Did the media manufacture consent in this election?

BY The Hoot| IN Media Practice | 22/05/2014
Is the press so powerful in India that it is able to manufacture consent?
Extracts from a MEDIA FOUNDATION panel discussion

Extracts from a MEDIA FOUNDATION panel discussion featuring Zoya Hasan, (Academician and Political Sceintist), Sudha Pai (Professor at the Centre for Political Studies and rector, JNU) Mukul Kesavan (Indian historian, novelist and political and social essayist), Vidya Subramanian (Associate Editor, The Hindu) and moderated by Srinivasan Jain of NDTV. (March 20, 2014)

Zoya Hasan: As a very avid news junkie, an avid newspaper reader and new channels watcher, over the past one, one and a half year or so I have been really reluctant to watch television news and why is that so? The reason is that I discern such a striking media bias and that is what I am concerned about. And what is equally striking is the lack of discussion and lack of acknowledgement of media discussion of the media bias. My concern is mainly with the print media and more importantly with the television media. The 2014 general election is clearly a very important election but it seems to be, at the same time, it’s going to be a very divisive election and the role of the media in this election is very significant and I think it does need analysis and debate and some amount of introspection on the part of the leader and all of us who are engaged with the media in some ways.

In the run up to this election there is considerable evidence that what’s played up and what isn’t and the way things are being structured and if I may say, bent, in the run up to the Lok Sabha election. I think the coverage of the 2014 general elections actually started in December 2012 when Narendra Modi was re-elected as the Gujarat chief minister and the field was set for him that begun remitting and relentless speculation whether Modi will be BJP’s prime ministerial candidate or not. Until the Aam Aadmi Party’s stunning debut in Delhi assembly elections, TV channels had little time for anyone else other than Modi who has been presented, according to my reading and watching of the news, as the country’s only hope against the Congress/UPA government. And what has been emphasised and the media has been very taken with this is the point blank leadership vacuum which is driving a frustrated electorate into the BJP’s lap. And the argument that the media is uncritically presenting is that Modi could steer the country out of the crisis by giving a strong leadership. Now, leadership is a very heavily loaded construct and decisive leadership is an even more heavily loaded construct and this is being presented as the answer to India’s woes. However, this construct is propagated by the corporate sector and the other middle classes.

The corporate sector and the middle classes which view the Congress government as dynastic, corrupt and inefficient is what I want to underline and I do think it requires some discussion. It is seen by the two sectors that are very influential in this election – the Congress is seen as the reckless benefactor of the poor. For quite some time the corporate sector has been worried about what they call “a policy paralysis”. That is needless to say the days in acquiring lands and waiving environmental clearances for their projects. This has entailed a very high voltage campaign to amplify anti-incumbency which has unfolded with a sustained attack on the UPA government. Given that the middle classes are extremely angry with the economic slowdown and the recession – which was a worldwide recession but, somehow in India we seem to think we have been particularly afflicted with the recession and hold the government largely responsible for it. It is not surprising that the political discourse that has emerged is unmistakably homogenous in its emphasis on stressing the following points:

Denouncing the UPA
The criticism of the limitations of the Congress leadership, and
Highlighting and spotlighting the Gujarat model.

And the media, I think, has picked up the Gujarat model in a big way notwithstanding so much that has been said about it in terms of what has been done and what has not been done and yet it is presented largely to make a point that BJP and the Sangh Parivar and their PM candidate is principally focused on governance and development and not on Hindutva.

Taking a cue from this Modi campaign, I think some media houses have gone along with the argument that the 10 years of the UPA rule is a wasted decade and further we have been told that nothing has happened in the last 60 years which is why the voters must give Narendra Modi at least 16 months to transform India. As a social scientist I find this very troubling because in one stroke the whole past has been demolished and what is surprising is that none of this has really been challenged and in fact, the media has lend credence by simply repeating this perversion of our contemporary history.

After the new government is elected, I think, we’ll all remember this election and the coverage of it for its almost complete focus on individuals and presidential style of elections. And in the process what one discerns is the tendency to unquestionably accept terms of debate as set by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar regardless of whether this reflects the existing norms of the democratic framework. I’ll give 2 examples to make the point on the current coverage:

Large sections of the media are simply not troubled by the Gujarat chief minister’s role in the Gujarat 2002 riots and have rather easily taken to the point that he has been exonerated and that it’s the last word. That is to say that exoneration by the lowest court is the last word on his acquittal.

Another very important point is the role that the Sangh parivar and the RSS are playing and how/why is it that there is so little discussion on the role of the Sangh Parivar which is surely not fighting the elections.

Sudha Pai: I think first one should look at the debate that has long argued that the media manufactures consent during the elections and what are the ways it does it in? And, what impact does it have on India?

The democratic argument of course is that the media is independent… and reporting the truth. Their news choice rests on unbiased and objective criteria. However, many scholars who forward a propaganda model is based on the study of basically the western media and now also the Indian media, both during elections and other situations.

In this it is argued that the media serves to mobilise support for the special interest that dominates the state and private activity, the powerful are able to fix this discourse, media when it provides news chooses topics, news that it considers are important, highlights them giving them importance in the public mind, highlights what the general population should read, should see, should think and therefore it tries to manage opinions by regular propaganda campaigns. So, the media can identify and place before the citizens their greatest concerns as voters and which candidates also of course take up. And this, it is argued, could lead to the victory or a defeat of a candidate or the party. So an important role is agenda setting and then persuasion. How is this possible? The argument goes that first of all the size, the concentrated ownership and the profit orientation of the dominant mass media firms is there. Which means that there is elite control of the print and the electronic media. Secondly, advertising as the primary means of income of the mass media. Thirdly, the reliance on the news given by the government, the business, the industry and the experts funded by these organisations. Thus, the market place and the economics of publishing and the transmission significantly shape what we call the news. Moreover, in the US the media has been able to create a hegemonic discourse largely, it is argued, because of the existence of the things like McCarthyism and anti-communism, both of which create a very powerful ideology that has helped.

And this is not done through totalitarian means or censorship. Rather the media permits, indeed it encourages, spirited debates, criticism, dissent, but these are largely within the system of pre-supposition and principles that constitute an elite consensus. So the public is exposed to powerful persuasive messages from above and enabled to communicate meaningfully through these media and respond to these messages. And, political leaders have also gained enormous power over the political system by using the media to generate support among the people during the elections.

Is the press so powerful in India that it is able to manufacture consent? In India, there is a nexus between the government, the media and the business houses - it may not be as well developed in the US. But more importantly, I would like to argue that there are social and political specificities in the Indian context which makes the role of the media somewhat different.

Firstly, let’s look at the continental size and diversity of the country which makes it difficult for any media company to exercise control over dissemination of information or persuasion during elections or otherwise. This is because of the existence of many levels – national, state, regional, local – which makes the discourse defused, decentralised and localised. From Arunanchal to the deep South there are many newspapers and news channels and making a single discourse is not impossible but rather difficult. Then there are a large number of languages that means the media is divided along the linguistic lines, there is not something called linguistic exceptionalism. Vernacular newspapers and TV channels compete for space. Cultural differences also contribute to the diverse voting patterns.

Secondly, the concept of region in India is very different from that of the US which is also a large country where the two-party system and the same language are reproduced in each region and state. In India, different parties compete in different states which makes it difficult for the media to shape opinion throughout the country. 

More importantly, in India there is difference of culture and history in each linguistic region and state that shape politics. In fact I would say there are many Indias with vast differences. Opinion making is more possible at the local and regional level and far more difficult at the national level. Local politicians own local TV channels and their influence can extend largely to their own states. Political diversities have also increased in the most independent periods as each state has developed a political arena of its own. I also think that India is undergoing a very rapid social change and opinions and ... is still a nation in the making. There is still a great deal of churning going on and apart from print and electronic sources, oral discourse retains its importance. 

The US has the presidential system in which a plebiscite style election is held in which the people ultimately go on to elect their president. This enables the media to focus on a single election and few individuals that help shape the debates, choices etc. In a parliamentary system there are many levels involved. From choosing the local candidate and then the political party which must gain a majority which then chooses the PM from among its members of Parliament. When the choice of Modi by the BJP and the kind of plebiscitary campaigning he’s trying to do, brings change remains to be seen.

I think manufacturing consent is not seen so much in elections but in issues such as Pakistan, cross border terrorism, nuclear issues, the flag, etc. On these issues, media is able to bring the people together. Having said that, there have been situational contexts where the media has been able to make the public closely focus upon on an issue or event and shape opinion but for short periods of time. And I think these are exceptional situations. Good example are - the Babri Masjid issue that helped the BJP win the 1991 UP election but once the masjid was destroyed the BJP declined in the state and could not win during that decade or even later. The sympathy wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination that led to massive victory for the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi. This support did not last. 

There are also situations where the electorate has become divided because of their own experience. I think the AAP is a good example. It received considerable media attention and mobilisation and the issue it raised over corruption and governance which contributed to its good showing in the Delhi elections. The AAP has polarised Delhi citizens.

I think the role of the media is extremely important in our democratic system. It plays a very seminal role in providing information, misinformation at times, drawing attention to particular issues, ideas, events, sets the agenda for debate, helps some time shape public opinion. But, there are limitations to the role of the media. Distinction needs to be made in its informational role and its persuasional role.

Srinivasan Jain: Replying to Zoya Hasan. I just wanted to say something about the phenomenon that you mention and the reasons that you attributed to it a lot of this unquestioning coverage that you see the media gives, particularly to some like a Narendra Modi, which you ascribe to a multiple city of reasons whether it is corporate agenda, rightward tilt so on and so forth…which is not to say that some of those phenomena are not present in the media today, it’s the degree. Is that the predominant crisis we face or is that smaller compared to a deeper crisis? I would argue that the bigger crisis that we face, that is responsible for the kind of coverage that we see of either Modi or the AAP are two. One is the intellectual laziness and the other is the need for an event or a phenomenon driven coverage.

Modi for the longest time has argued that the mainstream media has shunned him, has been extremely hostile to him so he created a parallel PR blitz, where he deployed methods that very few contemporary politicians have used. He brought in highly sophisticated PR agencies, launched a social media campaign that this country has never seen, which managed to create an independent perception of his popularity which the mainstream media is not reflecting but which ultimately began to influence the main stream media. 

The other is that once that narrative of success is developed and then he was announced as the PM candidate, started travelling and giving speeches, that’s when the media’s appetite for, TV particularly, of event/phenomenon driven coverage kicks in and that’s something not necessarily limited to Modi, because it was really in the months of August/September he was getting blanket coverage, every rally would be covered live. But subsequently when we moved closer to the Delhi elections, accusation was made of us that we were just giving the AAP exactly that kind of coverage.

Mukul Kesavan: There is a kind of consensus about what constitutes economic virtue. Certainly in the narrative in the decline of the UPA. The narrative basically is that you have this profligate left-to-centre government that continuously drains the treasury and national resources, to do something that it doesn’t even manage to do – it claims to be subsiding the poor or providing entitlements, but way in which this do-gooding intention is addressed by the media is immediately followed by saying that none of it actually reaches.

The second consensus in the wake of the AAP is this trope of governance. Never ever have I heard such extraordinary concern with in the media and its conversationalists about governance. One of the things that I’m enthusiastic about is that this attitude of insolent virtue. I feel a kind of thrill that when Yogendra Yadav will sit in CNN IBN’s studio and look at Rajdeep and say “you know what happens in this country. Every time a mid level bureaucrat has to sign off on something that affects Ambani, he is bought.” Then Rajdeep says, “are you saying on national television that Reliance buys bureaucrats?” And Yogendra Yadav says, “come on Rajdeep of course he does.”

If there’s one thing that I’ll remember this election for is sort of the insubordinate virtue of the AAP. There is something about this party that made us deeply uncomfortable about ourselves. I think specific to this discussion it did something very important. It behaved in a way that was “irresponsible”. It said the unsayable and kept saying it. In that matter I think we owe them a debt.

Consent in country like ours is manufactured not specifically or main as far as the elections are concerned but about large national issues. The one thing that I’ve missed most about the coverage of these elections is a simple lack of information.

 

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