Vol. XL No. 33 August 14, 2016

A Captive Press

Sashi Kumar

THE emergence and evolution of the press has historically been closely aligned to the rise and development of capitalism. The same capitalist impulse enabled the advent and growth of the public sphere in England from the beginning of the seventeenth century. Journalism was a collateral development in this public sphere. The idea of such a sphere, which was not private, which was shared and more inclusive, was initially considered preposterous, strongly resisted and sought to be curtailed and controlled by the Crown and the aristocracy. But printing and publishing, although pursued primarily for profit, also reflected the modernising influence of capital and were spurred by the contradictory pulls and pressures of technology and religion.

The nascent information regime heralded by the Gutenberg revolution and the Caxton press led to a hierarchical tussle between the folios of manuscripts tediously rendered in cloisters (or monasteries of the kind evoked in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose), which carried greater prestige and exclusivity, and the cosmopolitan, more widely dispersed and accessed printed material. The German Protestant Reformation in the early part of the sixteenth century provided a fillip to printing (particularly the Bible) and the Catholic counter reformation towards the end of the century, in its turn, gave it another boost. On the other hand, the religious intolerance of the time also promoted enclaves of printing in exile. The Huguenots who fled France established Holland as a printing centre, and the Jews sought refuge in and published out of Amsterdam. Such samizdat-like printed material which was smuggled into France had a parallel underground currency there.  The authorities’ approach to them was ambivalent. They both cracked down on them and coopted them by planting news and views which the Court wanted circulated.

Both the English and the French kings used a combination of measures like outright bans on newspapers, grant of monopolies to pliant and trusted firms to publish them, a system of rigorous licensing, levies, and threat of libel and sedition to enforce pre and post publication censorship. There was the additional control of the distribution, in England, through private courier companies or through the postal system which became a symbol of imperial power granting the privilege of franking mail to the Peers and Members of Parliament and giving postal clerks the power to pry into the mails and weed out anything that foments serious discontent.

It was left to the early colonists in America to make printing and journalism an intrinsic part of the struggle for independence against British rule, to dismantle levies that curbed the press, to mount a historic legal challenge against the libel law and establish truth as a valid defence in libel cases, to introduce the penny post system to promote widespread and cheap distribution of newspapers. Leveraging this last factor Postmasters General were eminently placed to become newspaper publishers; and many of them became the early press barons. The State, unlike in England and France, subsidised and promoted the press. The press acquired its partisan and polemical character through the gradualist process of competitive politics, nation-building and constitution-making and was seen as playing so crucial and enabling a role that the framers of the Constitution enshrined its freedom from any control, even by the law makers themselves, in the form of the First Amendment.

The free press as we commonly understand and practice it today was really forged in the American anti-colonial movement or war of independence and the formative period of the making of the American nation. Its public interest concerns, redolent of its public sphere provenance, and its State led growth may appear at odds with its private capitalist and market driven character, but are of a piece with the collusion of State and market that characterises much that is American even as the US preaches a free market ideology without intervention by the State to the rest of the world; the same double standard also fostered its military industrial complex. And so we find the aggrandising and acquisitive private ownership of the media running up against the cross media restrictions the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) continues to try and impose, even if against increasing pressure of late, by the big media lobby, to dismantle them. We find humungous multinational digital capitalist media ventures coexisting with a vestigial public interest broadcaster like the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) or a successful syndicated network in the public sphere like the NPR (National Public Radio). And there is the overarching fact of the US State pursuing information ascendency as a main plank of its foreign policy, with successive administrations since the Second World War, from Truman to Clinton, spending as much as three trillion dollars to ascertain its global supremacy in this field.

Even early on, the founders of the US constitution in the eighteenth century were inspired by Milton’s influential tract of the previous century, Aeropagitica, and derived the ‘self righting principle’ from it. “Whoever knew truth put to the worse,” Milton had written, “in a free and open encounter?” This idea that truth would trump falsehood in a free contestation was championed by the leading lights of the American independence movement like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and became an article of faith for the new nation. In 1919, the US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed that it was from the self righting principle that the peculiarly American improvisation of a ‘marketplace of ideas’ was derived – the peculiarity is underlined by the strong insinuation of  the market, and market competition, into the realm of freedom of expression.

Our journalism and our press, along with the oppositional or supportive British press, were also an integral part of the independence struggle in India. Although, unlike in the US, freedom of the press here is not specifically or categorically prescribed in the constitution, but has to be read into and through the freedoms of expression, movement, and to practice any profession guaranteed in Clause 19 (1) of the chapter on Fundamental Rights, the press has consistently enjoyed constitutional and moral high ground in the decades following independence, barring the egregiously stupid phase of the Emergency in 1975 when it was arbitrarily muzzled by the government. The State and the citizenry at large have acceded this privileged position to the press assuming that, as the fourth estate, it has an institutional public-interest role to play. Indeed, the way it has played out, the press, as the fourth pillar of democracy, has acted as a check and balance on the other three pillars and has become functionally integral to the scheme of separation of powers which is established as an essential feature of the constitution that cannot be tampered with.

But for all that the beginning of the 1990s marked a drastic departure in the role and identity of the media as an agency of democracy and as a tool of empowerment of the citizen. The full scale programme of liberalisation and globalisation launched in that decade ‘marketised’ the media as never before, literally pushing it away from the public sphere into the market, and the technological churning brought about by digitisation reconfigured the media-scape and opened up the vast virtual space of the social media. Digital convergence initially held out the promise of greater democratisation of the media, but in the new market and trade paradigm of the media that promise soured as convergence flipped into forward and backward vertical integration and enabled consolidate huge media monopolies in the west – the digital capitalist behemoths like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and so on.

On the other hand the influential legacy media which combined public and commercial interest in some measure were becoming vulnerable to takeovers by the big firms which were not even necessarily in the media sector. The spate of mergers and acquisitions of the first decade of this century swallowed up many such media companies.  In the first five years alone deals worth about 300 billion dollars were transacted leaving nine transnational media giants effectively controlling the global media. They were General Electric, Disney, AT&T, AOL-Time Warner, Sony, Newscorp, Viacom, Vivendi and Bertelsmann (this last German company being the only one that was not American). The more modest sized news businesses were acquired by the big market players not for their profitability but for the leverage they would provide their core commercial interests. NBC News which was taken over by General Electric accounted for less than 2 per cent of the combined revenues of the merged entity and is unlikely to have made much of an impression on its balance sheet. Similarly ABC News acquired by the Disney group provided less than 2 per cent of the combined revenue and Times Inc. accounted for only a small fraction of the revenues of AOL which took it over. In the process journalism became a small subset of a general entertainment media or non media corporate business and its fortunes were linked to its usefulness in providing political clout or as a defence shield for the market player who owned it. The forays of Reliance into the news media business in India have to be seen in this light.

The story of journalism suborned by media or non media corporates is even more dismal in India because there are no cross media restrictions in place here like in the US to prevent the rise and growth of media monopolies. The State and the market have colluded to promote and perpetuate a big media regime. The steep hike in the licence fees for new satellite TV news channels effectively bars the entry of new small or medium sized entrepreneurs into the sector. The prohibitive and whimsical distribution costs for private TV channels on the cable networks and DTH (Direct to Home) platforms ensure that only the ones with deep pockets can afford a shot at a reasonable viewership. Quite a few smaller players continue to chafe under these heavy costs and just about manage to subsist several years after they have been in the business. All the talk about the need for regulation in the media, besides being dangerous to the freedom of the press, misses the real and pressing need, which is a regulatory framework that provides for a level playing field which does not discriminate against the prospects of the smaller independent ventures in the field. The state which pretends to keep its hands off the media market actually has a big hand in instituting a monopoly media raj.

It of course suits the State that the fat cat media club works like a cartel to propagate the neo-liberal values unleashed with liberalisation. The media are not just market friendly themselves, they are aghast at any signs of market unfriendliness. “You are actually arguing for subsidies!” is the incredulous and shocked tone with which the TV news anchor reacts to what an unbiased viewer would think was a perfectly rational and humane suggestion by a proficient economist on the news programme. Pro-poor economic terminology in the media becomes almost vulgar to this lot of neo-liberal evangelists, and they react with feral hostility to it. Wittingly or unwittingly – most likely unwittingly because there is no evidence of enough IQ or grey matter there to make it witting – such media become the baneful force multiplier of neo-liberalism. They create the atmospherics of news and numbers which suggest an ascendant nation even as the bulk of its people continue to be deprived and impoverished, as farmers continue to commit suicide by the hundreds, as jobless growth continues to be meaningless for its youth. The media become willing accomplices to systematic disinformation – by projecting euphoric growth rates which have a dubious basis; by highlighting statistics of the welfare of the well-off to exude a sense of overall wellbeing; by fudging figures to fix the poverty line wherever it suits the establishment best. Almost like Marie Antoinette, the media, which are for the most part as blissfully ignorant, seem to be saying: If they don’t have bread, give them numbers. This is how the neo-liberal fourth estate becomes a fifth column of democracy.