Ranjona Banerji: The shame of the PR influence on the media

10 Aug,2012

By Ranjona Banerji


It is interesting indeed to see that newspapers have chosen to report on the Maharashtra government’s decision to ban the sale of Mahyco’s Bt cotton seeds in the state but has not gone very far beyond that. In another story on Friday morning, a Parliamentary panel has sought a probe into the current stand-off over the introduction of Bt brinjal in to India.


Criticism of Bt cotton in the media started off by being as expected but soon buckled under the tremendous pressure brought upon it by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech. Earlier in this column we have discussed the “expose” on The Times of India done by P Sainath in the Hindu. The marketing department of the TOI used articles done after a Mahyco Monsanto junket to promote the company, years after they were originally written.


Although there have long been allegations that the forced or over-encouraged use of genetically-engineered cotton seeds have been detrimental to farmers as yields have fallen and land has to be fallow for too long. The initial success of Bt cotton, coupled with the promises made, led to high expectations from farmers and a corresponding high debt burden. This in turn led to most of the suicides by farmers is what most activists and social workers have alleged.


While many such stories appeared initially, the enormous pressure brought upon the media by the company and by the government saw the stories petering out. Monsanto, the American company and Mahyco, the government venture, both employed very persuasive PR to push their case. The Sainath column in Hindu, in fact, went through all the mistakes and misrepresentations in the Times of India Bt cotton junket, point by point. A Parliamentary committee which went to the same areas of Maharashtra a few months later found an area rife with debt and suicides – sometimes quoting the same people who claimed to be happy in the TOI report.


In Friday’s papers, TOI has a single column story while Hindustan Times has a more detailed report.


The shame of the PR influence on the media is not just about glamour or lifestyle stuff, although that is rampant and in some cases institutionalised. But when it comes to corporate pressure, especially from aggressive companies who are willing to use the law and every other avenue to protect themselves from criticism, the media comes up against a formidable opponent. In the case of Monsanto and Mahyco, having initially put up a fight, most of the media seems to have capitulated. Friday’s stories have been carried only because the Maharashtra government has finally accepted that the shift to genetically modified cotton has not been the universal success initially claimed.


Time perhaps for the media to find its teeth again?


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