They who in folly or mere greed
Enslaved religion, markets, laws,
Borrow our language now and bid
Us to speak up in freedom’s cause.
– Cecil Day Lewis (1904-1972)
Perhaps Karl Marx was kinder towards the role of faith in society than is commonly believed. His remark that religion was the opiate of the masses is often quoted out of context and then distorted. Marx observed, ‘Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.’ After the diagnosis, he declared, ‘It is the opium of the people.’ The suggested remedy to get rid of the addiction was a revolution. The supreme deity of the communist pantheon prescribes, ‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.’ In the Marxist formulation, revolution is the broad-spectrum drug that treats all human diseases.
The media is a purveyor of different forms of illusions. It is the religion of the middle class in democratic societies. It creates its own fantasies to calm the nerves of strugglers and strivers. Freedom of the press and the right to information are fundamental beliefs of the faith. It has its own saints – celebrity talk-show hosts, star reporters and syndicated columnists. This priesthood often consists of politically savvy editors, world-wise marketers and management wizards. However, unlike religions of the past, the media does not have a holy scripture, and lacks a comprehensive guide for the people to help them live virtuous lives. Media moguls manipulate this gap and turn the religion of the media into a profitable industry.
The influence of the market in the post-1990 world matches, if not actually exceeds, the power of the state. The media has thus become an instrument of control as well as an institution that influences those who control its reigns. The ruling dispensation in India has recognised the interrelationship between the market and the masses, and has handed over the task of preparing a curriculum for the media-studies course for the Central Board of School Education (CBSE) to the private sector. Bollywood producer-director Subhash Ghai and his Whistling Woods International company will prepare the course for film, TV, print, radio and the Internet. The market has intervened in the formative stage of media in Southasia, and its impact upon journalistic practices will likely intensify the commercialisation of the media – thus, the use of information for private profit rather than public good – and the institutionalisation of a conformist mindset.
In the late-1980s, Bennett, Coleman, & Company (BCCL) and the Times Group pioneered the practice of treating news like any other tradable product. Journalism was once considered a public service that performed a vital function in any vibrant democracy. Under the leadership of the Jain brothers, the venerable Old Lady of Bori Bunder, the Times of India (ToI), began to transform itself into the flagship product of a group that made profits by helping other marketers make more profits. The Great Wall that divided marketing and editorial departments suddenly crumbled. Editors that used to stare unblinkingly at the face of ferocious Durgas and look down upon the wily Vishnus of politics veered their gaze instead towards the lotus feet of Laxmi, astride the bird of the night. The race to the bottom had begun.
So-called invitation pricing (offering a reduced price for new customers) is a popular weapon in the armour of marketers of Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG), which are sold quickly at relatively low cost. ToI adopted this strategy to expand its market share. Once the flagship brand transformed itself into a consumer item, it began to aggressively cross-promote other products from the BCCL stable. Invitation pricing and cross-promotion is now standard practice in the Indian media. The BCCL marketers innovated the concept of ‘edvotorials’, where advertisements appear as news without any indication. Further, the very definition of news was transformed with the concept of Page-3 journalism, which focuses on C-4 (cricket, crime, cinema and celebrity) information. Its immediate imitation by competing media houses was yet another feather in the cap of the BCCL management. Invitation pricing, edvotorials and Page-3 journalism have since become industry norms, practiced nonchalantly even by small-town newspapers.
When news is considered a business like any other, the question of conflict of interest ceases to matter. One can sell tea, peddle decaffeinated coffee and hawk memory pills, and yet have stakes in transportation companies or steel manufacturing enterprises without suffering from pangs of consciousness. BCCL’s most recent innovation is ‘private treaties’, the business model for which is so simple that other media houses are likely to blame their marketing departments for failing to come up with the idea themselves. In this practice, newspaper ‘editomarketeers’ – indulgence in neologisms is necessary to catch the can-do spirit of editors in marketing territories – identify companies with growth potentials, and offer advertising and promotion deals for a percentage of their equity.
Not everything is necessarily specified in a ‘private treaties’ contract, but when a newspaper has a stake in a company, cross-promotion and downplaying of negative coverage is automatically guaranteed. This is a win-win proposition for the media outlet and the business house alike, where the only possible loser is the integrity of the journalist and the notion of public interest. The impact of this trend upon television journalism is less clear. However, it is unlikely that star anchors are also financial wizards and media owners, who know exactly which companies are likely to do well on the stock exchange when they choose their investment portfolio.
Souls for sale
When religion mattered most, priests set the norms of a ‘virtuous’ life. The Age of Enlightenment entrusted philosophers and social thinkers with the task of setting the standards of acceptable behaviour. Now, the market rules and political entrepreneurs emulate standard practices of business enterprises. The popularity of paid news in political competitions is comparable to the success of private treaties in the marketplace. In these models, the role of the media is reduced to that of being purveyors of propaganda and promotion.
Like private treaties, the concept of paid news is also a simple one. In this model, a newspaper comes up with a promotional package during elections, where candidates are offered favourable coverage deals for a price. According to Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit, deals offered for three-day print and TV coverage during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections varied between INR 12 and INR 20 lakhs. Rates were perhaps more reasonable in some states, but acceptance of the practice seems to have been all-pervasive. Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan claimed recently that the Election Commission had no power to continue its hearing against him on the ‘paid news’ controversy. He may be less convinced about the possibility of eliminating the practice of paid news itself.
Organised businesses and pragmatic politicos know that influence and power brings immense opportunities for profit. Thus, they co-opt the media. The main casualty of coverage-for-cash is the credibility of the press and the integrity of journalists. Marx would have suggested revolution as the only remedy. British poet-laureate Cecil Day Lewis has a less unsettling prescription: to defend the bad against the worse. There will always be some role for the muckrakers and whistleblowers who choose to be atheists in the world of media religion.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine, the Republica daily and the Nepali Times.