Noam Chomsky undertakes a grim tone when he states – “Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for meaningful democracy” This quote comes from his book, Necessary Illusions, where he talks about thought control of a degree not particularly suited to a simple question about the media’s commercial interests and content bias, but in the following space, I will argue that the quote sums up the extraordinary reality of our civilisation and our relationship with media.
First, the basic facts.
According to the PEW Research Center, 69% of the revenues for media organisations depend on advertising – almost 3 times the contributions coming from the audience, in form of donations and purchase price. This dependence on advertising revenue is not through any flaw in business practices, but as a result of the evolution of the media industry itself – which sells its large audiences to advertisers to be able to provide “accessible, neutral” information. But is the information really as neutral as we’ve come to believe?
The Delhi elections saw a barrage of advertising by the party-in-power, the BJP, which allegedly spent more than Rs. 5 Crore per day on newspaper advertisements alone, in the run up to the elections. These newspapers came from all parts of the spectrum, and ranged from ‘The Indian Express’, ‘The Hindu’ to ‘The Times of India’. With such huge sums of money changing hands in the elections, it is a straight deduction to expect a certain bias creeping into the reporting. Opinion polls pre-election differed drastically from the election results, indicating a certain attempt by the media to influence voters. All of this is speculatory, of course.
The influence and complex between the media and corporations is also evident in the Radiagate scandal. Involvement of journalists and the duration for which this scandal, involving India’s big and famous corporates & mediapersons, was kept hidden unveils a bonhomie amongst the same players that the media is supposed to be a watchdog against. Is it really any surprise?
Jimmy Wales thinks not. In charge of the largest online encyclopaedia, Wales has steered clear of using advertising as a revenue source in his quest to create a world with ‘free access to the sum of all human knowledge’. Wikipedia has existed for almost 15 years, without introducing ads to make the business model sustainable. The Wiki foundation is against the introduction of ads as it believes this can create content conflict and compromises the reliability of the encyclopedia. Wikipedia is therefore funding its mission as well as other projects (such as providing offline access to Wikipedia in remote locations) through public donations and partnerships, which has worked well for them so far.
These donation models are also used by certain media organisations which target highly niche segments of population. By aligning themselves to publicly declared ideologies, certain organisations have created their own markets, and are able to command significant income through the audience – whether in the form of sales or fundraising. In France, major newspapers have influencers that carry their voice – wth ‘Les Echos’ being liberal, ‘Le Monde’ being left wing and set up by Charles DeGaulle, and ‘Liberation’ started by Jeal-Paul Sartre being far-left. But even this does not eliminate the commercial interest. Liberation experienced this a few years ago, when Edouard de Rothschild acquired control of the newspaper, seemingly influencing the editorial stance. This calls to question the actual potential of such models, and their sustainability, given that it carries a heightened risk of alienating the audience.
A 1882 play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, called ‘An Enemy of the People’, raises the question of morality in obedience. A contemporary rendition by a German group from Schaubuhne, (which I was fortunate enough to attend, in Kolkata) depicts the alienation and final submission by the protagonist to societal pressures. The question raised is ‘What is the potential for transparency in a truly commercialised society’ and looks at the impact of true transparency on a society accustomed to commercialism. It may be a need of the hour to understand this view as well to grasp the true situation.
Perhaps, yes it is too benign an assumption that a expectation of neutrality from media organisations supported by advertisers is realistic. As more and more mission-conscious organisations go ad-free, this assumption increasingly takes a hit. It may be a worthwhile wait to see how the new media take on this challenge, as we may get to see a Wikipedia led media move. But for now, we may have to accept the thought control as inevitable.