Media myths of the ruralscape

The amount of rural reportage in the Indian media remains far too low, with even important stories such as those on farmer suicides tending to be ignored. One of the outspoken critics of this trend has been P Sainath, rural-affairs editor of The Hindu and 2007 winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts. He was also the journalist who originally broke the story on farmer suicides in India. He recently spoke to Himal about the hyper-commercialisation of the Indian media, and how this has created a structural compulsion to hide the truth about poverty and avoid covering important issues of rural India.

A decade and a half ago, you said that in India, where half the children go to bed hungry every night, the mainstream newsmagazines carry cover stories on weight loss. Things have not changed much since then, have they?
Well, in some minor ways things have improved. There is a growing number of journalists who are working hard to bring social-sector stories into the media. So there's some energy being built up on these issues, particularly among district-level journalists. It's not yet a critical mass, but at least it's a start. On the other hand, the media as a whole has fallen prey to what I call hyper-commercialisation. Of course, this is a larger problem – the media is very much a part of larger society, and cannot stand aside from larger social and economic processes. But I would challenge the proposition that the Indian media are pro-corporate and pro-establishment, for the simple reason that now we are big business, we are the establishment. The Indian media are deeply, directly invested in hundreds of sectors of industry. Corporate houses have investments in media, and now the media is itself invested in big business.

How has this impacted coverage by the media?
Arrangements like private equity partnerships creates a structural compulsion to lie. With a media house holding large amounts of equity in corporate entities, when the dramatic fall on the Bombay Stock Exchange Sensitive Index [BSE Sensex] took place in October 2008, dropping by almost two-thirds in value, the value of the holdings dropped precipitously. But since the media house has signed treaties, it has to continue giving the advertising space and paying the tax on it. Thus, in October 2008, the media companies found themselves in a mess. On paper, they had lost thousands of millions. As such, we had a situation where the fate of the media houses was linked to what was happening in the stock market. So there was a huge compulsion to lift the market – and to create an appropriate mood, one has to lie. Thus was created the great myth that India was not affected by the global meltdown.

So the media is compelled to write feel-good stories?
The corporate media have no choice but to lie. They can tell the truth when it is not unprofitable to do so, but they have to lie on large things like the economy, how the stock market is performing. It is not just about that the media has to do positive, feel-good stories – they particularly have to do so when the economy is doing badly. Two of the largest newspapers in India instructed their reporters to say that there is no recession in India, and the 'R' word cannot be used in any story. Recession happens in the US; in India, it is to be called an economic slowdown. The front page of the a Times Group paper had a headline 'What recession?' So it's not just about feel-good stories; it's about having to create a myth in order to save your neck.

What is the particular impact of this phenomenon on rural reporting?
In the same way that it affects any reporting that does not immediately improve corporate profit. This is the inevitable fallout of the hyper-corporatisation of the media, when the media are no longer a source of information but rather a source of revenue. Everything that one publishes has to be justified in financial terms. So why would a media house send a reporter to Niyamgiri to find out what is happening with the Vedanta project? At the most I can extract a Vedanta ad, but what's in it otherwise? On the other hand, if I am covering Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan or some other Bollywood star, that's a brand name on the back of which I can sell products. The Times of India gives new ad entrants into its publications a detailed document of who its target reader is – it's a fascinating guide to the stories they don't want.

So one can only have positive stories?
If left to the marketing department, yes. But there are various pulls and pressures, and simply the pressure of everyday commercial needs and political realities that allows little space for other stuff of a critical nature. Look at the amount of active falsehood this involves. Three committees constituted by the Government of India in the recent past – the Suresh Tendulkar Committee, the N C Saxena-led BPL experts' group, of which I was a member, and the National Commission for Enterprises in the Small-Scale and Unorganised Sector – have all said that the rate of rural poverty is far higher than claimed by the government. These committees' figures ranged between 42 percent and over 50 percent, even while the government claimed it was well below 40 percent. These three officially constituted committees are giving these dismal figures, and at the same time the newspapers are reporting that things are better than ever before in rural India.

It's not that they don't write stories about rural India. But what you do is send out photographers to show four smiling farmers sitting in a brand-new SUV. It wasn't just denying the reality of rural areas, it was an active mythologisation. In fact, this creates pressure to go and do rural reporting of the reverse variety. They needed to create positive stories, and one of the commercial pressures was to show that products are selling well in rural markets. Thus, you find a significant number of stories in the first few months of 2010 talking about 'rural resurgence'.

What about serious coverage of rural issues?
No Indian newspaper has a full-time agricultural correspondent. Only The Hindu has an agricultural columnist who goes to the field, but nobody has a full-time field reporter. I do some of this, but it's not my only brief as the rural-affairs editor of The Hindu. Neither does any newspaper today have a full-time labour correspondent. When you don't have a labour correspondent or an agricultural correspondent, you're saying that you don't want to talk to 75 percent of India's population. Not only do they ignore this group, but they hype up things by focusing on a very narrow segment of the population that is benefiting from economic liberalisation.

They will talk about cell-phone penetration, the Internet revolution. There may be cyber-cafes in small towns, but that doesn't mean villagers are accessing the Internet. They talk about how farmers are using cell phones, checking up on prices in other markets. They make it sound as though the cell phone was invented for use only by poor people. The first people to get a cell phone in a village are the moneylender and the trader. If a peasant is given a cell phone, he doesn't have any number to call. The hype makes it sound like the cell phone is a revolutionary instrument invented to liberate poor peasants in India. Nowadays you will find some labourers, particularly migrants, who may have cell phones because it means their contractors can call them to work from the city or town.

In the last ten years, there has been a massive increase in migration within the country. Millions of people are on the move at any moment, unable to feed themselves and their families in their home villages. The 2008 recession devastated many poor workers – for instance there are 4 lakh workers from Ganjam district of Orissa working in textile units in Gujarat, of whom tens of thousands lost their jobs because these export-oriented businesses shut shop due to lack of demand from the West. When this kind of thing happens in the information-technology sector, there is much screaming and shouting from the rooftops; but when it happens to workers from a 'backward' area like Ganjam, you don't hear a thing about it. When a lakh workers return to Ganjam because they are thrown out of their jobs, one can imagine the social tensions that result.

And the phenomenon of farmer suicides?
In 12 years between 1997 and 2008, 2 lakh Indian farmers committed suicide [see accompanying article by K Nagaraj]. The last six years of this period – ie, 2003-08 – saw more suicides than the preceding six years. This means that things are getting worse, not better. That's the reality of what's happening in rural India, but it doesn't get any coverage. Not only can the media not report on this, but because of its hyper-commercialisation it's forced to report the very opposite. The media is completely blinkered ideologically – 'the market is beyond reproach', 'global capitalism is a beautiful thing'. Even when they do try to report the truth, they end up in a mess. I say this with due acknowledgement and credit to some exceptional individuals who have bucked the trend.

The label 'development journalism' has been misused and become an excuse to do sloppy journalism. Yet the need for rural reporting is greater than ever before. How does one address this?

I have never called myself a development journalist. That developed as a ghetto for some serious journalists who wanted to cover rural India, wanted to cover the social sector. That became a retreat for them – go and cover that, and package it to their bosses as 'development journalism'. After all, you can't go to your boss and say, 'This is a story on class struggle.'

The second problem is that this is a donor agency- and NGO-led variety of journalism. The donor agencies need coverage of their own activities, the NGOs need to show that they have a worthwhile cause for existence. Being NGO-led means that journalism takes a backseat, which has influenced the way rural reporting takes place nowadays. A reporter goes to a remote rural district, speaks to the collector and to the head of the local NGO, both of whom are what we call PLUs – People Like Us. They are from the same class background as the reporter, and will have gone to similar schools and colleges. So you go all the way to the village, and speak to another guy like yourself. So what has been achieved by going to the village? You could as well have spoken to these people on the phone. If you go to the village, talk to the villager.

As a result of all this, you get stories with colour, humanity and all that guff, what such journalists consider 'good writing'. Development journalism then becomes journalism about 'saintly' individuals. You write about a person who studied in a top-flight management institute and has then been working in a rural area for three years. All the while, you are forgetting about the people who have been living there all their lives. So all we end up doing is romanticising another middle-class person. Unfortunately, this is also acceptable to newspaper editors – 'Okay, a middle-class role model, I'll give it some space.'

Then again, many times development journalism becomes a vehicle to promote the agenda of donor agencies. There is a point beyond which desperate hope turns into fantasy. Look at the amount of junk written in the past twenty years on micro-finance: they all refuse to look at the underside of micro-finance. Andhra Pradesh has now passed a law restricting the interest rates of micro-finance groups. In 2006, then-Chief Minister Rajashekhara Reddy said on the floor of the house that these people are worse than moneylenders. But have you read any 'development journalism' story on this? Micro-finance is a classic example of journalists catching the wrong end of the stick.

Is something wrong with our media education, then?
Media education has become better in some respects, but has become worse in other respects. Today there are journalism schools, like the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai or Sophia's in Bombay, that specifically make students look at something called 'deprivation'. Ten years ago this didn't exist, so this is an advance. After all, you can't be a journalist on the Subcontinent without understanding deprivation.

But on the flip side, media education has become highly commercialised. There are huge numbers of fly-by-night schools that are investing millions of rupees in advertising and luring innocent kids to join them, paying several lakhs a year to learn nothing. Many schools don't have a single full-time journalist on their staff. Another bad trend is this new degree course called Bachelor of Media Studies or Bachelor of Mass Media. Journalism used to be a post-graduate diploma course. But now you're taking kids straight out of school and, after a BMS, sending them to cover Parliament proceedings. These are kids who have never studied political science or any social science. These are bright kids, and we're cheating them by doing this. Like the media itself, media education is now big business – it's a huge media-baron fiefdom.

Can you draw a link between the lack of priority given to covering deprivation and the spread of armed resistance across rural India?
The equation does not hold. Deprivation is getting no coverage in many areas where there is no armed resistance at all, and coverage in areas where there is. But these sort of convenient connections don't work. In Vidarbha in Maharashtra, for instance, the Maoists are active in two districts, both of which are outside the agrarian crisis belt of six districts. Now, there is deprivation in all of these districts. So the unilinear 'deprivation not covered = armed resistance' notion won't stick.

Can there ever be symbiosis between commercial media interests and journalism that is responsive of the people's real needs? Can an alternative media model be devised?
I hate talking about 'alternative media'. Why would I want to give up my toehold in the mainstream? That's where the 'development journalism' ghetto begins. Of course I will write for small magazines and little newspapers, but I will also continue to fight in the mainstream. Doing only one or the other is not really a choice – one must fight on all fronts.

There are some large gaps in legislation governing the media in India today. There is no law against cross-ownership, for instance, or against oligopoly. Also, the current advertisement-revenue-driven model is unsustainable in the long run. Circulation is extremely important. And then it's problematic to be obsessed with revenue 'models'. Did Shakespeare have one, did Kabir have one? But they are still read today. Journalism whose tenor is determined in advance by the revenue model will never be important, never amount to much. Of course, a revenue model is important, but when you try to determine that before determining anything else, you're going nowhere.

It's not about good guys reforming the bad guys. The media are oligopolistic, profit-at-any-cost, and have interests in every sector. There are much bigger battles needed even while we fight the guerrilla warfare within. You have to end monopolies. you have to see that a handful of owners can't control the eyeballs, ears and reading of a whole nation.

Small journals and local newspapers have a critical role to play. They can provide space for stories that the commercialised national media is not willing to cover. Besides, in our wired world, the big media gives a lot of space to global events, to national events, and a lot of other good material gets blanked out. It is here that small journals can make a huge difference – they can do rural reportage that the national big media can't or won't.

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