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Media Neutrality: Myth Busted

Media Neutrality: Myth Busted

A news item that appeared a few days ago about the News Broadcasting Foundation and the Indian Newspaper Society ‘deploring’ Sonia Gandhi’s suggestion of a ban on media ads by government for two years as an austerity measure to store up whatever resources available to the country to combat the pandemic intrigued me. It intrigued me for personal reasons. I had much respect for the media till about some years ago as I was given to understand that the media plays a crucial role in the deepening of democracy, in the protection and promotion of the rights especially of the poor and in nation building. However, in the recent years I was much pained to witness the deplorable situation of the media as it has by and large become subservient to the ruling elite.

It is more than four years since I gave up watching any ‘breaking’ news stories (it is always breaking news!) from any mainstream television news channels or read from any mainstream newspapers. I took this personal decision for the reason that I wanted to protect my inquisitiveness to know the truth. I felt the more I read from the newspapers or listened to the television news channels, the more unlikely that I would know the truth.

The stories, the ‘narratives’, the discussions, the shouting, the yelling, and so on presented to us 24 X 7 as NEWS were becoming increasingly sickening for me. To me, they were hardly worth any news! They were sheer propaganda, nothing else! By the way, the media, by and large, found it not newsworthy to report on Anand Teltumbde, world-renowned public intellectual, Ambedkar Scholar, and dalit intellectual known for his rigorous analysis of the caste system in India was forced to get arrested on a day when the country celebrated Ambdekar Jayanti! There were times in the past years when I had longed that the media would stand up in favour of the truth, the poor, and the rights and dignity of everyone as it is meant to be! I soon realized that it is foolish to keep believing in the mainstream media –print as well as electronic as a champion of truth, rights, justice, and so forth.

With the above background when I saw a news item that the News Broadcasters Body requesting ‘all parties to give a thought for the media sector which is known for its neutrality and objectivity' I felt compelled to express my voice to say that I do not believe in the neutrality and objectivity of the media that the body has credited itself with. The statements called the suggestion of ban on government ads for a period of two years as ‘unbelievable’, ‘shocking’, ‘demoralizing’ at this time when the media personal ‘risking their own life to bring Covid – 19 pandemic related news to us! To me, the unbelief, the shock, the demoralizing effect of a mere suggestion to ban government ads on the media as acknowledged in the statement is itself self-defeating! It is a pointer to the fact that news that reach us through print as well as electronic media is no more objective or neutral. It is worth only the 10 percent income that the media receives from the government ads.  

While I state my personal views on the media today, I hasten to add my deep respect for that tiny minority within the media who are true to their profession. They do risk their life, probably not against the present pandemic, but against the powers that be! Let me recollect a few personal stories that has deeply touched me. The first one goes back to 2004, when I was a student of economics in Poona University. Poona University had a large number of students from rural Maharashtra taking admission for post-graduation. I endeared most of my companions in my class who had come from rural Maharashtra. In our own simple ways we used to teach each other. In my turn, I taught them English while they taught me many other things. One of my friends whom I used to teach English one day narrated to me his journey to the university. He came from an ordinary family. The family depended on the meagre income from the small farm they had. The family did not have that much income to send children for higher education. However, this friend of mine, got up early morning; went to the market; collected newspapers; and cycled from house to house to distribute the newspapers. The income that he got from the distribution of newspapers enabled him to pursue his studies up to graduation from home and later to come to Poona University for his masters in economics. Sixteen years down the line, he is now an assistant professor in one of the most reputed deemed universities in Pune. Besides his personal determination and discipline, had he not had the opportunity to be a local distributor of daily newspapers, he would not probably have become what he is today. To be frank, the story of my friend had instilled in me deep respect for the media, the daily newspapers in particular.

The second story is of very recent time. It was one of the coldest mornings in the later part of December 2019. The first person who entered the campus on that day was my newspaper distributor. I was shocked to see him on that day. He was literally shivering. He had no shoe to protect his feet from the biting cold of that day. He just had a half-sleeve sweater on him and a gamcha to cover his ears and head tightly. Kya aap nahin dek rehe hain ki kitana tand hai? Aap garam kapada nahin pahane hain? I had told him in disbelief.  For me to see him without sufficient warm cloths was miserable. Truly, I felt guilty for having more warm clothes than him even when I had not stepped out my courtyard! Why should he come so early cycling in this cold? Just two days ago I had seen a motorist – it seemed to me that he was going for some work with his work equipment, he was hit by a vehicle and died on the spot lying on the road. He too did not have enough warm clothes on him. Without warm clothes, it is quite difficult to drive with balance in winter – I prayed for a moment that nothing happens to this person – the one who brings daily news to me every day without fail. He told me, sir, yahin mere kamane ka jariya hai; Nahin kamayenge to parivar kaise chalega. I once again felt profoundly grateful to the newspaper industry that gives some kind of opportunity to so many people like this man to earn an income to run a family. There are so many such families.

While the first two incident narrates two simple experiences that would have naturally led me to agree with the statement issued by the News Broadcasters Body, the third one indicates the moral burden on this industry to be truly neutral and objective. The incident is related to news broadcasted by various news channels during the recent violence in North East Delhi. I had a meeting with some women in rural Bihar. It was a session on Health. At the end of the meeting they narrated to me some news stories that were being bombarded again and again and again, and each time as breaking news on the recent violence in North East Delhi. The stories they told me narrated how people of a particular community mercilessly attacked the other community. From the narration of the story and my own understanding of what had happened in North East Delhi, the stories they narrated attributing them to a particular community seemed to me far from the truth. So I told them, the story need not be true. To this, one of the women told me in complete innocence: Samachaar galat ho sakta hai kya? Ye baath samachar mein suna hain; to ye galat nahin ho sakte! Oh my God! How to tell her that the news that we hear, the ‘narrative’ so to say, the 24 X 7 breaking news need not be true! Such was the faith of this woman and millions of ordinary people in the news media. Samachar galat nahin ho sakta hai na! If such is the faith and dependence of millions of ordinary people in our country on the news media, how much should this noble profession keep to its ethical principles of neutrality and objectivity! I wonder if the electronic as well as print media has any respect for this woman and millions of others who believed in them and in the news that they brought to them as true.

At the end, the experiences narrated here are personal and have no general significance. My boycotting the media does not matter either. But can the media keep betraying the faith that the millions of ordinary citizens of this country has placed on them? For the sake of this nation, particularly the powerless poor, I appeal to the News Broadcasting Foundation and Indian Newspaper Society to dump the 10 percent income that comes from the governments ads in favour of fearlessly being at the service of bringing to us news that is neutral and objective, news that deepen our democracy, protect the human as well as constitutional rights of every one and that unites us all in true fellowship. 

(Published on 20th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 17)