City City Bang Bang, Columns

The new power of the media

The 2014 general election is among many other things, a test case for the power of media. So far, while media, particularly of the national variety, demonstrably plays a crucial role in setting the agenda for the government in power and making the act of exercising power very difficult, as the UPA regime discovered, it has not been seen to play a role in getting a party elected, at least not directly. Traditional politicians have often displayed their contempt for media; secure in the implicit belief that media generates a lot of noise, but lacks real power. Which is why we rarely see Mayawati or Mulayam Singh Yadav make an attempt to be on television; they believe electoral outcomes are determined elsewhere. Even the UPA’s response throughout the many scams it has been embroiled in has smacked of a belief that these issues do not carry significant electoral implications; it was smug in its certainty about the power of mass-based welfare schemes that it believed, perhaps with reason, helped it win the last elections.

Have things changed? Has the footprint of mass media influence expanded to include India’s vast electorate? A look at successive opinion polls that show the surging prospects of the Narendra Modi-led BJP certainly seem to point in that direction. After all, Modi is helping the party do well in regions that do not really know him or have great reason to believe in the Gujarat model that he espouses. He is drawing crowds in places the party has little ground level presence and is helping the party pick up reasonable vote share even in regions where it is a non-player. It is reasonable to correlate the BJP’s performance in the opinion polls with the effect of media, which has been covering Mr Modi as if he were the presumptive leader for a while now.

Of course, there are several other factors, the foremost being the widespread disenchantment with the UPA. In its second stint at the Centre, the UPA has widely been seen to be a failure, and a lot of that feeling can be attributed to media which has been relentless in attacking the many failings of the government.  The fact that the BJP, somewhat against the run of play, managed to quell dissenting voices early enough and back Modi’s candidature whole-heartedly has helped provide great clarity to voters. Cast against the hand-wringing uncertainty about the candidature of Rahul Gandhi, it further solidifies the ‘weak, indecisive and incompetent’ Congress v/s the ‘decisive, focused, self-confident’ narrative that Modi is pushing. It helps that Modi is an extremely effective orator, with a knack for framing complex issues in simple emotive terms that helps him take advantage of the quantum of coverage he receives. It is also important to acknowledge that although the electoral campaign may be a few months old, the Modi-for-PM campaign has with the help of a well-funded and a well-oiled machine been running for several years now. 

National media is a centralising force; it looks to unify and crystallise issues that help  it rise above fragmented regional considerations. The rise of Narendra Modi thus represents a force that is aligned to the way national media is structured. Media is effective when there is a national wave; it crystallises and amplifies a national impulse and thus makes a ‘wave’ that much stronger. While there are many specific reasons why media is playing an expanded role in determining electoral outcomes this time around, in a larger sense it does appear that the hard line dividing the ‘vocal urban minority’ and the ‘silent rural majority’ might be blurring, thanks to media. 

On the face of it, an expanded role for media should be reason to celebrate. Media introduces an element of accountability into the political system, an accountability which has been sorely lacking in the politics of the day. 

Potentially it helps strengthen the weak link that exists today between the quality of governance provided and future electability, the absence of which has been a key factor in hollowing out our democratic process. At its core, the all-seeing media eye becomes extremely powerful if the scrutiny it subjects the political system to, is demonstrably seen to be linked to electoral performance. Then, the political system is left with no choice but to pay heed to how its words and actions are being consumed and what effect it has on voters. 

On the flip side, there is much to worry about. The corporate ownership of media creates  a great potential for misuse, and some would argue that evidence of this is already visible. Also, parts of media see themselves in God-like proportions, and the thought that this might get legitimised is a truly terrifying one. At a more structural level, the jostling for viewer attention is resulting in a form of competitive belligerence that sees one outlet outshouting another and vying for framing news more sensationally.

Last week, while watching an opinion poll on a news channel and waiting for the ad break to get over, i noticed that helpful prompter that tells us how much time to go before the main programme resumes was lying to me. It counted down from 2.00 minutes and after 30 seconds, went back to showing that there were still two minutes to go. In other words, it misled viewers outright about waiting for two minutes when in fact they had to wait for two-and-a-half in order to keep them from switching channels. On further enquiry, it appears that this is not an isolated example. By itself, this is a small deception, but it reveals a much more fundamental problem with the way media imagines itself today. By viewing the trust reposed in it as a leveragable commodity, it exploits viewers while pretending to be on their side. Somewhat like the politicians it loves to criticise.