Radia Tapes and the Indian Media: It's Time for Sensation Now

It's been a month since the first set of Radia tapes was published by Open and Outlook. All through, these two exemplary publications have maintained their focus on the twin issues of corruption and media complicity that emerged from the tape content. Meanwhile, the rest of the usually vociferous English language Indian media has been maintaining their silence on good days, providing the public with diversions on truly bad ones. Let's review the latest offerings - coverage on the opposition campaign on corruption related to the Radia tape disclosures - and see how sensationalism may well be the new show in town.

As of this moment there are nearly one hundred and ninety news and opinion articles on this issue. Given this quantity, it would seem that the issue has finally been deemed significant. The sub-topics include the opposition demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe, the Congress refusal of this demand, the Prime Minister's agreement to being questioned by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the Congress agreement to a special parliamentary session, announcements by the PAC chairman, the opposition declaration of a nation wide agitation, and reactions from the ruling alliance and opposition alliance members to each of these events.

On qualitative analysis however, a different picture emerges. It becomes apparent then that most reports are framed in heavily value-laden terms that pit one heroic party against a villainous one (regardless of the fact that both sides of this face-off are political alliances). For example, media that are alleged to be ideologically aligned with the ruling party describe the opposition demand in terms of 'negativism', 'hypocrisy', 'destruction of traditions', 'an attack on democracy' and 'politically motivated' while the Congress stance of a PAC alternative is described in terms of an 'offer' that is 'spurned' or 'rejected'. Similarly, media that are alleged to be sympathetic to the opposition have described them as having 'insisted' on their stances or 'stuck' to their ground while issuing ultimatums to the government to 'Order JPC or quit'.

Sometime during your subjection to this high-strung sensationalism you, as an intelligent reader, may recover enough to ask - what else do I need to know and why is the media not covering it?

  • For example, the institutional mandates of a JPC vis a vis the PAC in dealing with the issues - not more than ten articles cited sources that covered this vital policy information.
  • Linked to that, the charters of other regulatory agencies like the CBI, IT Department and IB vis a vis the JPC in tackling the various angles of the Radia tapes case - not a single article included this information.
  • On a related note, the number of times and occasions when the Indian Parliament had ordered JPCs - only three analysts commented on that.
  • Most revealingly, the legal and policy implications of corporate lobbying and the role of journalists in political reporting, issues that had sparked off this entire controversy in the first place - besides our two outliers on the curve of non-performance that is the traditional Indian media today, no other publication has either reportage or commentary to offer.

To sum up, instead of enriching the discourse with varied perspectives on the legal, institutional and policy dimensions of the Radia tapes issues, the focus is on a shallow and sensationalistic, blow-by-blow account of the various moves and counter moves of the two main political parties. And instead of educating the public on key facts, the media distracts us through melodrama.

Social psychologists may call this an engineered mass catharsis, and language deconstructionist Derrida may have been provoked to call it a perverse example of media as entertainment, where the act of apprehending the text becomes amusing in and of itself! But let me resist the temptation to speculate on those interesting hypotheses. I am sure others would disagree, most notably the established media houses who reported this week, with rather poor timing, that Julian Assange had commended their publications for good journalism.

Perhaps the twitter community could check these facts as they have done in the past - when they identified a TV channel manufacturing fake tweets to popularize corporate lobbying and revealed how user feedback tweets were being twisted by another TV channel to popularize the ruling party. Do circulate this article, write in with more of these revelations and keep the discourse alive through the Internet. Democracy is alive and kicking in India, even if the traditional media - as seen in the context of the Radia tape leaks - seem to have little to do with it.