“The Indian media is politically free but imprisoned by profit”: P Sainath

P Sainath, the former Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, is one of my favourite Indian journalists. He is known for his reportage from the Indian hinterland, especially in bringing into light the issue of farmer suicides and agrarian crisis. Sainath now runs People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), a volunteer-run rural journalism platform in India.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjI9GhKqtxk

His insightful commentary on the political economy of the Indian media highlights the perils of corporatisation of the news industry. Sainath’s core argument is that the “Indian media is politically free but imprisoned by profit.” Here are seven key points he has made in public speeches and interviews.

1. Curse of the Revenue Model

“The crisis facing organised journalism is more fundamentally a revenue problem,” Kovach and Rosenstiel wrote in the book Elements of Journalism. Here is Sainath’s take:

“We have a media that is driven by revenue, not by reality; by commerce, not by community; by profit, not by people; by narrow corporate greed, not by news judgement. Media, journalism, art and literature did not come out of corporate investments, they came out of communities and societies, we need to return them to the people.” — P Sainath

2. Whom does the media serve? Advertisers or readers?

Advertisers. Not that it should, but at least that’s what is happening.

Sainath gives the example of Sports Illustrated, a magazine owned by the Time Inc, the group which publishes the Time Magazine. An internal Time Inc. spreadsheet published by Gawker shows that one of the parameters Sports Illustrated had set for measuring the performance of a journalist was: “Produces content that [is] beneficial to advertiser relationship.”


This means, Sainath says, that a giant corporation like Time Inc is telling you—this is what we are about.

It is not very different in India when it comes to big media. Samir Jain, Vice-Chairman of Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd, which publishes the Times of India—English daily with the highest readership — told the New Yorker in October 2012: “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business.

With newspapers sold so cheaply and generating little circulation revenue, newspapers depend more on ad revenue, he [Samir Jain ]said, and, “if ninety per cent of your revenues come from advertising, you’re in the advertising business.”

I find his remark astonishingly candid. He accepts—and quite bluntly—what critiques of the mass media have argued for long: News is not public service, it is a way to sell audience to advertisers.

3. Media ownership: Who owns what?

There is a gigantic difference between media monopolies 25 years ago and media conglomerates today, says Sainath.

Earlier: Ramnath Goenka (owner of the Indian Express) had a monopoly; Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCL), which publishes the Times of India, had monopolies over certain markets in the media. Media was their core business.

Today: Now, media monopolies are small departments in giant industrial conglomerates with interests in thousands of other business interests. Media is incorporated to be able to bargain with the government.

According to a report in the Caravan magazine, “five Indian news media companies — NDTV, News Nation, India TV, News24 and Network18 — are either indebted to Mukesh Ambani, the richest Indian and the owner of Reliance Industries, or to Mahendra Nahata, an industrialist and associate of Ambani’s”.

“Through loans and investments, Ambani, Nahata and the industrialist Abhey Oswal have given the five media companies funds that range from tens to hundreds of crores of rupees. As a result, the control that the three businessmen wield over these media networks varies from 20 to over 70 percent.”

4. Structural shut out of the poor

“There is no agricultural and rural reporter but multiple glamour reporters. That means, 75% of the Indian population doesn’t matter to the Indian media. They don’t constitute news, and you remove them structurally.” — P Sainath

Sainath recounts the time he joined journalism in 1980. At the United News of India, a news agency where he started his career, there was an employment correspondent, a labour correspondent. There were agriculture correspondents in newspapers, who actually covered agriculture. Today an agriculture correspondent is the ministry correspondent, not someone who’s covering agriculture, through the seasons, from the market to the mandi. “In India, today, there is not a single agriculture correspondent,” Sainath says.

“You don’t have a single correspondent today, covering, poverty, full time. You don’t know have a single correspondent today covering housing, urban or rural and homelessness.”

“You have what you call the education correspondent in the Indian media who is really a campus correspondent: at admissions time they will do the ‘woes of the middle class’ story. The primary education process, the elementary education related issues, none of that is being covered, where a process of the destruction of public resources is taking place.”

“But there are multiple correspondents covering glamour, fashion and eating out restaurants.”

The poor, Sainath says, don’t constitute news for the mainstream media. They don’t generate revenue. In the worst of the newspapers, Sainath says, one might still find spaces where they talk of poverty and agrarian distress. But for that people have to die in sufficiently large numbers to merit the news space, he added. This, he argues, is not neglect. “It’s structural shut out.”

Sainath often cites this example:

During the Lakme Fashion Week, 2006, when many a pen was busy recording every costume ruche and ramp twirl, P. Sainath was doing a head count. “While the Lakme Fashion Week was on, farmers were committing suicide in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, to the tune of seven a day. Yet, there were all of six journalists covering Vidarbha in the mainstream press, while there were 512 covering the Fashion Week. The theme of the Fashion Week was cotton; yet within that time frame, nearly 50 cotton farmers killed themselves,” Sainath says. (Link)

No doubt such commercialisation leads to a sharp disconnect between “mass media” and “mass reality”.

5. Media — an exclusionist institution

India, one of the most heterogeneous societies in the world, is covered by the most homogenous industry, Sainath says.

That’s a fact: Indian media an extremely elitist institution. Inequality reflects massively in the industry: be it in the ownership, content or the social and class background of reporters.

In this insightful Al Jazeera piece on the exclusionist nature of the Indian media, journalist Sudipto Mondal wrote: “After searching the country for more than 10 years, I have been able to find eight Dalit journalists in the English media.”

It is nobody’s allegation that all white journalists are racist or that all Brahmin journalists are casteist. There can be no doubt that some of the finest commentaries, reportage and scholarship on the Indian caste system have been produced by Brahmin journalists and intellectuals. But for those who defend the systematic social exclusion in India’s newsrooms by pointing to upper-caste journalists who did a sterling job on caste, I now have an indigenously developed repartee, “The world needs to know what it looks like through an untouchable’s eye.” —Sudipto Mondal

6. Conventional Journalism is about the service of power

Today’s journalism is mindless note-taking, Sainath says. “In my view, the bulk of what is happening in the press these days is stenography.”

“Journalism is the service of power. Either state power, money power or more increasingly the service of corporate power. Alex Carey summed it all up years ago when he wrote, ‘The 20th century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance — The growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.’ ” — P Sainath

Great journalism, in history, has always come from dissidents, he says.

“There is no such thing has a great establishment journalist. OK? There is no such thing. They will be forgotten five years after they have retired. The ones whose name you remember were all in their time and place, dissidents. From Thomas Paine to a Gandhi to an Ambedkar, every one of them was a dissident.”—P Sainath

7. On the Internet

Every medium has a romantic phase followed by its evolution into a form not imagined by the creators, Sainath says.

He [Sainath ]cites the example of Raymond William’s statement that ‘Radio will liberate human kind,’ but was later used by Adolf Hitler as a tool to spread his propaganda prior to his invasion of Czechoslovakia. Television which was introduced in India as an educational instrument has hardly any educational element now. Therefore, he advises not to romanticise media as it already is straying away from the original objective for which it was devised. (Link)


Sainath’s critique establishes the crisis in the Indian mainstream media. We should question: Is the press is fulfilling its fundamental tasks? If not, why? And what can we do to improve things?

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