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Much of the second half of the United Progressive Alliance’s second term was characterised by chaos. In spite of winning handsomely in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Union government was in disarray. And nothing characterised this better than the pillorying the administration got on Hindi and English-language news channels every night.
From women’s safety (the 2012 Delhi gangrape-murder) to big ticket corruption (the alleged coal and 2G scams), national TV media excoriated the Union government so severely that by the time the vote came round, the Congress’ loss was almost certain.
The new government that came to power as a result of this learnt some hard lessons from this episode. To prevent any recurrence of what had happened to the Congress under UPA-II, the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party instituted a powerful set of informal controls for the Hindi and English-language media based in the National Capital Region.
So complete is this control that even NDTV, the last television channel not seen to be pro-government fell recently. In August, Adani Enterprises managed to buy NDTV. On Wednesday, NDTV founders Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy resigned as the directors of the promoter company of NDTV, marking Adani’s taking full control of the media network. The chairman of the Adani Group, Gautam Adani, has of course, as the UK-based Economist gently puts it for its non-Indian reader base, “close ties to the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi”.
In a complete role-reversal from UPA-II, this media control means that Hindi and English television media rarely if ever attack the government. While corruption and women’s safety were huge news topics a decade back, similar incidents such as the alleged scam in purchase of Rafale fighter aircrafts or an alleged gangrape in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras in 2020 did not see similar government criticism. In fact, as we’d noted on a previous India Fix, so complete was this media control that even the horrific state collapse during the Covid-19 pandemic did not elicit much government criticism from major TV outlets based in the National Capital Region.
Democracy and the media
India is hardly the only country where concerns about media freedom are being aired. In fact, the problem is one of the central conundrums of a modern democracy. In any democracy, it is the voting public that is supposed to keep governments in check. Of course, this only works in practice if the public also has enough information about how the government is functioning. And in any political unit larger than a village or small town, the only source of information is the mass media.
As a result, a free media is critical to the functioning of any democracy given that voting by itself is not much use if the voter has not enough data about how the government is functioning. Of course, this also means that governments are highly incentivised to control the media, since it is the key to power in a democracy. (As a result, we have the odd outcome where the principal job of a politician in a democracy often ends up being media management.)
In the United States, for example, academics Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky have famously pointed out that the American media largely does not do a very good job of educating the public, being more influenced by factors such as government power and large corporations that own and advertise on the media.
There has been less work on the dynamics of media control in India but NDTV’s takeover illustrates that here too, a mixture of government control as well as corporate power play a significant role.
This is exacerbated by the fact that India has draconian laws regulating speech, which includes the press. News television channels, for example, are tightly controlled by the Union government which can suspend them at will or even refuse to extend their registration or award a new network one in the first place. In February, for example, the Modi government yanked off air a Malayalam-language news channel without providing any reasons in public.
To add to this is the fact that in India, violence against journalists is also common. Reporters Without Borders, for example, had listed India among the five most dangerous countries in terms of the number of journalists killed in 2021.
All of this means that India, the world’s largest democracy, scores rather badly when it comes to press freedom. Reporters Without Borders ranks it at 150th out of 180 countries.
The BJP has, in its eight years in power, used this weakness of Indian democracy to the hilt and built up its power on the basis of a strong element of media control. While the party’s social media control is more written about, in a country like India, it is still TV news that is the major determinant of political opinions. And for Hindi and English TV news, the BJP now has near-total control.
That said, there are limits to the BJP’s media power – much of it based simply on geography. While the BJP exercises significant control over Hindi and English news channels based in the National Capital Region, this drops off significantly in states not ruled by it. There, the state ruling parties use much the same tools deployed by the BJP in the NCR to control media channels in their own states.
This arrangement is, of course, far from ideal. But by setting up a contested domain of media control in state languages, it is a sort of rough and ready check on the most powerful actor on the stage currently: the BJP. So while the party remains hegemonic on the national level as a result of its control of Hindi and English-language TV media based in the NCR, in many states, this control drops, challenged as it is by local power centres.