None so blind as those who will not see
By P. Sainath

July 20, 2001 - It took the Supreme Court of the land to put hunger back on the front pages of the Indian press in early May this year. Which is surprising. Who'd have thought any publication needs to be told that hunger is still a story in this country and the rest of South Asia?

India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all declared food surpluses in the past two or three years. Between them, the neighbours have a surplus of 50 million tonnes of food-but they are home to half the world's hungry. Unemployment and hunger have increased in the same decade that registered the surpluses.

Yet few in the media thought the paradox worth pursuing. India, with 45 millions tonnes of unsold excess stock of grain, was bursting with stories waiting to be told. Most of them are still waiting. From the mid-1990s, evidence of farmers committing suicide in large numbers began to pour in from several states, particularly Andhra Pradesh in the south. In 1996-97, for example, over 400 farmers in a handful of districts in Andhra Pradesh killed themselves, mainly because they were too burdened by debt and unable to feed their families. A few stray reports acknowledged this, but no national newspaper actually put it on the front page. Recent government figures show that in Anantapur, just one district of Andhra, 1,826 people, mainly farmers with very small holdings of two acres or less, committed suicide between 1997 and 2000. Again, the media has chosen to look the other way, allowing the authorities to manipulate records of what caused the deaths.

By the end of 2000, it was clear India was facing its most serious agricultural crisis in over two decades. Not a single national newspaper assigned a full-time correspondent to report on this crucial development. Never mind that hundreds of millions in India still depend on agriculture for a living.

Finally, the Peoples' Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) of Rajasthan state resorted to a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India on the issue of hunger, drawing attention to the paradox of bursting granaries and empty stomachs. In early May, the Court served notices to six state governments, directing them to explain why things were going so wrong.That, finally, made it to the front pages. But nobody wrote about the crisis, or went into the field to talk to the poor about their misery. They concentrated only on the fact that the court had asked the states to explain themselves.

Glaring contradictions

Over the last decade, the Indian press has been obsessed with the most trivial topics. Journalists are more interested in telling the world that India's burgeoning new middle class finally has access to McDonald's burgers and the latest international designer labels. Or writing about the proliferation of weight-loss clinics and beauty contests. These are the topics that generate advertising revenue, not unpleasant stories about starvation deaths and the lack of clean drinking water, even in the heart of large cities. India's contradictions are well-reflected in the press. On the one hand, you have overweight urbanites paying thousands of rupees to shed weight at clinics, while on the other, thousands starve to death. The media got the first story. They missed the second.

Examples of the short-sightedness that afflicts much of South Asian journalism abound. Dozens of cover stories appeared on the automobile revolution, as India liberalized the automobile industry in 1991. More and more rich people bought cars to add to those they already owned. In 1998, there were still just five million registered vehicles in a nation of one billion. The real stories, on growing pollution and the lack of mass rapid transit systems which India direly needs to transport those who will never be able to afford cars, were rarely told. And there were no stories about the fact that bicycle sales, a reliable indicator of rural well-being, fell sharply.

There are occasional bleeding-heart stories on the sorrows of the poor, but the newspapers fail to make the connection between poverty and the policies driving it-what I call "market fundamentalism" and its attendant structural adjustment programmes.

Why is there such a lack of interest in crucial issues like poverty? What accounts for the disconnection between mass media and mass reality, and why do the largest sections of the Indian press fail to cover the most important stories?

The grip of press barons

The 1990s have witnessed the decline of the press as a public forum. This can be attributed largely to the relentless corporate takeover of the Indian press and the concentration of ownership in a few hands. Around seven major companies account for the bulk of circulation in the powerful English language press. In the giant city of Bombay, with over 14 million people, The Times of India has a stranglehold on the English readership. It also dominates the Hindi and Marathi language press.

The Times is clear and unequivocal in its priorities. Beauty contests make the front page. Farmers' suicides don't. Sometimes reality forces changes, but this is the exception, not the rule. Most other large Indian newspapers are eagerly following The Times' philosophy, inspired by the press baron Rupert Murdoch: a newspaper is a business like any other, not a public forum. Monopoly ownership has imposed a set of values entirely at odds with the traditional role of the Indian press.

An illustrious record

Historically, the press in India has been very strong at covering the issues it today tends to ignore. Indian journalism was a child of the nation's freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and a host of other freedom fighters doubled up as journalists and publishers, bringing out their own newspapers. These and many others plied a radical journalism that constantly put the British Raj on the defensive. The journalists of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s may have been very ill-equipped, and some would call them pamphleteers. Yet, from within a very narrow press, they reflected much wider concerns than journalists do today.

Now, with rare exceptions, the greatest Indian papers are run increasingly on corporate lines. Profits and advertising do not rhyme with socially-relevant news. This is reflected in the "beats" (or portfolios) of journalists within newspapers. The Indian press covers far more than the basic politics, sports and commerce stories it concentrated on a decade ago. We now have full-time correspondents for fashion, glamour, design, even eating out! One non-financial daily has 11 correspondents covering business in a society where less than two percent of the population have investments of any kind. Beats related to covering the lives of ordinary people, however, are vanishing at a rapid rate. Correspondents covering education are often loaded with several other unrelated beats because education is not considered a weighty enough topic. And no paper has a full-time poverty, unemployment, or housing correspondent.

Not surprisingly, the media has proved increasingly inept at covering development issues. The more elitist it gets, the less it will be able to achieve this. The equation is simple: the more corporate a newspaper becomes in its ownership and culture, the less space there is for public interest in it.

This is explained cogently in Ben Bagdikian's book, The Media Monopoly, which shows the incredible power of media conglomerates across the globe. A handful of them, like Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp and AOL-Time Warner decide much of what most nations see, hear or read.

When the media is driven by no higher cause than maximization of profit, it can seldom serve the public interest. When corralled by corporate interest, journalism gets devastated. And in the world order of market fundamentalism, the suggestion that anything could be fundamentally wrong with neo-liberal economics, with globalization or privatization, is heresy. If Gandhi were alive today, he would be quickly denounced as a dangerous left-wing loony.

The 1990s have witnessed a rapid growth of inequality the world over, as successive UN Human Development Reports have shown us. This may occasionally be reported in the press. But questioning the social and economic philosophies and frameworks that generate this inequality is just not done.

Signalling society's weakness

Yet, even allowing for the limits imposed by corporatization, the Indian press can do much more. Journalists must place people and their needs at the centre of stories, and accord better coverage to the rural political process. They should discuss political action and class conflict, not the politicking. Quite a few good journalists hold back from this territory, fearing, perhaps justifiably, being branded as "political" (read leftist). Yet, evading reality (the largest number of absolute poor live in India) helps no one. A society that does not know itself cannot cope.

More stories on the rights and entitlements of the poor could help. The press can and does make a difference when it functions. Governments do react and respond to the press, if the press tries hard enough to be heard. Take the example of the stories on starvation deaths in Kalahandi, Bihar, in the 1980s, which forced two prime ministers to visit the place.

Decades ago, commenting on the dismal role of the American press in a miscarriage of justice, an attorney in the United States said they failed "to signal the weakness in society." That remains a fine definition of the minimum duty of a decent press: to signal the weaknesses in society. It is a duty the Indian press increasingly fails to perform, but must try to. At least there are some journalists who believe they should, and they must push harder to signal these weaknesses. Only then can we hope for meaningful development.

P. Sainath, of Indian nationality, is journalist and author. His article was first published in the UNESCO Courier; June 2001.

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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