Media and Democracy in a Globalising World

MOHAMMAD ZEYAUL HAQUE looks briefly at how media thrive in a democratic environment and how they sustain democracy, which is an essential condition for their own survival, power and growth. And how globalisation affects the play.
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Globalisation is largely good for capitalism, democracy and media, although there is a downside to it as well. One has to keep it in mind that media operations are driven by a business logic and a clear profit motive, rather than as selfless service to society. The motive behind it is not “altruistic,” which means living for the “alter,” the “other”. That is, it is not primarily a service to others, but a commercial operation like a private hospital, a law firm or a business consultancy that solves others’ problems for a fee, for profit. The official organs of political parties and other such outfits are not part of this discourse, I must caution.

It is also important to remember, especially in our Indian cultural melieu, that being paid for one’s services is not illegal, much less immoral. This holds for profit on business investments as well. An interesting example comes from around 2400 years ago in ancient Greece when the Father of Modern Medicine and the founder of medical ethics, Hippocrates, said that it was quite proper for physicians to charge a fee from patients and for professors of medicine to charge a fee from medical students. Even in today’s NGOs, which are non-profit organisations, people are paid well for their work. Media as commercial operation are not necessarily the source of all evil we associate with them today.

We may wonder how come a commercial operation has become the Fourth Estate, at least informally, while no other business activity has been granted this lofty status as moral authority. Well, this was not always the case, and it has become a reality over the last two and a half centuries, gradually, as a historical process of power-sharing in the emerging democratic polities. Media people have struggled relentlessly against mighty State structures to claim their own territory and expand on it. The latest and most spectacular example of taking a courageous stand and sticking out one’s neck for the defence of freedom of expression and transparency in governance is Julian Assange of Wickileaks, who has been targeted not by some Asian, African or Latin American dictator, but the supposedly advanced democracies of the United States, Europe and Australia.

So far the traditional media - newspapers, magazines, radio and TV - had fought relentlessly and won many battles for freedom of speech for people. However, as technology expands, and Internet and social media of all sorts take the centrestage, Wicki’s struggle has brought the most spectacular victory for democracy as represented by the principle of free speech and transparency in governance. Free speech we already recognise as enshrined in our own Constitution, but we have not been used to transparency in governance and day-to-day life. Scams like 2G and the Bellary mining operations in Karnataka are possible only in secrecy and stealth, not in openness and transparency. There is that English saying, “no guilt, no stealth.” Media allows very little room for stealthy operations.

Media have, in India and all over the democratic world, consistently helped the cause of democracy by promoting openness.

Over the last two and a half centuries media have been so crucial to public life that the American writer Arthur Miller observed fifty years ago, “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” Such significance in a democratic nation gave the newspaper a tremendous clout in public affairs. Within the next decade, two young journalists - Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward - virtually chased one of the most powerful US presidents, Richard Milhouse Nixon, out of the White House.

Nearer home, Girilal Jain of The Times of India wrote an edit “The Prime Minister Must Go” and the powerful Mrs. Indira Gandhi quit. We have to admit that it was not The Times of India that unseated Mrs. Gandhi, but India’s independent judiciary that played a major role as Allahabad High Court’s Justice Sinha unseated her by declaring her election void.

This reminds me of a discussion I had with the managing director of one of the large newspapers of the GCC. Introducing his newspaper, he said, “Ours is The Times of India of the region.” I politely told him that there was a minor difference. The Times of India wrote an edit asking the powerful Mrs. Gandhi to quit, and she quit. “But if your editor does that he will be sacked and put on the next plane to whichever country he came from, your publisher would be jailed and your offices locked.” He did accept that media thrive in a democracy only.

In democracies media alone do not fight for freedoms, they are also supported by an independent legislature, free judiciary, and other constitutional institutions.

Such power has corrupted the profession, we must admit, but the idea of putting curbs on media has been consistently rejected by the entire democratic world. We have to remember Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who built our democracy brick-by-brick and strengthened the foundations of media freedom. When Congress leaders complained about his newspaper National Herald’s editor, M. Chalapathi Rao’s independent line and asked for his removal, Pandit Nehru said he would happily sack half a dozen Union cabinet ministers rather than one editor. It is on such conviction in the absolute value of freedom of the press that the foundations of democracy have been laid. Nehru believed that democracies had to learn to tolerate some bad journalism to keep the freedom of expression alive. That is the position in the West as well.

With globalisation, new elements have come into play in Indian media’s ownership patterns, a trend that can make our media’s independence subservient to foreign capital, their policy choices and strategic priorities. This is a matter of concern for all of us.

Globalisation does not mean just the free flow of finance, goods, services and even labour across borders. It also means homogenisation and standardisation of lifestyles and cultural choices. This is not good for the cultural diversity and indigenous knowledge base of countries like India, nor for their cultural diversity. Worst of all, it introduces new pressures that directly affect our democracy. Foreign news agencies, foreign publications, TV programmes and software work under an agenda that does not help us.

Finally, I would like to conclude by saying that India has faced many such challenges in the past and it would ultimately learn to cope with present challenges as well.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 November 2011 on page no. 14

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