Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: Liberal doses of media

20 Aug,2020

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah


Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to have a fireside chat with journalist-author Sagarika Ghose on liberalism. It is the theme in her latest book, but we decided the chat would not be strictly based on her book alone but on the need to understand the term better.


It is undeniable that the history of liberalism is chequered or at least confusing. Although liberalism has been around in some form right since the Ancient Greek era, it was John Locke in the late 17th century who formalised it as a theory, and today many people say that’s all it is. A theory. But it has been co-opted in eclectic and sometimes self-contradictory ways—from John Stuart Mill’s individualistic utilitarian concepts to Keynesian economics that involves state intervention.


But that’s the point of liberal values—not to be stuck but to move forward, inclusive and humanistic, individualistic and practical. Modern liberalism has stood by social reform. It has seemed to remain among elites and hasn’t really trickled down all the way to the last mile. Is it too esoteric? Or is it hard to practise? Or does it plain go against the grain of the Indian society? Why is it that liberalism has become a “cult” (as one questioner asked at the fest), bracketed as merely the protector of fringes? The right wing’s critique of liberalism the world over is that it’s devoid of moral values and is too driven by market economics and materialism.


So, if we take a dipstick of what liberalism stands for today, it claims to represent free markets, free trade, limited government, individual rights (including civil rights and human rights), capitalism, democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Paradoxically, it seems to stand for so many things that it seems idealistic. But what’s a social philosophy without idealism?


Let’s look at the practice of the media. Is it not idealistic? Democracy as an assumption with different interpretations. One looks at individual rights, another at community rights, and another egalitarian in general. Which of these does the media uphold?


The media tries its best to be a champion of liberal values, but this representation gets distorted when a channel or a portal or a print publication leans politically one way or another. That affiliation colours liberalism because the values could conflict. The popular coverage of the Shaheen Bagh protests or the more recent Bengaluru riots are examples of which side our channels tilted.


That largely works on both ways of the spectrum and is partly responsible for the perception that unless a media platform is fully supportive of the Modi government without as much as a word of critique, it will be branded with that dreaded label “liberal”. Congress’s Rahul Gandhi makes an accusation against the government, but most news portals choose to accord it coverage only after they obtain BJP Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s retort to juxtapose. I don’t see that same effort and anxiety to balance when the reverse situation occurs. That is not fair representation.


There is a public opinion that the Indian media is so consumed by ratings that it has turned into a lapdog. On the other hand, public opinion also says that the news media must be faithful to development as defined by official sources. That is where the next liberalism paradox occurs. If liberalism stands for free market, ratings-driven, competitive media economics shouldn’t be a bother. I’m afraid a free market does include marketable content, not just some corporate strategy. Does that make it right that channel after news channel plays lapdog using the pretext of a ridiculously low sample to vie for the same pie. This is a construct of convenience for advertisers. But then, this is a convenience that suits everybody.


Our electronic media started out as a Mixed Model during the public broadcaster-only days, focusing equally on development through education, information, and entertainment. But today, it seems like a mixed-up model, a drifter model, if you will. On the other hand, the social media is less hypocritical, producing snackable content that is mass produced and mass consumed. More than the mainstream media, and as problematic as it is, it is social media that is therefore generating critical thinking among consumers.


As founder of BeingResponsible, the author, Shashidhar Nanjundaiah, is trying—really hard—to instil Responsible Media Literacy among younger citizens through 20-hour courses at schools and colleges. Earlier, he has led media institutes of repute to positions of leadership. Portions of this essay are derived from a conversation at the ongoing, virtually conducted Mysuru Literature Festival 2020. His views here are personal. Prof Nanjundaiah at shashi.nanjundaiah [at]

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