Among various countries, India is possibly an outlier in terms of the extent of corporate media consolidation, especially after 2014. Corporate media consolidation in India has involved a handful of big businesses dominating news content creation—newspapers, television channels, radio and websites—and as well the dissemination of this content, which includes both traditional and social media).
This phenomenon has been compounded by the virtual stranglehold of the ruling party in the union government of India, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), over public broadcasting. To comprehend how this attenuation of media diversity emerged, let us briefly examine some aspects of media history in India.
Media history in India
Indian television, introduced as a limited service in 1959 as part of a UNESCO project involving exclusive public ownership, developed slowly. By the 1970s, television services in India had expanded but remained in public ownership.
Television soon became an essential avenue for marketing by firms. Public ownership in practice meant television and radio remained mouthpieces of the Indian National Congress (INC).
The INC dominated the union government of India till the end of the 1980s barring a short interlude in the late 1970s. Throughout this period, newspapers remained privately owned, often by corporate entities. But the corporate consolidation in the print media was reasonable compared to contemporary trends.
Under the Fourth Five-Year Plan (1969-1974), there was a significant increase in public expenditure on broadcasting, and this rising trend persisted through the following two Five-Year Plans (1974-1985). The reach of television increased somewhat due to the public sector production of priced televisions and the rise of a middle class employed in the public sector until the 1980s.
Rise of neoliberalism and media privatization
After the decisive paradigmatic policy shift toward neoliberalism, media privatization increased. A plethora of private television channels emerged. Following the establishment of neoliberalism in the 1990s, the number of television channels surged to 800 by 2012. These included more than 400 news and current affairs channels.
Public television ceded ground to these private upstarts in keeping with the neoliberal ethos as in other realms of economic activity. Advertising began to play an out-sized role in determining the viability of private media.
Since governments—both at the union and states, especially the former—were significant sources of advertising revenues, the parties that dominated these governments gained substantial leverage over content and media output dissemination. This situation created the potential to further ‘cronyism’ in the Indian media. Corporate consolidation in the media realized this potential.
Corporate consolidation in the Indian media involved fewer political processes, such as the rise in the size of the minimum capital required to run media outlets and the attendant rise in operating costs. Big businesses—domestic and foreign—emerged as significant media advertising sources.
Non-corporate media outlets experienced a decline in viewership and readership due to the need for alternative funding sources. Since the only options were corporate or government advertising or subscription fees, the latter needed more revenue to replace the former two sources.
Those media outlets backed by corporate or government advertising could, and did, set subscription fees low enough to eliminate most non-corporate rivals in the media. India’s widespread poverty and inequality, subscription fees could never have been set at levels that could have sustained a non-corporate media outlet.
The emergence of neoconservativism and Hindutva
Corporate consolidation in the Indian media occurred alongside the emergence of “neoconservativism” as an ironic, yet necessary, counterpart to the consolidation of neoliberalism in India. This neoconservativism was compatible with consumerism but is antithetical to the Constitution of India. Neoconservativism was furthered by private media and coalesced into Hindutva.
Corporate consolidation in Indian media has undergone significant changes since 2014. The features of the extant media in India that we have examined in the previous paragraphs are present to a greater or lesser degree in most countries. “Godi” media has risen in North India and the English-language media space.
Seema Mustafa defines Godi as “an epithet to describe a media that has lost its independence and exists only to serve what it perceives as its masters, be it the owners, the corporate houses, and the governments. It is recognized by abject servility and its tendency to repeat by rote all the handouts —overt and covert — it receives from the owners and the governments. It is recognized through its fawning adulation of those in power, and a warm embrace for those who support that power.”
The recent takeover of New Delhi Television (NDTV) by entities connected to the Adani Group has resulted in a virtual monopoly of the Godi media in much of the English language media space and other media spaces in North India. The establishment of this virtual monopoly has been furthered through a combination of various economic and administrative nudges.
Unlike many other countries with corporate-dominated media, the floor level of diversity in the media has been breached in India. News has become a vacuous mix of insipid theater, hate-driven by “alternative facts,” “in-house” journalists/experts/analysts, and ill-concealed cheerleading of the party in power and centered around the current Prime Minister of India. This virtual monopoly of the Godi media has resulted in shutting out opposition/alternative views on a range of matters concerning public policy.
Social media domination
Social media domination by entities connected to the ruling establishment has squared the circle of Godi media domination. Neoconservatives have been generating much noise in public, expressing hostility toward issues such as women’s rights, communalism, caste-based discrimination, demagogy, etc. The current noise from neoconservatives in India results from the government’s neoliberal policies that brand opposing voices as “anti-national” and the lack of apparent policy alternatives from most political parties.
These trends concerning the Godi media ecosystem are exemplified by the official attempts to clamp down on the dissemination of the BBC documentary, India: The Modi Question, on the record of the current prime minister of India. Such trends are also reflected in the cosmetic debates surrounding the Hindenburg Research report on the Adani Group, the response of the Adani Group, and the subsequent counter by Hindenburg Research.
Trends in corporate consolidation and Godi media
State-level political parties have set up sustainable and influential media outlets outside of North India and the English language media space. Though the ability of these media spaces to sustain debates about comprehensive alternatives to the neoliberal policy paradigm is debatable, it is indisputable that their presence is preventing media diversity from declining further to abysmal lows.
The current travails of Indian democracy are not due to a further decline in media diversity after 2014. This attenuation of media diversity is a crucial mediating link in the heightening of the travails of democracy in contemporary India.
Any attempt to deal with these travails cannot but engage with efforts to recover and enhance media diversity by reversing crony corporate consolidation in this realm, especially of the post-2014 variety. Progressors could implement standard anti-monopoly rules to limit the direct or indirect ownership of any major business in the media sector, to break the stranglehold of a few large corporations over a significant portion of the media. Distributing advertising revenue from public sources to all entities in the media space, both within and across all media segments, would eliminate the direct financial leverage that ruling parties, and their corporate backers, can exert over the media.
Setting up an independent media regulatory body outside the government’s control can tackle the problem of administrative nudges over media. This media regulatory body needs to be empowered to deal with all issues concerning media outlets, including financial matters and social media regulation.
Extending public broadcasting rights to state governments, allowing them to operate public news channels and radio stations, would ensure that public broadcasting is at least as diverse as the political party makeup of the Indian Union. A selection committee, where the opposition has the most elected members, could appoint members to the media regulatory body, reinforcing its independence. The law could limit the airtime or coverage given to any party to ensure that media outlets do not provide one-sided coverage.
Indian democracy, and the constitutional order that underlies it, is facing the gravest challenge since India’s independence. Any collective effort to preserve and protect Indian democracy cannot ignore the imperative for media diversity. Media diversity is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for larger policy-related debates and endeavors to preserve, protect, and advance Indian democracy. [Conner Tighe edited this article.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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