November 2006 
Year 13    No.120

Cover Story

‘The protest of poor marginalised people is not considered news’

— Siddharth Vardarajan
Associate Editor, The Hindu

It is an unfortunate fact that both on television and in print the national media seems to show an increasing tendency to ignore the problems of working people, especially the peasantry and working class, and the poor in general. Coverage, when it occurs, is superficial and episodic. But what accounts for this bias? I think there are several distinct but interrelated factors.

First, is the effect so-called market forces have on the media. In general, the economics of the Indian media is driven by advertising revenues. This, in turn, means that editorial content must yield space to advertising because it is the latter which pays the bills! So there is a problem of real physical space – column inches or minutes on prime time – for all kinds of news. But excessive dependence on advertisers also means that advertisers get to have a say in both the content of specific news items (especially at particular moments of controversy) and also in terms of whether the overall ambience created by the news helps sell a product or not. And within this it is clear that an advertiser would not like to have a commercial for his or her product sandwiched by news of starvation, poverty, disease.

Second, the composition of the newsroom, particularly of the English national news media and even the electronic vernacular channels, leans heavily towards higher socio-economic demographic strata. So there is also a sense in which the sensibility of the average journalist may not really be attuned to the problems of the poor and marginalised.

Third, the established political parties, the government and those who wield economic and social influence play a very big role in defining what constitutes "news". What the prime minister says or does, for example, is always considered news. The same goes for statements and decisions by captains of industry. But news of people’s struggles and problems get dismissed as "activism", "NGOs" etc. We saw how farmers’ suicides were not considered news (except in The Hindu and a few other papers) but when the prime minister travelled to Maharashtra there
was quite a bit of coverage. But as soon as the PM moved to other things, so too did the news coverage. Hardly anyone took note of the fact that farmers’ suicides actually increased after the visit.

So within the constraints of the market and of the social demographics of the media there is also bias and lack of professionalism. And I think these are the factors that account for vast aspects of the lived experience of the majority of Indians being considered irrelevant as far as "news" is concerned.

As far as your questions on page three kind of journalism is concerned, I am not at all against media coverage for "society" events, fashion shows, religious festivals and the like. Supplements exist precisely to cater to sectional interests and as society becomes more prosperous and variegated this is only to be expected.

Sadly, however, our supplements, instead of catering to the diversity of tastes which we know exists, have become homogenised around a shallow "golden mean" of celebrity news, gossip, astrology, vastu and other obscurantist cults, and a certain kind of film writing that has nothing to do with paying Bollywood the due it deserves. The same is true for what passes as "spiritual" writing, which is more akin to pop psychology than the exploration of philosophical issues and concerns.

And unfortunately, many of these kinds of things have begun to invade
mainstream news spaces, further marginalising the problems and
concerns of the majority of Indians.

The Kalinganagar struggle (in Orissa) is an interesting one and I’m glad you
brought it up. Not only was the horror of the massacre of the protesting tribals played down – there was no live coverage, no breathless commentary of the type even the smallest terrorist incident provokes – and even though what followed was especially gruesome (the mutilation of the bodies of the dead tribals by the police) there was virtually no coverage. The reason I think Kalinganagar became a no-go area was because it came at the intersection of three media blind spots
– first, the protest of poor marginalised people is not considered news; second, allegations of wrongdoing by the security forces are almost always ignored or played down whether they occur in Kashmir, the North-east or against the tribals in Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and elsewhere; third, the target of public opposition was an industrial project which the media sees as India’s passport to economic development. So as an institution, we have bought into the
myth that big business and the security forces can do no wrong, and that in any case, the protest of some poor folk being displaced in some "remote" part of the country is not news.

I don’t think global finance has played a role in the Indian print media scene since other than on a very limited basis there is no foreign capital in newspapers. As for television, I am not sure our channels are so bad because of global finance. Star News is linked to Murdoch and CNN-IBN and Channel 7 to the AOL-Time Warner, I suppose. But the coverage of all channels is uniformly bad. But certainly, as the role of domestic monopolies and global finance increase, I think all these negative trends that I have spoken about will get magnified.

Can the Kherlanji case become a Jessica Lal or Priyadarshini Mattoo case for the media? You know, I doubt it will. The Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo
cases became middle class cause célèbres not just because the men involved in the crime were powerful and influential but also because we as a middle class society could identify with the victims. She was one of us, is what every right-thinking person in Delhi would have thought when they heard the shocking news of the acquittals of the killers of Priyadarshini and Jessica. But when it comes to Kalinganagar or Kherlanji, there is not just a remoteness of physical distance but also of caste and class that kicks in.

Or even the BMW case. Had the Nanda boy killed "one of us", I don’t think the case would have gone the shocking way it did. At least not without the media kicking up a fuss. At the same time, I want to clarify that being a middle class victim of a crime committed by a powerful person does not now mean justice will be done. In our social hierarchy, the politician and the policeman are still top of the pile. But the Jessica and Priyadarshini cases have stripped them of a certain amount of immunity enjoyed. This is a good thing. But as in these two cases I would like to see our justified concerns being converted to all cases where powerful offenders target the weak and defenceless, the Dalits, Muslims and tribals. No doubt the media, including my paper, The Hindu, have a big role to play in sensitising public opinion on this point.

(As told to Teesta Setalvad/ Communalism Combat.)



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