‘A determined political operation has turned new media into a propaganda tool: not pluralistic and interactive, but relentlessly one-way and single-themed’

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The weaponisation of Indian broadcast and digital media by Hindutva forces has been a key force-multiplier in coarsening the discourse and manufacturing consent, to be encashed at the ballot boxes.

In this, the first of a two-part excerpt from his new book Freedom, Civility, Commerce, journalist and academic Sukumar Muralidharan argues that the eagerness of mainstream media to do their bidding shows that they see “no way out of the crisis of profitability they are facing, than mimicking the loud, obstreperous and intolerant tone that the regime seeks to foster through the social media”.

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By SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN

Freedom, Civility, Commerce went to press to the very noisy accompaniment of skeletons rattling out in embarrassing numbers from the dark cupboards of the Indian media industry. It took a “sting operation”, an ethically questionable procedure, to bring this particular bunch of the industry’s shady secrets to light.

Cobrapost, a native of the digital media universe, promoted by an individual long invested in sting journalism, has always stretched the envelope and with dogged persistence, ventured into contested ethical territory. Its ultimate reward perhaps comes from the growing recognition that its transgressions, though troubling, are orders of magnitude less than the dodgy practices they lay bare.

The May 2018 revelations from Cobrapost portrayed in vivid and disturbing detail, how some of India’s biggest media corporations were eager to take up the advocacy of a political agenda for assured financial rewards. Launched in 2017, Cobrapost’s “Operation 136” took its title from the global rank India was awarded on the annual press freedom index compiled by Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF).

If that was a deeply mortifying moment, more bad news followed.

In April 2018, RSF downgraded India another two places, on grounds that merit some attention. The hyper-nationalistic cohorts closely gathered into Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s orbit, the RSF argued, had assumed the authority to determine the forms of media practice that could be tolerated, and those that must be ruthlessly put down. Often enough, unquestioning faith in the political leadership was the touchstone.

“Hindu nationalists”, the RSF said, had been “trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate”. These officially encouraged exercises in thought-control ensured that “self-censorship (was) growing in the mainstream media and journalists (were) increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals”.

Operation 136 laid bare how the media industry was an eager participant in its own enslavement to the new hyper-nationalism, which came bundled with commercial incentives for anybody who signed up for it.

Responding to the blandishments of an undercover operative from Cobrapost, top media executives expressed their eagerness to push the political agenda commonly referred to as Hindutva, since it could amply pay its way. It mattered not that the agenda was deeply destructive of basic civility, indeed a threat to the security and the basic constitutional rights of minorities and other vulnerable social groups. All that mattered was the commercial imperative.

Freedom comes with the unstated obligation to abide by the basic codes of civility, but commerce often trumps that value….

Media executives who engaged the Cobrapost provocateur rather than showing him the door, ended up revealing the most inglorious tricks of their trade. Most of them found nothing amiss in the proposal to begin an advertising campaign that would in its first stage, exploit mass sentiments of piety by deploying words and images from the legends of Krishna, a figure from the Hindu pantheon who unlike Ram or Ganapati, had been sparingly used in political mobilisation.

From these first invocations of Krishna and his battlefield sermon of duty and commitment, the Bhagavad Gita, the campaign would escalate to a second stage, where its tools would be the mockery of Prime Minister Modi’s political rivals.

The third stage would seek active polarisation, to excite a sense of animus towards the “anti-national” social groups and promote Prime Minister Modi’s sole claims to represent an India on the pathway to fulfilling its burgeoning ambitions….

Cobrapost unfolds a fascinating story in several parts.

Vineet Jain, Managing Director and part of the proprietary family of India’s largest media group, Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd (BCCL), nonchalantly throwing out a variety of routes by which the sum of ₹500 crore promised by Cobrapost’s undercover reporter could be transferred to its coffers, without inviting the suspicion of income-tax authorities.

Kallie Purie, who occupies a like position in the India Today media group, is eager to accept the offer of a lavish advertising campaign focused around Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita, but careful to add a caveat, that all possible political ramifications of the campaign would be liable to editorial critique in her media outlets. A senior advertising executive from her organisation is depicted another moment, in whole-hearted endorsement of the political themes of the campaign and in a seeming excess of enthusiasm, tying up a ₹ 275 crore advertisement commitment from the Cobrapost provocateur.

The chief executive of HT Media, which owns the second largest newspaper brand in English and one of the top five in Hindi, responds to the Cobrapost proposals with what seems impeccable reason. The price tag he attaches to his services though, is distinctly more modest. “If you are giving me a couple of crore rupees to talk positive about you”, he explains, “automatically my editorial is under pressure not to go deep negative”.

There is an escape clause that he is careful to add: the editorial departments “cannot ignore the news”, which is perhaps a coded reference to the compulsions of competitive news coverage. Any news outlet could suppress particular news items in return for a monetary reward, but would be at risk of exposure if the competition were to delve deep into that area.

The large and highly diversified conglomerate Zee Media, with interests in television news and entertainment, print and satellite broadcasting makes an inevitable appearance, as a charter member of the new nationalist media brigade.

Zee brings much baggage into the fray, including the arrest of two senior news executives in 2012 on charges of extortion. After their quality time spent in prison, that duo has risen higher in the Zee hierarchy, perhaps beyond the reach of the Cobrapost operative. Those who do appear from the chain of editorial management though, provide ample evidence of a flourishing culture of cash for coverage.

The Zee executives are candid in their offers to the Cobrapost operative and seem finally to agree on a deal worth ₹25 crore of which half would be received in unaccounted cash. Along the way, the Zee executives also explain that they have a ready template to accommodate similar demands, the “advertiser-funded programme”. Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh, they reveal, has been a regular user of this facility, often getting his ads pushed as news….

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Prime Minister Modi’s impact on the social and communal fabric over his four years in power, cannot be understood without reference to the tactical use his ardent flock has made of the internet and new media.

The 2014 electoral contest made history with its use of high-technology in projecting Modi’s claim to the top political job. And Modi’s enthusiasm for the new media was evident in a meeting early in his tenure with Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg.

According to an entry in Modi’s personal website, Sandberg congratulated him at this meeting, on his “exceptional use of Facebook to connect with voters”. Soon afterwards, Modi reportedly instructed colleagues in the party and the government, to use social media to get the word out, but to stay clear of direct interactions with news media.

The internet is being cast here not as a domain of vast possibilities, of the potential deepening of democracy through the richness of user generated content, but as a new mode of propaganda: not pluralistic and interactive, but relentlessly one-way and single-themed.

This explains a great part of the media strategy that the Prime Minister has adopted, of disdaining any form of direct interaction with the media, leaving that to chosen functionaries who could set a suitable tone of truculence on the airwaves, and otherwise fielding a vast army of internet operatives to colonise that space.

It also explains why larger sections of the mainstream media see no way out of the crisis of profitability they are facing, than mimicking the loud, obstreperous and intolerant tone that the regime seeks to foster through the social media.

There are undoubtedly great potentialities inherent in the new media for enriching the flow of information. But these are rapidly being undermined by a determined political operation, which in fact is turning it to quite the opposite purpose.

Tomorrow: The birth of Reliance Jio

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Excerpted from Freedom, Civility, Commerce published by Three Essays Collective, pp 502, Rs 950, with the permission of the author)

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(Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat. In a career spanning three decades in the print media, he has worked on areas of science and technology, business, politics and international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @skumar_md)

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