In their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, academics Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky model out the political economy of the American media, arguing that large corporations that control newspapers and TV channels often serve to push propaganda even in a polity where freedom of the media is legally guaranteed.
Could a similar thing happen in India too?
Witness the past two months where Indian TV channels – especially national ones that broadcast in English and Hindi – have developed an obsession for one single piece of news: the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
Over thousands of hours of broadcast, there is no angle that has been left uncovered. The iron grip of Bollywood’s family-run businesses, women as gold diggers, Bengalis as black magic practitioners, recreational drug use – no matter how small or absurd, the Indian news media has left no stone unturned while reporting on Rajput’s death.
But, of course, this obsession means real issues affecting India are being ignored by powerful sections of the media. This would be terrible at any time – but it is particularly glaring now given that India is facing conditions that are the worst in decades, if not since Independence.
Here are the top five crises that the Indian media is ignoring by choosing to concentrate only on Rajput’s death.
1. The crashing economy
On Monday, the government released data showing Indian economy had contracted by an incredible 23.9% in the April to June quarter – the worst-ever contraction since the country started publishing growth data on a quarterly basis in 1996.
Rating agency ICRA has predicted that over the entire financial year, the economy will contract by 9.5%. This would mean this would be the worst ever economic performance ever in independent India.
And of course, while all countries have been hit economically by the coronavirus pandemic, India’s fall is sharper. For 2020, The Economist predicts that India will be the 35th fastest growing economy in the world. A precipitous fall from just a few years back when India was always within the top five.
This economic destruction has meant Indians have lost jobs at an unprecedented rate. During the pandemic, as many as 18.9 million salaried jobs have been lost.
Yet, inexplicably, large India’s media houses think its viewers would rather watch news centered around Bollywood than jobs.
2. Chinese intrusion in Ladakh
Monday also brought grim news on the border front: the Indian Army said Chinese soldiers had “carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo” in eastern Ladakh but their attempts were thwarted by Indian soldiers.
In the normal course of things, countries are extra sensitive over their territorial integrity. However, even though the Chinese army has intruded into parts of Ladakh, the Indian media has thought the matter of the country’s borders to be less important than salacious Bollywood gossip.
This is happening even after the Chinese forces have intruded since May, meaning that there is a high chance that India is now presented with a fait accompli, with its territorial bounds altered. So dire is the situation that someone no less than Modi’s foreign minister threw up his hands on Saturday and admitted helplessness: “We have a very large number of Chinese forces and frankly, we are at a loss to know why”.
3. Soaring Covid cases
On Sunday, India registered a record new 78,761 coronavirus cases, the highest single-day spike in the world since the pandemic began. As BBC’s South Asia Bureau Chief put it grimly: “India is now the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.”
To make matters worse, not only is India the world leader in total cases, in its immediate neighbourhood, its performance is poor, even when normalising for population. India now has the highest confirmed mortality rate in South Asia. Clearly India’s strategy of having the world’s harshest lockdown backfired, as countries like Pakistan have managed to control the pandemic better than it.
The coronavirus outbreak has also severely disrupted regular health services, which is likely to lead to higher mortality in India this year, as well as long-term health impacts.
Maybe nothing spells more starkly how broken India’s TV journalism is than the edging out of this massive health crisis by groundbreaking investigations such as Rajput’s housekeeper claiming he rolled joints for the actor.
4. A failing goods and services tax
The Modi government introduced a new tax regime in 2017 and with it, promised the sky to India. The new Goods and Services Tax was billed as a “one nation, one tax” that would simplify India’s taxation structure for taxpayers all the while boosting economic growth and increasing tax collections.
Except, none of those promises turned out to be true. In fact, the same taxpayers who celebrated GST are now sick of it. Complaints about how complicated it is are widespread from business owners. given that from being a “one nation, one tax” system as marketed, the GST actually has a maze of multiple rates and cesses. Moreover, the entire structure is so clunky and easy to scam that the government has actually seen collections drop.
Last week, the Centre refused to honour a key part of the initial GST dealmaking: compensation to states. This means states will now be on a warpath with the Centre which would entail that GST would be scrapped or its highly complicated tax structure with multiple slabs and cesses would continue for maybe decades. Either way, chaos in the country’s tax structure would grievously hit growth and harass citizens at a time of economic distress.
But for the Indian media, this is less important than gossip around the sort of parties film stars go to.
5. A rushed health data policy
The Modi’s government’s National Digital Health Mission, is a new scheme that envisages a digital health identity for Indians. Potentially linked to Aadhaar, the ID will be key to accessing a digital database containing medical and personal information. On August 26, the Modi government put out a draft policy that proposes guideline on how this data would be collected, processed, stored and shared.
An individual’s health data is some of the most private information that anyone can have on a person. However, the time given to comment on this critical data policy was just one week – September 3. This has subsequently been extended by another week, still inadequate for any meaningful public consultation.
Clearly, the government does not give the idea of health data much importance. However, rather than hold it to task, much of the powerful TV media has completely ignored this, preferring to concentrate on Bollywood.
Like in Herman and Chomsky’s model for the American media, it is difficult to not see a pattern in the Indian media’s complete disavowal of the issues that matter in favour of a constant focus on the Hindi film industry. By abandoning its duty as a check on power, the media has given the ruling dispensation a free pass, which would rather have Indians obsess over the supposed debauchery of faraway people rather than wake up to see the deep crisis they themselves are stuck in.