– By RAJEEV GOWDA
This article is about winners and losers. But it’s not about the candidates who contested the recent general elections. It’s about some of the other players in the game.
Among the clear losers were two sets of professionals who have traditionally contributed to the excitement that marks India’s festivals of democracy. One set consists of people who produce banners, posters, buntings, cut outs and electoral graffiti. Another set comprises market research firms that have forayed into the political marketplace armed with the ability to assess voters’ opinions.
While Indians are grateful that a squabbling Election Commission managed to pull off yet another mega poll, these two sets of people are surely cursing the EC. For the EC is the culprit that cracked down on posters and other inexpensive, uniquely Indian methods of candidate advertising. And banned opinion and exit polls until the last voter had cast her vote in every corner of India. The EC sure knows how to spoil a good party!
But one group made out beautifully during these polls—media houses. While campaigning for a friend I got to see up close what I consider to be a perversion of the media’s role in a democracy. Instead of being a neutral, dispassionate observer of what’s going on, media houses milked the election to make big bucks. Representatives of media houses approached candidates promising them coverage in exchange for money.
Of course, I advised my friend not to succumb because I was confident that we could get substantial coverage just by coming out with different media-oriented events and activities (as I discuss in a previous post). And we did manage to do that. For free!
But overall, other candidates jumped on the opportunity to get coverage. And there lies the problem. If coverage just involved reporting on the candidate’s vision, track record and activities, it wouldn’t be that much of an issue. It becomes a challenge when readers cannot differentiate between unbiased reportage and paid advertorials. This time, the difference between the two was very difficult to discern. One had to carefully look for “Special Feature” or some other tell-tale sign, which is generally not prominent enough for readers to separate fact and opinion from mercenary fiction.
I remember the time Ramnath Goenka used to boldly declare that the Indian Express was Free, Frank and Fearless. I don’t know about that newspaper, but many others during this election were just Grubby, Greedy, and Gutless.
That means that there are one more set of losers from this election. All of us! We voters now cannot even expect to get balanced, unbiased coverage of candidates from some sections of the media. Given that mass media remains the largest, least expensive way for people to learn about who is contesting and what they are all about, this is a dastardly disservice to democracy.
Criticizing the media is not something we politicians can get away with easily because it’s so easy to construe our comments as attacking the freedom of the press. But I had to draw attention to this perversion of the media’s role as the fourth branch of government.
Thankfully, there are other media watchdogs that have emerged on the landscape in recent years, drawn from the media itself. They too have cast a critical eye on what’s been going on. One such critic is Sevanti Ninan, the founder of the media watchdog site, The Hoot. Check out her piece in the Hindu on this same subject.
And on The Hoot itself, check out NALSAR Hyderabad professor, Madabhushi Sridhar’s expose of dubious electoral media practices, complete with a recitation of the various laws that have been broken along the way, including, importantly, the Representation of People’s Act that underpins our electoral process.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Quipped the Roman satirist Juvenal, some two millennia ago. As we translate from Latin, the phrase hits us with explosive force: “Who will guard the guards? Who shall watch the watchers?”
That’s a question the Indian media have to find an answer to, if they want to retain the legitimacy and respect that we voters have accorded them over the decades.
For more on the big business of elections, here’s ‘Want some coverage? Give me some money’: Paul Beckett reporting in the Wall Street Journal here
And a comprehensive look at ‘advertorials’ and Medianet by Sucheta Dalal, up here.