As India heads for polls, does its media pass Chomsky’s five-filter test?

Early influence.
Early influence.
Image: REUTERS/Arko Datta
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As India heads for a fractious general election in 2019, the country’s news media will play a significant role in influencing voters, especially those still on the fence.

This influence will be extended through not only dispassionate analyses and reporting, but also, inevitably, through the bias of some media outlets which, by design, cease to be mere neutral observers. It is, therefore, worth scrutinising recent reportage from the Indian news media—and outside influences on churning within the industry—to not only discern fact from propaganda, but to also better understand what facilitates the suppression of inconvenient truths.

One effective framework for such an analysis is provided by Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman’s seminal work on systemic bias afflicting the corporate news industry.

Hailed as one of the most influential books ever written about the media, its 30th anniversary was commemorated recently.

Herman was an economist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Chomsky, besides having taught linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for decades, is well-known (and controversial) even outside the ivory tower of academia, as a philosopher, political activist, and social critic—the “Noam Chomsky Complex” in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar is named in his honour.

Looking at the Indian news media and its relationship with the political establishment and the corporate elite through the lens of Manufacturing Consent’s famous “propaganda model” with its “five filters” of editorial bias, the parallels in recent times seem striking.

Media ownership and the profit motive 

The dominant mass-media outlets are large companies operated for profit, and therefore they must cater to the financial interests of the owners, who are usually corporations and controlling investors.

Herman and Chomsky propose that since mainstream media outlets tend to be either corporations or parts of conglomerates, a bias safeguarding these interests pervades the information presented to consumers. Thus, news items inimical to owners’ interests are likely to face self-censorship. Conversely, items promoting those interests would be encouraged, often causing a direct conflict of interest. In short, as the prescient 1976 film Network posits, mainstream news across the world runs the risk of being reduced solely to a business.

This can pose an even greater danger in an electoral democracy like India (as compared to the US), where lower access to education often means less discerning viewers who are more susceptible to propaganda and, consequently, manipulation of votes.

The Network 18 Group, India’s largest news conglomerate, is owned by Reliance Industries, whose business interests range from petroleum to telecom, many of which are dependent on government policy. Zee News is owned by Subhash Chandra, whose candidacy for election to the Rajya Sabha (the upper legislative house) was backed by the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Similarly, Republic TV is part of a group in which one of the principal investors is a BJP parliamentarian. There are other examples as well.

As seen of late, this can result in conflict of interest at many levels—suppressing news inimical to the corporation’s interests, reluctance in scrutinising the government for fear of jeopardising future contracts, and even outright furthering of a political party’s interests.

Advertising revenue

Since the majority of the revenue of major media outlets derives from advertising [as opposed to sales or subscriptions], media outlets are not commercially viable without the support of advertisers. News media must therefore cater to the political prejudices and economic desires of their advertisers.

A sting by the Indian digital outlet Cobrapost earlier this year exposed several Indian news corporations allegedly willing to peddle paid content as news, fully aware that the content was thinly veiled political propaganda designed to polarise voters and influence elections.

Complicity in sourcing (official sources)

The large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidise the mass media, and gain special access, by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring and producing news…the mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest.

This dependence on government/privileged sources can become incentive enough to curry favour with the powers that be, and can naturally lead to editorial distortion by way of simply passing on the official narrative to the news consumer without due scrutiny. At its worst, the media can actively collude with those in power to do their bidding.

While this has been alleged for quite a while with regards to reporting from India’s militarised zones—Kashmir, the north-east region, and areas with considerable presence of Maoist guerrillas in central and eastern India—it came into stark relief this year, with the recent arrests of activists and intellectuals dubbed “urban Naxals” by some major TV news channels. These channels cited alleged “letters” written by those arrested, which came into their possession purportedly through law enforcement agencies, to accuse the left-leaning activists of plotting, among other crimes, even the prime minister’s assassination.

Based on tenuous “evidence,” these channels then proceeded to influence public opinion in support of the police cases. Zee News, which caters to a predominantly Hindi-speaking audience and thus has a much wider reach than its English counterparts, went a step further last week: It accused activists and intellectuals of conspiring to wage a “civil war” to “defeat (prime minister) Narendra Modi” in the 2019 general elections.

As Chomsky warned, such tipping of reportage into propaganda potentially has a chilling effect on other critics of the ruling dispensation and on democratic dissent in general.

Another such example is that of NGOs such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, who have recently alleged a concerted smear campaign by the Indian government in collusion with a few English-language news channels, with the latter also attacking veteran Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah last week for appearing in Amnesty International’s appeal to uphold human rights and free speech in India.

While stridency against dissidents is one side of the coin of complicity, the other can be leniency towards the powerful. Last week’s furore over accusations and counter-criticism that followed the news agency ANI’s interview with Modi is a case in point. That this issue has spawned considerable debate among journalists themselves (on, among others, the merits of equating labels like “pliable” with epithets verging on abuse), may be testimony to the divide within the Indian news media over what its duty to viewers is, and whether asking tough questions of public figures, even at the risk of losing future access, should be a tenet of good journalism.


In Manufacturing Consent, “flak” refers to reprisals against media organisations that don’t toe the line. These reprisals can take the form of negative responses—complaints, lawsuits, or punitive legislative actions—from governments, advertisers, mighty corporations, and private influence groups. Flak can be expensive to the media outlet it is directed against, either due to the loss of advertising revenue or cost of legal defence. Again, this has a chilling effect.

In recent months, Anil Ambani-led Reliance Infrastructure has filed a clutch of defamation suits (to the tune of tens of thousands of crores, or billions of dollars) against news media organisations for raising uncomfortable questions about the Rafale deal, a controversial defence deal in which India acquired 36 fighter jets from France.

Earlier, BJP president Amit Shah’s son Jay Amit Shah filed a lawsuit against a news website for publishing a report about suspiciously high revenue generation by his company—the supreme court of India has stayed a Gujarat trial court’s proceedings in the matter. Then there was the resignation of two editors at a news organisation, purportedly under pressure from the management for criticising the exaggerated claims of certain government policies. One of these editors later alleged indirect censorship by the government by blocking access to its spokespersons and directing advertisers to pull out, leading to self-censorship by the channel.

Of course, when all else fails, there is the more direct legal iron-hand: A few months ago, the government revoked the security clearance of an international broadcaster after it telecast an offending documentary. More recently, a journalist in Manipur was arrested for his Facebook posts.

Fear of the “common enemy”

Artificial fears are created with a dual purpose…partly to get rid of people you don’t like but partly to frighten the rest. Because if people are frightened, they will accept authority.

This then serves to corral public opinion and further suppress possible dissent. With the western news media, these artificial fears have traditionally been dressed up in the form of communism, terrorism, and illegal immigrants.

In India, the section of the media which gave currency to the fear of a widespread “urban Naxal” threat earlier this year has, of late, even encouraged public vigilantism: A week ago, a prominent Hindi news channel proceeded to give its viewers tips on how to identify “seditious intellectuals hiding in plain sight.” They also continued the use of another bogeyman—the “anti-national” students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, among many others. This year, the same section repeatedly played up the threat posed by “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, in what effectively amounts to peddling the pet agenda of the right-wing in the states of West Bengal and Assam.

Recently, there have also been other occurrences of the kind Chomsky has drawn attention to, time and time again: from drowning consumers in a sea of irrelevance (The TV news media frenzy around the recent spate of celebrity weddings) to misrepresentation or trivialisation of important events (Mumbai protests in response to the violence against Dalits at Bhima Koregaon) to largely ignoring yet other events not deemed newsworthy enough (farmers’ protests in Mumbai and Delhi; more recently, the trapped miners in Meghalaya).

Fake news is not an alternative

While Chomsky couldn’t possibly have foreseen, back in 1988, the advent of fake news in its current form (or, for that matter, the proliferation of the internet), he has, of late, made it a point to clarify (as he did in this recent interview) that despite being a staunch critic of news corporations and their systemic bias, he does not advocate ditching conventional news media altogether.

This is especially important considering the perils to democracy posed by wholly unverified information streaming through the echo chambers of various social media platforms, such as WhatsApp and Facebook, in India. What Chomsky does, however, practice and preach is a healthy suspicion of corporate-owned media and due diligence to analyse news critically, keeping in mind the five filters and how those may influence particular news items.

In the frenzied run-up to elections in 2019, it is inevitable that with news will come bias, overt as well as covert, and with the stakes so high, Chomsky’s warnings can be ignored only at our own peril.

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