Swadesabhimani K. Ramakrishna Pillai, an all-time great of journalism, belongs to a rare breed of journalists whose resolute assertion of the right of free expression lies at the root of such freedom as the media enjoys today. No right is real unless it can be exercised. No right is real until it is exercised.
In the early years of Independence, the stewardship of the Press was in the hands of a generation of journalists who had grown up in the restrictive atmosphere of World War II, when rigorous censorship was in force. They did not make full use of the freedom of the Press, which became available to journalists as part of .the freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed by the Constitution to all citizens of India.
Since freedom of the Press is part of the freedom of speech and expression, it follows that journalists in India do not have any freedom that is not available to other citizens.
There are occasions when a person who seeks to assert a right is called upon to pay a price. If you are not ready to pay the price, you forfeit that right, and you become an instrument for denying that right to others too. Swadesabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai is an editor who cheerfully paid the price that was demanded of him.
Along with the name of the illustrious editor of Swadesabhimani we must remember the name of the equally illustrious owner of that newspaper, Vakkom Abdul Khader Maulavi. The Maulavi had edited Swadesabhimani with distinction for a year before he handed over its stewardship to Ramakrishna Pillai to devote his attention to other publications that he had launched, particularly those seeking to reform the Muslim society.
The relationship between Vakkom Maulavi, the owner, and Ramakrishna Pillai, the editor, denotes an ideal state of affairs, which has not been achieved again in this country since then. That the Dewan was annoyed with Ramakrishna Pillai’s merciless criticism was widely known. When the princely regime assumed the power to extern a subject who incurred its displeasure, everyone knew that Ramakrishna Pillai was the target. He made no effort to buy peace. And Vakkom Maulavi made no effort to restrain his fiercely independent editor.
Ramakrishna Pillai, who was ahead of his time in political thought, lagged behind on a crucial social issue of that period: Dalits’ admission to schools. He was not against giving Dalit children access to education. He favoured setting up of separate schools for them as in his view they were not on the same intellectual level as children of the advanced sections. When he wrote lines to that effect, unknown to him, a young Dalit named Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was making his way through college in Mumbai, beating fellow students of all castes.
That Ramakrishna Pillai was out of step with progressive thought in this respect does not in any way detract from the fact that he was way ahead in political thought.
Swadesabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai was not content with teaching himself the tenets of journalism. He sought to disseminate the high principles of the profession widely, as is borne out by two of his many publications -- “Pathradharmam”, a collection of essays, and “Vrithaantha Pathrapravarthanam”, a treatise on journalism.
Early in its history, the Press came to be recognised as an instrument of power. How else could Edmund Burke point to the Press Gallery in the House of Commons in 1790 and say, “yonder sits the fourth estate,” more important than the other three? The use of the term implied that, like the three estates of the realm, the Press was a part of the power structure. In this light, the clash between Dewan of Travancore and the Editor of Swadesabhimani can be seen as a conflict between rival power centres.
Very quickly, the Press went beyond its original mission of gathering and disseminating information, and assumed the role of moulder of public opinion. The power that newspapers enjoy collectively and individually is, in fact, rooted in their ability to influence the public. The greater a newspaper’s capacity to influence its readers the greater the power it wields.
There is no simple formula to determine a newspaper’s ability to influence the public. A large circulation ensures a wide reach but it does not guarantee a correspondingly great ability to influence the reader. Credibility is a critical factor that has a direct bearing on the newspaper’s ability to influence its readers. A newspaper with a high degree of credibility can make a far greater impact than one that may be read more widely but does not enjoy the same measure of credibility. A sad part of the intense competition in both the print media and the electronic media today is that in the eagerness to extend their reach media institutions do not give due importance to the credibility factor.
Since newspapers have the ability to shape public opinion, it is only natural that outside elements should seek to influence them with a view to furthering their interests. The government and organized political, economic and social interests do so routinely. Many of them have public relations outfits whose activities sometimes go beyond acceptable limits and intrude into the realm of media management. Small groups championing specific causes try to cultivate the media to enhance their popular support and improve the chances of success.
It is quite legitimate for an interest group to attempt to enlist media support with a view to moulding public opinion. However, media institutions must be watchful at all times. They must assess, on a continuing basis, the intentions of those who are attempting to influence them and be ready to respond positively or to resist resolutely as is appropriate.
Pressure groups are today recognised as a part of the democratic process. But media institutions must distinguish between groups whose interests are in accord with those of the society and those whose interests are at variance with those of the society. There are groups that offer alternatives to the political process by providing opportunities for expressing opinions and a desire for change. Such groups strengthen the democratic process by giving voice to the voiceless and articulating progressive ideas. They deserve support and encouragement. There are also groups that seek to promote narrow interests which run counter to the wider interests of the society. The media must exercise due caution to avoid playing into their hands.
Apart from the motivation of pressure groups, the methods they employ also merit continuous scrutiny. Good intentions cannot justify wrong methods.
The media has an uneasy relationship with the state at all times. Sometimes the state uses its coercive power crudely, as Travancore state did in Swadesabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai’s case. But more often it uses power subtly. Sometimes media institutions and media personnel are brought round by instilling fear.
Apart from the state, political parties and other organised groups also have the ability to pressure media institutions and media personnel. Many parties have bought the loyalty of media persons with no record of political activity by offering them seats in Parliament. Ramnath Goenka went to the Lok Sabha as a Congressman from the Madras state in 1952. He was back in the house in 1971 from Madhya Pradesh as a Bharatiya Jana Singh nominee. The Shiv Sena gifted a Rajya Sabha seat to Pritish Nandy. It will be naïve to imagine that newspaper owners like Goenka and editors like Nandy earned their seats on the strength of political convictions.
There is a popular belief that small media institutions, being financially insecure, are more vulnerable to pressure than large ones. This is not necessarily true. There are many instances of small newspapers standing up to pressure and of big newspapers giving in because they have much to lose.
It is not enough to discuss the influence of pressure groups on the media in terms of first principles. We must take a close look at the conduct of institutions and individuals on both the sides to get a fair picture of ground realities
The Emergency of 1975-77 is a watershed in recent Indian history. It marked a low point – in fact, the lowest point -- in working of the media. The words of L. K. Advani, Minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Janata Party government, on the conduct of the press during the Emergency are still quoted widely. He told media persons: “When asked to bend, you were willing to crawl.”
The Jana Sangh had a daily named “Motherland” in New Delhi before the Emergency. Its editor, K. R. Malkani, a well known ideologue of the Rashtreeya Swayamseval Sangh, was arrested when Emergency was declared and the paper ceased publication. Most of its staff members could not get alternative employment because the newspaper’s known closeness to the RSS. When the Emergency was lifted and the Janata Party, in which the Jana Sangh had merged, came to power, they thought the newspaper would resume publication. As this did not happen, they sought the intervention of the Minister for Information and Broadcasting. Advani told them the party did not feel the need for a newspaper of its own any more as The Indian Express and the Times of India were now available to it. Obviously bending and crawling were not over.
Coming close to home, there is reason to suspect that political pressure played a part in the exit of the Editor of Mathrubhumi, K. Gopalakrishnan. The management’s decision not to give him a fresh contract came after the State Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had publicly identified him as a hostile element in the media. The party leader observed later that though the editor had changed the paper’s policy had not. M. P. Veerendrakumar, Managing Director of the newspaper company, said, “Mathrubhumi is not a constituent of the Left Democratic Front”. Veerendrakumar, who is State President of the Janata Dal (S), a constituent of the Left Democratic Front, was clearly insinuating that the CPI (M) had taken away the Lok Sabha seat from Kozhikode, which he had won twice, because it was displeased with the paper.
Wanton use of physical force against the media by the police and by musclemen under the control of various political parties takes place from time to time. Those responsible for such violence are not brought to justice. The ubiquitous television camera makes it easy to identify the miscreants, but the authorities are not keen to use the facility.
Commercial and industrial interests are able to exert financial pressure on the media. Large corporate bodies with huge publicity budgets can and do influence newspapers and television channels. With media institutions unabashedly accepting profit as the sole measure of success, they have acquired more clout than before. Commercial propaganda now finds its way even into the news columns regularly. Some newspapers are ready to let them into the editorial columns too.
Along with political action, such as organized protests, and lobbying, media advocacy forms part of the range of strategies adopted by non-official agencies to achieve their goals. Groups that the people, the authorities and the media recognize as legitimate have greater chances of success than the rest. Civil rights groups, trade unions, and professional associations are among those that are widely recognized and accepted. Sometimes small pressure groups come together to improve their ability to influence decision-making.
Today, all over Kerala, small groups are engaged in campaigns to assert the people’s right to clean air and clean water. Many of them feel that they do not receive adequate media support because of the clout of the powerful commercial interests they are pitted against. Such media attention as they receive is largely the result of individual journalists’ sympathetic attitude to their cause.
There have been some successful environmental campaigns in the State in the recent past. The most notable among them is the campaign that forced the State government to abandon the Silent Valley hydroelectric project. The media played no significant part in it. By and large, they were on the side of the politician-bureaucrat-engineer-trade unionist nexus which made determined efforts to push through the project. More recently campaigners have been able to force the rayon factory at Mavoor near Kozhikode to close down and the soft drinks plant at Plachimada near Palakkad to suspend operations.
There are some inherent problems in the media’s approach to issues of this kind. It is not unusual for corporate giants to press home their natural advantage as big advertisers. Sometimes the media fights shy of honest presentation of facts for fear of reprisal by them. Occasionally media persons carry the fairness principle, which enjoins upon them to balance their reports by giving equal importance to all sides involved in a controversy, to the absurd limit of equating right and wrong.
Like political parties who pander to large groups, viewing them as so many votes, the media too takes numbers into account sometimes, viewing large groups as so many readers or viewers. Such an approach certainly makes commercial sense but the media must remember that it has to subject pursuit of profit to the overriding consideration of upholding the high standards of the journalistic profession.
The manner in which the Indian Medical Association’s Kerala unit forced the largest circulated Malayalam newspaper to heed its voice holds an object-lesson on the relation between the media and organized groups. Annoyed by a Malayala Manorama report, which contained references to unsavoury practices prevalent in the medical profession, the IMA demanded retraction. The newspaper ignored the demand. When even reminders did not fetch a response, the IMA advised doctors in the State to stop buying the newspaper. Over the next few months, about 1,000 doctors subscribing to the Manorama dropped out. Thanks to the newspaper’s close monitoring of market trends, it noticed the development. It called in IMA office-bearers for talks and assuaged their feelings by publishing an article emphasizing the good work done by the medical profession.
Even when pressure group activity is legitimate, the media must not lose sight of its responsibility to provide equal access to all. If some groups are able to make themselves heard more loudly, worse still if they are able to shut out other legitimate voices, merely because of the physical resources that they command, it will adversely affect the media’s role as the eyes and ears of the society.
Is the media equipped to hold the scales even between contending forces in society? Is it able to distinguish between right influences and wrong influences?
A representative newsroom is the best guarantee of fairness. This is today widely recognized today in the United States, which, after a long period of racial discrimination, turned a new leaf recently by electing a non-white President. India has a much longer history of discrimination but the Indian media has yet to recognize the importance of a representative newsroom.
It was the report of a commission which inquired into two racial riots that prompted the American Society of Newspaper Editors to take up a Diversity project in 1978. The commission had observed that the newspapers, which did not provide fair coverage of racial issues, must share the blame for the social strife. Thanks largely to the ASNE’s strenuous efforts, representation of racial minorities in the US media has improved significantly in the last three decades, and the organization hopes to achieve racial parity by 2025 if not sooner.
In 1998, the ASNE adopted a mission statement which reaffirms its “commitment to racial parity in newsrooms and to full and accurate news coverage of our nation’s diverse communities”.
Robin Jeffrey, in his book “India’s Newspaper Revolution”, mentions that when he asked a Delhi journalist how many Dalits worked in his newspaper, he could not give a ready answer. The journalists later made inquiries and found that there was no Dalit in his paper.
The composition of the newsroom has a bearing on media coverage. The so-called national television channels based in New Delhi provided extensive coverage to the anti-reservation agitation staged by students of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Not far from the site of their agitation, Dalit students mounted a counter-agitation in support of reservation. It did not receive the same attention.
The Indian media must look inward and recognize the need to build representative newsrooms so that it is able to do justice to the various elements that make up the composite society that we live in.
(Swadesabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai Lecture delivered at Department of Communication and Journalism,University of Kerala, Kariavattom, Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday, March 25, 2009)