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Bharat Bhushan on Journalism in India

13 July 2013

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News in monochrome: Journalism in India

08 Jul 2013

The media’s infatuation with a single narrative is drowning out the country’s diversity, giving way to sensationalist reporting and “paid for” news. But, says Bharat Bhushan, moves towards regulation could have a chilling effect too

India’s growing global importance and ambitions have had a detrimental impact on free speech, creating a discourse that drowns out diversity in the media. Its “big power discourse” has been shaped primarily by two processes — economic liberalisation, which began in 1991, and the nuclearisation of India, in particular the five nuclear tests India conducted in 1998. The former has propelled the country, along with China and East Asian countries, into the role of a future growth engine of the world economy. And the latter has fed its aspiration to be recognised as a legitimate nuclear power.

The Indian media was initially critical of the attempts by international financial institutions to prise open the Indian market. However, it quickly fell in line as media owners realised that they stood to gain directly from economic liberalisation and the new class of consumers it created. If readers with disposable incomes increased, so would advertising revenue. This led to an increasingly insular focus on the emerging middle class, which represents less than 25 per cent of India’s population.

As it became an active partner in promoting a consensus on economic liberalisation, the media shaped the image of a new middle class as atomised and individualistic consumers united only by their disdain for state intervention and their aspirations towards international patterns of consumerism. New restaurants with international cuisine — often with chefs imported from abroad – serviced them, as did international fashion outlets, fast-food chains and giant malls for a world class shopping experience. The schools their children attended had the epithet “international” in their names, and school trips metamorphosed into travel to foreign destinations. The media helped to invent this “aspirational” middle class and to shape it ideologically. Editors of big newspapers prided themselves on their ability to double as food writers and experts on matching Indian curries with this or that wine, or on being experts on fashion, lifestyle and popular music. Newspapers and television channels introduced special sections and programmes to bring the world in all its consumerist glory to the Indian living room.

Increasingly, the middle class was seen as a homogeneous group of consumers with one voice and one set of values, a ripe constituency for buying into the “big power” dream.

The reader no longer knows where advertising and public relations end and news begins.

Re-imagining India

At the same time, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War made the Non-Aligned Movement, which had sought to represent the interests of developing countries during that period, in many ways irrelevant. So India began its search for a seat at the international high table. The nuclear tests of 1998 followed and the subsequent US attempts to create a halfway house for India as a nuclear power outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty boosted India’s aspirations.

Internationally, the size of the Indian market, the shifting of international economic growth engines to the East, and India’s own growth story helped re-invent the country as a potential world power. The “big power” discourse has been fuelled by the creation of new blocs of emerging economies like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa); by India’s G20 membership to its forging of a new strategic partnership with the US; and by US talk of and plans for strategic rebalancing of US interests in Asia.
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