Media is considered to be the ‘Fourth Pillar’ of democracy and some now consider the Social Media as its ‘Fifth Pillar’. Despite restrictions, media, because of multiplicity of modes, plays an equally important role in dictatorial states too. Media, having now permeated deep down in every society, has become the key tool to create and manage perceptions, which has now become an imperative to set the stage for any planned agenda or activity. Almost half the battle is won by winning or swaying people to your side in advance, and the balance is won by sustaining the campaign as events unfold. However, in the ongoing face off with China, has the national media measured up to the standards and expectations of international diplomacy and public respectively? (Since the circulation of newspapers and magazines has been highly restricted over the last few months because of COVID-19 pandemic, this article will basically focus on TV Channels and Social Media only.)
As if the blaring allegations and counter allegations on handling of corona pandemic were less, the ongoing frenzied and uncontrolled reporting by media on the LAC ( Line of Actual Control) face off with China since 05 May, has clearly exposed the ‘dual edged-ness’ of this important resource available with the nation, if not utilized properly. While the government very intelligently and efficiently controlled information flow on Corona by asking the Health Ministry to hold regular press conferences to provide daily national updates (and concurrently restricted others to stick by the information provided), but the government has neither instituting any mechanism to provide verified information nor regulating disparate news and views on the ‘LAC Faceoff.’ This has definitely led the government into a tight spot, has restricted its manoeuvring space, and the continuing utterances, pictures and documents flashed during this period by various agencies could have long term serious implications for the country, especially, in resolution of the boundary disputes.
In this melee of events, on one side there is a flurry of neo-experts (of all shades and hues) who want to dissect and comment on each action taken on the LAC, or failures there at. In the process, many with previous knowledge or experience are divulging various details which could best be kept secret. On the other hand, there are the political parties, who have found this opportunity to yet undercut each other, unfortunately again by sharing sensitive details of previous diplomatic parleys or Track 2 engagements. In both situations, on one hand the common man is getting confused leading to dilution of national sentiment, and on the other it is also sending out possibly an equally messed up message to the international community!
While the TV Channels may still be under some semblance of control, the Social Media, which is available to a larger segment of population 24×7 in the form of hand held gadgets, is totally bridle-less. With no regulatory rules or mechanism, unchecked and unverified information, intelligently laced by inimical elements is possibly obstructing government efforts to counter the adversarial propaganda, as also homogenize the national view.
With corporatisation, the media was fortunate to tremendously improve upon its efficiency and reach. However, unfortunately, the corporate compulsion of earning profits forced it into the race of ‘Me First’ and TRPs (Target Rating Point) , and gradual affiliations with various political parties to curry favours for their businesses, with concomitant pitfalls. In this context, it would be worth highlighting some unseen undercurrents behind the working of TV Channels, which could then lead to some considered recommendations:-
Media’s main role is to provide unbiased information, educate and entertain. For it, generally it is to be guided by and restrict to Four Ws viz. Who, What, When and Where. But gradually, taking undue cover of Article 19 (dealing with Fundamental Right of ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression’) and lax media policies, the media has transgressed into the investigative and judgmental domains by demanding the why and how of things, and at times passing judgments even on government policies and actions!
Due to differing political orientations and leanings, the channels and their reporters tow different narratives, confusing the populace and also impacting the efficiency of government. As such, the potency of an important national asset remains or gets divided, and starts working at cross purposes internally!!
Most channels have now become adept at deciding on ‘Priorities of Coverage’ and forcing their ‘Agenda of the Day’ down the throat of the audience, and further directing the discussion only in the desired direction by giving selective exposure to chosen panellists. A large and varied number of panellists are possibly invited only to showcase a wider opinion base and neutrality of the discussion or event!!
Moreover, it may not always be felt necessary to get real experts of the topic at hand for all discussions, but all panel discussions invariably would have to have political reps, who on most occasions hijack the discussions, and marvel at covering up their respective follies by going into historical perspectives of issues, and cleverly counting on how many occasions the other party failed to justify their failures on lesser occasions, leading to obfuscation of main issue. What a malady!!
Some other important aspects with respect to Visual Media which merit consideration are:-
The 24×7 schedule forces the TV Channels to fill the time slots whether worthwhile matter is there or not. The Field Reporters, who are generally young and less experienced, are under pressure to give repeated updates. So at times they tend to generate unnecessary and unverified content. And frequently when the main anchor from the studio asks these field reporters their views, the entire nation gets forced to listen to a novice’s impromptu views, that too repetitively. Imagine the colour it adds to the thinking and opinions of general public across the country, rather the globe!!
Most news is focused on ‘Breaking News’ and related sensationalism. There are hardly any deliberate planned discussions or debates with adequate time slots, where panellists are given adequate time to put across their considered and researched views holistically. Most programmes are conducted on the run from event to event, where the anchor carries his agenda or understanding of the subject, and panellists are only fillers assembled based on availability (as all channels for vying for them almost at the same time). Such programmes leave the viewers more confused, rather than wiser!!
Media always demands autonomy, which is definitely required if it is expected to bring forth unbiased news and fulfil its obligation as the ‘Fourth Pillar’ in a democratic setup. However, it also needs to be noted that ‘while responsible and accountable media can promote the destiny of a nation, an unaccountable media can seriously embarrass the government, interfere in smooth governance and also cause disarray in society’. While a comprehensive review of media functioning is definitely required within the scope of democratic principles, the following three-pronged initiatives or actions could improve upon things in the earliest timeframe: –
At Government Level
All Ministries and Departments of Union and State Governments should hold regular ‘Press Conferences’ to share desired information with media and so the public, to put an end to speculative reporting and largely curb investigative journalism.
Whenever the nation faces a serious situation which can seriously impinge governance and national morale, reasonable restrictions need to be put on media to obtain information only from a nominated office/agency. The positives of nominating a designated spokesperson during Kargil operations and now during Corona pandemic have been quite evident.
The geo-politics now are largely dependent on shaping of the perceptions, and media is the basic tool for ‘Information Operations.’ While some set ups already exist in concerned departments, but their scale, scope and potency need to be enhanced to match and negate the efforts of the adversaries. And accordingly, discrete intermittent guidelines need to be regularly issued to media to at least avoid self-sabotaging of own information operations.
The Doordarshan Channels need to be energized to gain primacy, at least in the field of critical news reporting to project the authenticated government versions. And certain designated content needs to be re-broadcasted by other commercial channels to gradually improve upon its viewership.
The media has been given reasonable freedom to evolve and mature in a democratic environment, however, the frequency of aberrations in its functioning is increasing. The government should, therefore, review the functioning of Press Council of India (PTI) and DAVP (Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity), which are at times dubbed as toothless establishments. Moreover, initiating regulatory mechanisms over social media, which has been identified as a source which can cause unimaginable disruption to democratic polity, needs to be expedited to enforce traceability and ensure accountability.
The nation always looks up to their elected leaders and representatives to set the standards of public discourses and interactions. Control over the regular pandemonium in Parliament (which then have to be expunged from proceedings), off the cuff remarks in public by leaders on any subject (for which an apology comes after the damage has been done) and regular acrimonious exchanges between opposing political parties (which not only amounts to washing dirty linen in public, but indirectly scars the image of India internationally), would definitely bring in a sobering effect, and improve the content, tenor and texture, and off course the standing of Indian Media in global circuits.
At Public Level
For any democratic system to blossom to its full potential, maximum participation of people at all levels is imperative. Voices of every segment, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, and of every caste and creed, should be encouraged. The stranglehold of the chosen few to create national perceptions need to be broken. People of merit and calibre should come forth, write and speak their mind … it will not only soon break up the established coteries with vested interests, but soon the saner and meaningful voices will start finding their way to the decision makers.
Presently, the media is largely the domain of the educated. They ought to grow and act responsibly. Ranting out personal frustrations on media, and taking sides to seek favours or supporting a cause for pecuniary benefits, needs to be strictly avoided. The experts and domain specialists should guard against using media as an additional source of income, to retain their sanity of thoughts and ideas!!
At Media Level
An average human brain absorbs a sober and well analysed content better and retains it for a longer duration. Rushed information, that too in spurts and penny packets, only leads to confusion or part understanding, which does more damage than good. Imagine the present day Indian news programme is screened with numerous contents together viz. apart from the channel logo, time, and some advertisement, the news is coming in four parts : News reader speaking, some related written highlights being flashed on top, various pictures or file photos being projected, and a totally different ‘Ticker’ running at the base!! Instead of an overdose in one screen, the programmes can be separated. There is enough time in 24 hours cycle.
The news related programmes can be in three different segments. Firstly, ‘Spot Reporting’ which should restrict itself to video footage of actual happenings and only to ready factual details available … no analysis and speculations, as things have just started to happen. Secondly, ‘Public Opinion Programmes’ where views or reactions of various segments of the population are taken on various events or policy & governance aspects, for government to get a larger view, and promote a participative approach. Thirdly, ‘Informed Debates by Expert’ to provide public with a wider and deeper view of things to help them understand and form opinions or plan their things, as applicable.
Break coteries and enlarge participation. The entire Indian wisdom is not concentrated in Lutyens, or only amongst the chosen few, who only are repetitively called in on most panels. Let chance be given to the younger blood, researchers and people in respective fields who are in touch with reality.
The Nation wants to revive and spread the Indian culture, which is known for its calmness and courtesies. However, the blaring TV Channels, with shouting and dis-respectful commenting amongst participants, probably makes it all look hypocritical. Also, the ever-growing enthusiasm of anchors and reporters to short shrift anybody and everybody, needs to be checked!!
Media, especially the audio-visual media, is a force multiplier and an indispensable tool in this age of information. With the current gadgetry and technology, the flow of information cannot be restricted. The information space will always be flooded and over spilling. The only choice the Nation has is that whether it wants this space to be filled by favourable information, or would let the adversaries fill it with inimical information!! Planned, imaginative and cogent usage of media in the times of changing geo-strategic environment and various socio-economic upheavals is therefore, an imperative to force multiply and lend strength to various initiatives towards achievement of national objectives.
 Upamanyu Trivedi (India plans to regulate social media as it can cause disruption on 22 Oct 2019 in EconomicsTimes).Accessed on 27Jun 2020 from