Every few weeks it seems, something occurs to remind us of the ailing state of the Indian news media. The revelations about two prominent mediapersons last week was one such occasion. Former NDTV Executive Editor Nidhi Razdan admitted she had been the victim of a phishing attack that had her falsely believe she had been appointed Associate Professor at Harvard. While the injury was to her alone, Razdan’s vulnerability was seen by some people as arising from a culture of entitlement surrounding prominent journalists.

Meanwhile, another well-known mediaperson, Arnab Goswami of Republic TV was in the news with the Mumbai Police revealing messages exchanged between him and the former chief executive officer of the Broadcast Audience Research Council in an investigation into the alleged manipulation of television rating points.

The conversations suggesting a collusion between the two and between Goswami and top political figures. Also discussed in the exchanges were the Indian Air Force’s strike on Balakot, Pakistan and its potential impact on voters in the 2019 elections. This raised concerns about the use of media as a tool of political manipulation.

Taking a turn

The two cases are widely different and yet together they point to a trajectory in the Indian news media that explains many of its current problems. To understand it, one has to step outside of our times and go back a few decades, to the neoliberal turn under US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that placed the market at the centre of economics in a large part of the world, to the start of an intense phase of globalisation, technological innovation in the media and the rise of Rupert Murdoch who combined all these phenomena in his persona.

A few trends were triggered off by this mix the most noticeable one of which was the widely expanded reach of media and the diminishing size of its ownership. For many years now, a substantial part of the world media has been owned by a half a dozen global players. I would suggest that a similar tendency towards convergence and a centralisation of control over a burgeoning media in India has resulted in a concentration of media power in New Delhi.

New Delhi has always and understandably been the stage for national politics but never exclusively. However, starting in the 1990s, Delhi become the sole repository of political punditry, through newspapers, the new immensely influential medium of news television and a growing Delhi-based publishing industry.

In the absence of other influences, political analysis became constricted, more literal, less nuanced and the media shaped more greatly by Delhi’s feudal, fixer mindset.

The power nexus between corporate houses, Delhi-based journalists and politicians was exposed by the 2010 Radia tapes scandal . But with no reflection or course correction taking place, the tendency for the media to accrue influence while closing itself off to the world has not been curbed.

This tendency has been further and greatly fuelled by the reformatting of the media itself. Under Murdoch’s immense influence, the purpose of media once described as the fourth pillar or a watchdog in a democracy was redefined as profit maximisation. In India, Murdoch’s prescription coincided with an expansion in the size of advertising in post liberalisation India. The advertising industry grew 25 times between 1976 and 1994 (from Rs 1,160 million to Rs 30 billion). It jumped from Rs. 129.6 billion in 2004 to Rs 630 billion today.

Much has been said about the corporatisation of the media and the direct influence of influential business on the media. But the indirect impact of advertising in shaping contemporary media is little understood even by most journalists themselves.

With the advertiser as the new boss, the reader/viewer mutated from a citizen into a consumer, causing a reassessment of priorities with subjects of appeal to an affording class taking precedence. Rather than reporting on problems that affected the whole population, the media moved towards reflecting an aspirational, glamorous, leisurely lifestyle that one previously saw in advertisements.

The shift was the equivalent of a mall sprucing its interiors to invite product-sellers. But like malls in a competitive market, the media had to sell itself externally as well.

Some readers may recall that there was a time when the primary purpose of news media was to cover and investigate matters of significance. For a while now, Indian news television has abdicated this responsibility for the most part, often under the claim that it is too expensive to do news. This is like a university maintaining it is too expensive to teach. What this means is not that media houses with a turnover of billions cannot afford to send a reporter into the field but that the cost in terms of lost advertising is too high.

High decible formats

The replacement for hard news is the prime time chat show, an advertiser-friendly format in which news, even terrible happenings, are mediated through entertaining fights between familiar faces. News television formats that pit opposing views against each other like boxers – with shouting and shrill sounds – are using age-old tactics employed by marketers to attract the attention of allegedly fickle buyers and to keep them addicted.

Story-telling is an important technique in this repertoire, designed to tug at the heart strings and strengthen old, tribal solidarities. It is also increasingly used by advertisers playing up universal themes of parental love, the thrill of adventure and so on.

Well-intentioned journalists may protest against the preceding analysis. The intention is not to devalue the sincere journalism that continues to be done against all odds but to point out that it occupies a small part of what has become a marketing juggernaut vulnerable to manipulation by various influential players.

Finding a way out of the malaise is a challenge for the media and democracy itself.

Amrita Shah is the author of Telly-Guillotined: How Television Changed India (Sage-YodaPress, 2019).