Reflections from within

The Hindu Business Line/ 14 Jan 2019
By Professor Sukumar Muralidharan

 

Two books provide insights into the changing media landscape.

 

Literature festivals are democratic sites to discuss ideas. They grapple with a whole gamut of issues and they use books, not violence or intimidation, as entry points to unpack complex realities and understand our societies better. Veteran journalist Arun Shourie declared at The Hindu Lit for Life: “There is a darkening cloud of intolerance. Persons have been killed, prosecuted and cases have been filed for what they have written or their views.” For most participants, the sense that space for the media is shrinking was real. A young researcher asked, if the freedom of expression is under such severe attack, what are the responses from within the journalistic fraternity?

 

Understanding tectonic shifts

 

Two recent books look at contemporary media, its relationship with commerce and what it means for freedom and democracy. Written by journalists who carved a name for themselves in the media as fine reporters, these books provide insights into the reality today of a digitally disrupted media environment and a changing public culture. Pamela Philipose, Public Editor of The Wire, in her book Media’s Shifting Terrain: Five Years that Transformed the Way India 

Communicates, tries to explain the changes using some crucial media-led, or rather media-fed, mobilisations. These include the 2011 India Against Corruption protests, the spontaneous demonstrations of public outrage over the gang rape of a young student in a bus in Delhi in December 2012, the arrival of the Aam Aadmi Party in 2013, and the 2014 general election that saw the Bharatiya Janata Party emerge with a massive and unprecedented majority. The focus of her study is to document “the deceptively discreet way in which mediatisation has brought about tectonic shifts in our lives.”

 

She establishes how the very “fabric of human-to-human interaction is increasingly woven on the looms of communication technology”. Most significantly, she captures the sequence of events that led to the activism of the “politics of anti-politics”. Going through the details of various scams that marked the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance — the Commonwealth Games, the coal block allocation, the 2G spectrum allocation, and the murky real estate deals concerning Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society — Ms. Philipose argues that none of these were directly broken by the mainstream media. They were “largely the outcome of leaked reports from the offices of the Comptroller and Auditor General or the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, and information gathered by activists through RTI applications”.

 

Restoring trust

 

Sukumar Muralidharan, a journalist and an advocate of press freedom, has come up with a comprehensive study titled Freedom, Civility, Commerce: Contemporary Media and the Public. In the hardcover book that is just shy of 500 pages, Mr. Muralidharan covers a vast domain. He looks at the philosophical foundations of free speech, the theories of media functioning, and the practice of journalism from the early years of print media to television, the Internet, and social media. He situates journalism in a wider political context and looks at the manner in which nationalism, global politics and the rise of corporate power in the media are addressed. In the complex interlocking of the right to free speech, the media as an industry and its regulation as a public utility, he tries to understand the importance of the ethics of journalism and its future as a part of democratic discourse.

 

Mr. Muralidharan looks closely at the legal framework that made journalism different from other professions. He examines the contestation of the Working Journalists Act of 1955, which was significantly amended in 1973, by the newspaper industry in the Supreme Court as a dilution of the Press Commission doctrine that the newspaper is a “public utility”. Asking for a reaffirmation of core values, Mr. Muralidharan reminds us that though there has never been a golden age of journalism, we should be aware of the difficult realities of today. He points out that information overload has not led to more democratic access to information. Instead, information overload points to a future of robotic forms of information aggregation and dissemination that could serve little else than corporates. He rightly places emphasis on the importance of restoring public trust in journalism.