Magsaysay winner P. Sainath upbraided the media in his convocation lecture to the graduands of the Asian College of Journalism the other day, for giving up its basic function of upholding liberal values and keeping democracy in good health.
A glance at the “moral universe” of today’s media, not just in India but even in the developed world, leaves no one in doubt that the unbridled, corrupting free market is strangulating journalistic ethics. Neo-conservative thuggery in high offices was sufficiently powerful to blind the US media to what was happening in Iraq. Although some apologies were tendered by media houses, they never really intended to resume their roles. Even within the US, few voices are picked up by the media in support of the common man.
The repeated attempts to manufacture consent for neo-liberal reforms by India’s own media, with private television displaying the most avarice, continue. The dilemma of a market-led media universe is that its body has many tumours feeding on lucre and choking vital organs of democracy. These are gradually sinking without the benefit of the media’s support to fight the disease; the main sections of newspapers shrink constantly, while fluffy supplements expand.
It is a difficult time to write about policies on welfare, on housing, health, education, empowerment, food, agriculture, the environment and pensions. Even if these were to be written about, the tenor has to be supportive of the free-market, of loans, insurance and speculation.
What then can newspapers do to regain their commanding heights, particularly in countries with weak democratic systems such as India? Free as the media is in this country (some would say more free than some other democracies), the truth of market control of news agendas is self-evident. Investigative journalism of the most basic kind, involving diligent reporting of facts, is in a frozen state. Newspapers appear to be the least interested in using the Right to Information Act, to expose bad governance and corruption. For some newspapers, the RTI Act is almost an embarrassment because they now have no excuse for not getting the facts.
The attainable goal for newspapers is to strengthen ethics and return to the agenda of public interest. Although there might be “co-existence” theories being advocated to the media, the essential role that it must play is that of a watchdog vis-a-vis the establishment. Sadly, watchdogs will not suffer thieves silently, and when you have a system that is largely controlled by thieves, including in the so-called pillars of democracy, they will have to go about their job in the way that they are expected to. There is nothing for the media to be ashamed about if it must display a Rottweiler personality towards the establishment; so brazen are the thieves today, that only such fierce displays of integrity can persuade them to mend their ways.