Anant Rangaswami Aug 29, 2011
We’ve questioned the acts of omission and commission by the government, by the Congress party and by politicians in general. We’ve debated the stand taken by Anna Hazare and the wisdom behind, and the appropriateness of the strategy employed by Hazare and his team. We’ve dissected every statement and action by all these worthies, we’ve questioned their intent and their commitment, we’ve looked for hidden agendas and we’ve rapped them on the knuckles for transgressions.
What about the role that media has played? Who puts the news media under a microscope to check if all is well?
News television is patting itself on the back on the contribution to a victory for Team Anna and, consequently, for the people of India.
The self-congratulation is misplaced; Anna Hazare’s movement was born because all news media, including television, had failed him – and the people of India.
A free press is one of the pillars of a democracy, the pillar that influences the legislature, the judiciary and the government. Has it played the role expected of it?
“Numerous observers have emphasized that a free press is valuable for democracy, for good governance, and for human development. This perspective is exemplified by Amartya Sen’s famous argument that in independent and democratic countries, the free press encourages government responsiveness to public concerns, by highlighting cases of famine and natural disasters. “…in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press,” says a Harvard study on the role of the press in democracy.
“A free press is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change,” James D Wolfensen, former head of the International Monetary Fund, is quoted as saying in the same study.
In theory, we have a free press inIndia, and the fourth estate should have encouraged ‘government responsiveness to public concerns’ and should have helped build ‘the public consciousness needed to bring about change’. The free press in India failed India in this instance, by not keeping the pressure on the other three estates – the legislative, the government and the judiciary – over decades.
While media certainly needs to be congratulated on cornering various governments on the larger cases of corruption, such as the 2G scam, the CWG scam, the mining scam and so on, they paid scant attention to the culture of corruption that directly affected the common man – a constituency that Anna Hazare understands well.
The failure of the news media in this area was what Anna Hazare spotted in the first place – and the power of the media witnessed in the scams highlighted above is one that he both recognised and understood. In effect, for the common man, Anna Hazare became the Fourth Estate, using news media, firstly, to raise awareness about the issue of corruption and, secondly, to force the legislative and the government into acting on the issue.
None of this would have succeeded unless Anna Hazare had understood the pulse of the people in his choice of cause. Hazare saw what media failed to see. As a result, the media coverage on the Lokpal Bill over the past few months, but more so since Anna Hazare’s fast began, has followed a timeline and an agenda set by Anna Hazare. Anna Hazare became the cynosure of all eyes, the embodiment of trust and honesty – and the one that the populace could rely on in their battle against corruption.
Did they even know that they had a battle? No, not till Hazare told them.
This is where media has failed as the Fourth Estate. The media should have highlighted the issue in a sustained campaign years ago, pressurizing the political classes into action. They should have created and presented their version of a Lokpal Bill. They should have forced the houses of Parliament to debate the issue.
Instead, a media without power or influence is the tail of the dog, wagged by all those who can give them more eyeballs, be they politicians or representatives of civil society. Like the politician, the media could not ‘occupy’ the position of being honest and caring about the people. Where were they (as far as corruption was concerned) all these years?
So it will stay in the present instance – unless news media does what it is supposed to do. Instead of relaxing during a break between acts in this riveting drama, media must help citizens understand the nuances (and differences) between the various versions of the Lokpal Bill and, as a consequence, take a position on who is fighting their fight.
Going beyond the Lokpal Bill, news media needs to re-own the role that society defined for it. Not just the India that lives in the metros in comfortable houses, but the India that lives just above (and below) subsistence levels of income.
What are the issues that affect them the most? Anna Hazare himself has highlighted some: land policy, election-related corruption, education, and so on.
These – and others – are all opportunities for the Fourth Estate to demonstrate that they understand and fight for the causes of the common man. This is not simple; investments need to be made to first understand areas of the government and the legislature failing the common man, then to highlight these issues and their ramifications and, finally, to pressurise the government and law-makers into action.
Failure to do so will result in many Anna Hazares leading many causes across the country, defining agendas that are set and executed by them – and followed by the media.
That would be a sad commentary on the Fourth Estate.