the media of the American worldview, which shows how slender is the thread that binds us to the third world. As a potential great power, India must adopt the outlook of the sole superpower. The CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War in 1990 was a seminal event. Ethics were abandoned by the 600 embedded journalists in 2003, who became cheerleaders. On Iran significant sections of the Indian media have adopted the western view especially after India’s vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency, partly out of the usual obeisance to the ministry of external affairs, partly because America is the favoured power – now, having replaced the Soviet Union.

“Political machines do not make new ideas, but are instrumental in deciding which world views (packages of discourses and practices) become hegemonic because political players promote some ideas and undermine others. Some world views become hegemonic. Others struggle at the margins. Others are obliterated. How does this happen? Ultimately, elevating any world view into a hegemonically dominant position is the outcome of a symbiotic relationship” between intellectuals, politicians and the political elite.

But journalists are not helpless. With courage and industry they can perform their role independently and honourably. They can refuse to be partners in “manufacturing consensus”. Louw covers the various roles the media can play from lapdog to watchdog; as diplomatic channels or as “morality play”.

Indian Media

Uday Sinha of the Indian Police Service and deputy director general and chief vigilance officer of Prasar Bharati, has edited a collection of essays on the Indian media by some of its most famous personalities. It is refreshingly balanced in its treatment of the print as well as electronic media. While Vir Sanghvi writes on the making of newspapers, Akshay Raut and Kanchan Kumar considers news on the AIR, Alka Saxena discusses what makes TV news, and Rajni Kumar the role of the biggest public service TV News broadcasters, Doordarshan. Chandrakant P Singh covers “News on the Web, News for the Web”.

The volume fully lives up to its title. Informed essays and some incisive analyses make it a good handbook of the media. Not one aspect of significance is overlooked; be it the Indian language press, advertising or the ever-pressing issue of bias in reportage.

Rita Manchanda’s collection of papers, read at a regional workshop under the auspices of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, covers the sensitive issue of reporting conflicts in the region, an exercise that tests the reporter’s commitment to truth and his or her notions of patriotism as a superior value. India’s relations with Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka constitute the core problem in reportage. There were participants from all the countries, except China, contributing their insights to the manner the media reports conflicts. This media audit covers the themes of media as Borderland, demystifying borders; media reporting borders and media crossing borders.

Amir Mir, a senior journalist in Pakistan, writes: “Though media is relatively free in both the countries, the two states often use their coercive state apparatus selectively to project and highlight their official perspectives through their mass media. Therefore, one should admit that today’s journalist has become a political actor whose professional ethics like “objectivity” and “neutrality” have suffered repeated assaults in practice and theory. Border politics are viewed in the prism of competing and confrontational nationalism. While reporting differences over territorial claims, the mass media often surrenders fairness and accuracy to the nationalist imperative. And this is most true about Kashmir because the mainstream Indian media often overlooks gross human rights violation in the Kashmir valley while the media in Pakistan overprojects the same

(italics author’s).

However, “non-official interactions could play a significant role in preparing public opinion to support some acceptable solution to the lingering Kashmir dispute since no third option can be meaningfully discussed as long as the public opinion in the two countries is not ready. Given the fact that no government can afford to take decisions that would not go down well with its public, a settlement of the Kashmir dispute can only come about when the civil society in both India and Pakistan, as well as in Kashmir, has been convinced of the urgent need for a settlement that can satisfy all three parties in the conflict. It is difficult to address the contentious Kashmir issue in the prevailing state of distrust and suspicion without improving people-to-people contact and without rationalising the alienation among the citizens. It is only then that the two countries can hold talks on Kashmir.”

In this Amir Mir is being optimistic and unrealistic. As a senior Indian journalist remarked, when it comes to foreign affairs the media bats on the same side as the government. A noted Pakistani dissenter told this writer that in the so-called Track II proceedings, almost all participants followed the official line.

K M Shrivastava has rendered a service by his comprehensive and inexpensively priced volume on media ethics. One may not agree with some of his conclusions but the compilation of codes from various sources is of enormous help.

We need a comparable work on media law, which treats the print and electronic media separately. Roger Sadler’s textbook on the electronic law should inspire emulation in India. It covers topics like the constitutional position, political advertisements, election reporting, cable and satellite regulation, cable TV copyright media ownership rules, the law of libel, the right of reply and sting operations, the law on media liability and media’s right of access to government sources.


Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006

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