REALITY: The ground reality is very different from what the BJP’s the posts on social media convey. Right from Modi’s many economic and social blunders, to his deafening silence and refusal to speak up for fear that he might alienante his vote bank, his many weaknesses are hidden by both social media and the corporate media
At least during the days of the emergency in 1976 we knew that there was censorship. There continues to be censorship but in a disguised form. It now takes the form of corporate houses loyal to the Modi Government misleading the people of the country with fake news, and media houses inventing dramatic stories where there are none
By Rajan Narayan
ALONG time ago, way back in the ‘60s, there was no social media to manipulate the news as it happened in the US election. There was no Facebook and Twitter which helped Narendra Modi win the Parliament elections in 2014 with a huge majority. The corporate media had not yet become slave of the ruling group. You could still trust what you saw on the television channels. There were no ‘Republics’ run by the likes of Arnab Gosavami which are acknowledged as views channels and not news channels.
Respected organisations like NDTV did not hold back or withdraw stories which did not suit the ruling parties under pressure from the government. There was no visible censorship. There was only interference from owners of newspapers and of course pressure from the advertisement department not to carry reports against major advertisers.
But there was the rare newspaper owner like Ramnath Goenkar, who even waged war against a major advertiser Reliance, for smuggling fake news into his newspapers. Even though Reliance, which was one of the biggest advertisers then, withdrew all support to the Indian Express group, Ramnath Goenkar would not relent.
I had my own small battle with the Reliance group when I was deputed editor of Business India in the early ‘80s. I had given a detailed account of the rules broken and bent by the late Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder of the Reliance empire. We were forced to dilute, but not withdraw, the story under pressure from the then Congress boss Rajni Patel.
THERE was of course interference from the owners, particularly those who had other business interest like the Times of India group. For the Jains who owned the TOI at that time it was only a very small part of their empire. It had not become the hydra headed monster that it has now become. It was not journalists and small publications which started the practice of paid news which became rampant during elections till the Election Commission put some breaks on it.
It was Samir Jain, who inherited the TOI, who institutionalised paid news. His logic was that many journalists, particularly those reporting financial news or working for financial newspapers, were corrupt. I subsequently learnt when I worked briefly for an advertising agency, that senior commercial reporters and even editors were on the regular payroll of not only major companies but even advertising agencies like the ones I worked for, which specialised in public issues for raising money for companies.
Samir Jain decided that the money which was been selected unofficially by the journalists should go to the organisation. So everything became paid news. Samir believed that those who were desperate to become part of the social registrar and wanted to be recognised because of their low self-esteem, would pay for being just mentioned that they had attended a big party. Which is how the Times supplements like the Goa Times came up where every word is charged.
The most corrupt of course are the financial papers, as every report on every company doing well or badly is paid for. Reports on a company performing well even though like Nirav Modi’s company it may be bankrupt. Paid reports to project a positive image to continue to fool banks and investors. Rival companies, for instance Reliance, who were at war with Bombay Dyeing would pay for nasty reports against their rivals.
Till at least the new millennium there was some honesty or integrity in the media. The corruption in the media started becoming acute with the entry of social media in a big way. And of course in more recent years, the huge growth in smart phones. At first established media houses had to compete with television channels multiplying like rabbits. Since TV channels not only gave you news, but also showed you the news happening as-is 24×7, why would you read a newspaper the next morning which contained yesterday’s news.
LATER TV channels realised that they in turn had to compete with social media. Why do you need newspapers or news channels when you can get it all on your smart phone. People did not realise how selective (or rather not-selective) those who control Facebook and Google and Twitter and Instagram and YouTube were, in selecting the news that they showed.
But the greater blow to traditional media, whether newspapers, magazines or TV channels, was from the freedom that social media offered.
On Facebook you could post anything you want to, whether true or false. There were no editors and sub-editors to check whether the news or views posted were right or wrong. Which is why you see extreme radical and reactionary views on Facebook.
The beneficiaries have been the rabid right-wing parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and their counterparts in other parts of the world. It is now commonly accepted that the Soviet Union, and more specifically Vladimir Putin, fixed the US election.
The FBI and a special prosecutor have virtually confirmed that Soviet companies in collusion with Facebook and Twitter manipulated posts against Hillary Clinton and in favour of Donald Trump, which is why Trump managed to win though the mainstream media, including most major newspapers and TV channels in the US, were totally against it. Which is why Modi’s victory in the 2014 election by 3/4th majority shocked the traditional media as Facebook was under the control of the Sangh Parivar.
Historically newspapers and TV channels have been accused of manipulating news. They have been accused of favouring one political party or the other. For instance, corporate media has largely been victimising the AAP. Surely nobody can believe that the Chief Secretary of State can be called to the residence of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and be bashed up on the flimsy excuse that he had refused to clear the files relating to the TV advertising campaign of the party to celebrate the 3rd anniversary!
What happened the next day was even more shocking, with the police, who were controlled by the Central government headed by Modi, crashing into the residence of Chief Minister Kejriwal to recover so called CCTV footage of the incident, only to discover that none of the CCTVs installed in the chief minister’s house were working.
Another challenge is the media choosing to cover, and sometimes even create, issues related to individual families just for the media frenzy, often sidelining more important issues of general concern. The coverage of the Sheena Bora case for instance eclipsed coverage of floods in the north east. Recent coverage of Sridevi’s death (covered on page 10 of this issue) is another example of the depths to which the media can sink.
MEDIA TAKEN OVER
THE media has now been virtually taken over by the corporates. CNN 18 which was started by Rajdeep Sardesai was taken over by Mukesh Ambani and Rajdeep and all his staff were sacked. NDTV was pressurised into selling out to the Ambanis. They were harassed by the Income Tax authorities and the Enforcement Directorate. One of the senior editors, Shriniwason Jain, has admitted that he was forced to withdraw an interview he had carried with former Finance Minister PC Chidambarum on the effects of GST and demonetisation.
The Hindustan Times is owned by the Birla group. Shankar Gupta has been given his marching orders from the Indian Express. The son of the owner now calls the shots. The Hindu is struggling to remain independent but is under tremendous pressure. A journalist of the Tribune published from Chandigarh was arrested recently on the charge of publishing fake news.
WHAT is most disturbing of all is the dominance on news and views by social media. In the accompanying interview with the director general of the BBC we learn that it is possible that 20% of what appears on Twitter is generated by bots, which is short for robots. It is not human beings who decide what should or should not appear on Facebook but algorithms. In computer terms an algorithm is a programme which decides on the basis of certain key words whether a particular post should appear or not.
By coincidence or otherwise, whenever I use the word Parrikar in any article or Facebook post I get a message saying that I have been suspended from posting. It is easy enough to programme the bots so that they block out all negative references to Modi and only permit positive references. Conversely they can block any positive references to the Congress and Rahul Gandhi.
This is true not only of your Facebook feed but of Twitter and the many other babies that social media keep producing. WhatsApp which all people swear by and which is supposed to be totally encrypted so that only the sender and the receiver or the WhatsApp groups knows what is posted, has been taken over by Facebook which shares the information with advertisers. Even worse ads have started appearing in WhatsApp. There are many apps which are free to download. Many of these apps in turn belong to Google or Facebook and contain ads. The biggest advertiser or organisation which gets maximum revenue from advertising is not newspapers or TV stations but social media.
Which is why independent media organisations are even more important today than ever before. Because you need someone you can rely on to tell you what is fake news and what is real. If someone posts a message that Manohar Parrikar has suddenly developed three heads you will dismiss it as a joke. Though the bhakts might even believe it, thinking that even one brain can’t hold all the genius of Manohar Parrikar.
The Goa police at least believe you cannot post on the status of the health of Manohar Parrikar. Though the provision for criminal action against false and provocative posts was struck down by the SC in 2005, the IG of the Goa Police Jaspal Singh insisted on arresting and detaining Harish Volvoikar for posting that Manohar Parrikar had grade four cancer of the pancreas. Which is of course denied by Parrikar’s supporters and even the hospital in Bombay to which he was admitted. But the hospital in Bombay, Lilavati, has not told us how serious the problem is though it is confirmed he got himself discharged against doctors’ advice. The fact that Parrikar is suffering from more than just a mild inflammation of the pancreas is clear from the fact that he was re-admitted to the GMC on Sunday night.
Which is why it is important to have traditional media organisations with teams of reporters and editors. Reporters to confirm whether what ailment Mr Manohar Parrikar is suffering from and whether the hospital and his supporters are telling the truth. This is important because however sincere and hardworking and dedicated Parrikar may be, he cannot run the administration efficiently if he has serious health problems. Particularly if it is a problem relating to the digestive system — called the gastrointestinal system in medical terms.
All of us are aware that we can work if we have a fracture of a leg or a hand. We can work with most health conditions. It is however impossible to concentrate if constantly worried about your stomach.
I can personally watch for the fact since I suffer from acute GERD which in simple English means the acids generated by the pancreas do not flow into your stomach but backwards towards your throat to damage your vocal chords. This is just an example.
If there was a rape case we would have the right to know who were the rapists. And if it is somebody who is very well connected and is protecting the culprit the people have the right to know it. There was a case of seven year Dalit girl who was allegedly raped by some Hindutva thugs. Shockingly there is a Sangh Parivar group who took out a protest march demanding release of the culprit waving the national flag.
Our ability to fight fake news and ensure that the truth is presented to the people depends on how much the reader or the viewer is willing to pay. If you only support big publications which are more concerned about revenue than truth you will be party to the spread of fake news. The survival of small publications like the Lankesh Patrika, which was edited by Gauri Lankesh, and indeed the Goan Observer, depends on you, the reader, and honest businessmen who believe that truth should prevail.