“Freedom Vs. Diversity” – Public Lecture by Vibodh Parthasarathi
My congratulations to Habib University to realise a wonderfully innovative set of programmes within an equally wonderful and warm physical environment.
I am particularly amazed by creative structure of the CSD programme that has boldly sought to fuse a practice stream with a studies theme – the only one of its sort in South Asia. This clearly demonstrates Habib University’s emphasis on this interdisciplinary field of inquiry.
Many educationists and education administrators may ask – why such extensive emphases on the teaching on media in universities across different countries?
The intensification in the intellectual pursuit of communication have been undoubtedly inspired by the buoyancy of communication as a social phenomenon across the globe over the last 25 years. This phenomenon, in turn, has been fuelled by the advent of new information communication technologies, the incremental proliferation of media industries with nation-states, and the heightening trans-national flow of ideas, capital, objects and concerns pertaining to communication systems.
One of the inescapable experiences of South Asia in the last decade is the competing cacophony of 24 hour Television. The transformation from scarcity to abundance in the TV environment is most visible, and naggingly audible, in news TV. This abundance in the landscape of broadcast news in India is reflected in the multiplicity of private news channels – from 1 in 2000, to around 50 in 2005 and to over 300 in 2010. This boom is equally reflected in the multitude of news channels within one linguistic segment: most languages have 4-5 news channels, with as many as 15 channels in case of Telegu, spoken in South India, and over 25 news channels in Hindustani & its various renditions.
Yet, there is a growing concern on the levels of diversity in this landscape of abundance – and anxiety on the increasing risks to diversity within this sea of multitude. Over the last few years, a handful of observant journalists have also been vocalising the lack of diversity. As Paneerselvam, the Readers Editor of The Hindu—the only Indian newspaper to have such an ombudsman – insightfully summarised at a seminar last fortnight: “The multitude in news is not reflecting plurality or profit”.
Clearly, we can no longer confuse multiplicity of news outlets with diversity in the news landscape.
This leads to 3 questions
1) Why the emphasis on media diversity? A vibrant democracy requires not only media freedom – from governments and corporations alike – but freedom in a manner that can protect and nurture diversity. The normative moorings of news as a modern institution doubly visualises media diversity – as a mediator of diverse viewpoints in polity and as a protector of diversity ingrained in society. In this sense, the idea of media diversity entails not only the presence of a plethora of news outlets; but a plethora of organisational sizes, funding patterns, political orientations and representational forms, reflecting the spectrum of our social demography.
2) Not confusing multiplicity with diversity nudges us to ponder over another question: what are the internal risks to media diversity?- risks stemming from within the competitive milieu of TV news. These include risks arising out of the ways in which the news business is being conducted, the commercial and financial compulsions shaping news production and an emerging consensus in the aesthetics of TV reportage.
3) Apart from internal risks to diversity, we are also compelled to examine the external risks to diversity- those arising from the policy environment. A quick scan of media policy ever since the de-monopolisation of TV News in the early 2000s reveals policy instruments have marginalised the value of media diversity. For example, like in Pakistan, licensing criteria for TV channels in India are completely agnostic to content genres, types of owners and sources of finance. Policy Advocacy by non-state actors had forged a particular rendition of media freedom that was agnostic to the very purpose of private participation in TV news. While diversity and plurality were argued to be the end-goal of de-regulation in TV, judicial arguments in the 1990s rested on a narrow construction of freedom – a construction devoid of the idea of diversity.
While this is a plausible explanation to the external risks to diversity, it is a restless one for me.
I sense a deeper review of debates on media policy will reveal a more thick and granular account of the enduring tensions between media freedom and media diversity. The varying resolutions of such tensions at different moments in the policy history of India demonstrate how the value of media diversity got progressively marginalised.
Looking back, attention to media diversity was absent from the earliest regulatory frameworks cast for newspapers, during the 19th century.
Two interventions are noteworthy here.
Readings of the relationship between the press and the East India Company regime until the Press Act of 1857 find British statutory regulation resisted making special laws for newspapers. Chris Bayly argues that this conveys a benign attitude to the press; however, I see such a generic framework led to treating the press like any other activity. In doing so, it anchored the legal epistemology of news within the framework of the free marketplace of ideas. As the Royal Commission on the British Press pointed out: “a free enterprise is a pre-requisite of a free press”. It is here that we first see the framing of media freedom, as a philosophical value, which did not include any emphasis on diversity.
Unlike many Western countries, the press in South Asia developed much before the development of either representative political institutions (like in the USA) or institutions of modern, secular mass education (as in many parts of Western Europe). This contributed to the 19th century press playing the dual role of a political opposition and an educator, more significantly than in many other countries. Macaulay and subsequent liberals felt free speech and association was necessary for curating a successful polity and educated society; nevertheless, successive regimes enforced heavy fines on editors and publishers. Under these circumstances, media freedom, as a political value, was accorded higher value than media diversity by anti-British forces right until the 1940s.
In the aftermath of Independence and Partition, an important moment to examine media diversity is the First Press Commission of India, in 1954.
The Commission felt that the exclusive and continuous advocacy of one point of view by a newspaper holding a dominant position was not conducive to the formation of healthy public opinion—and thus there was a need to promote diversity of ownership and opinion. The Commission found 20 business men/houses controlled more than 80 percent of all newspapers read in the newly created republic.
On more than one occasion, Nehru referred to the Press not really being free, since it functioned under a limited number of wealthy proprietors. Going further, J. N. Sahni, editor of the Hindustan Times, felt press freedom was threatened less by government and more by proprietors who “used silver chains to keep editors on the leash” – often but not always to promote their (non-newspaper) commercial interests. Nevertheless, Sahni and others framed such concerns in terms of media freedom – freedom from government pressures on proprietors and proprietors’ pressure on editors – and not how such pressures contributed to flattening criticism and hence, posed a risk to diversity.
Directly inspired and informed by the Press Commission’s report were a series of policy instruments during the late 1950s regulating the pages and price of newspapers. This was directed at preventing large dailies – dominating circulation – from cornering the scarce resource of newsprint – and thereby encouraging smaller provincial dailies. However, the Supreme Court in the 1961 Sakal Judgement ruled this as unconstitutional. The Sakal judgement reiterated the 19th century British framing of the press in ideas of free enterprise and free exchange. It placed media freedom of newspapers – without differentiating between their size or market share – over any sort of desire to nurture the diversity of news outlets.
By 1965, four years after the Sakal judgement, the nine biggest Newspaper Groups controlled nearly 80 per cent of the circulation of newspapers in metropolitan India.
A 1970 study by the trade body Indian and Eastern Newspaper Society defended the existence of newspaper chains as necessary to provide a considerable choice to the readers. Courts continued to view the risks to media freedom being supreme – as in the Bennett Coleman Case that successfully challenged the annual newsprint policy of 1972-73.
In response, the Indian Federation of Working Journalists produced research in 1973 condemning big English newspapers for standing against progressive steps taken by government. Organisations of journalists and small newspapers were pressing government to take steps to dilute big newspapers’ ownership.
But the so called ‘ownership diffusion bill’ conjured in 1973 not only scared proprietors but also factions in the government who realised that it carried the risk of placing big newspapers under the control of journalist unions.
Not surprisingly, therefore, despite all the talk on concentration in the press from the early 1950s onwards, there was no categorical intervention by the legislature or the executive to check the threats to media diversity.
Media reform in the wake of Emergency further prioritised freedom and autonomy over diversity and pluralism.
The appointment of the Second Press Commission, 15 months after the Emergency was lifted, put on hold debates from the early 1970s on de-concentration in the press. The majority view in the Commission argued proprietors being mandated to severe ties with other businesses – the ‘autonomy argument’. The minority view insisted nurturing plurality by enabling diverse persuasions and ideological beliefs to own news outlets – the marketplace of ideas argument.
The cleavage between these two viewpoints is less significant than radical commentators had argued, since it essentially replayed older tensions between two dominant interests – between defenders of liberal welfare, and proponents of laissez-faire.
In 1980, three years after the Emergency was dissolved, press concentration in India was six times more than in the US – though the latter attracted global attention following the simplistic but pioneering enumeration by Ben Bagdikian,
By the mid 1980s we see the rise of regional language newspapers. In fact, the largest circulating regional language dailies were no longer those owned by national chains but those owned by regional groups – particularly in Marathi, Hindi and Telugu.
This appears to be an indication of de-concentration and decentralisation in press ownership, but it was essentially a competition between regional and national enterprises. The ownership of influential regional newspaper chains got concentrated among industrialists who leveraged it to further their business interests – a matter of concern well into the 1990s.
With deregulation in the media and liberalisation in the wider economy, policy debates during the early 1990s once again got obsessed with media freedom—and more decisively than ever before within the framework of the marketplace of ideas.
What do all these milestones tell us?
They tell us that attention to media diversity in policy debates has been constantly sidelined. What we see is an overarching emphasis on media freedom – of which there seem to be two different conceptual strains.
One strain of media freedom originated in the 19th century with the emergence of the early press. Here the circulation of ideas was inter-twined with the freedom of enterprise – wherein diversity was not on the agenda.
The other conceptual strain of media freedom evolved in the mid-20th century as part of the discourse of human rights, especially the freedom of expression. Here, diversity was divorced from the conception of freedom. This is why we see a glut of press freedom reports and media freedom index – and nothing like a media diversity index.
How has this policy legacy shaped media education? Four key instances here.
One, media education in India, as elsewhere across South Asia, has been directed principally towards vocational demands – the need to train journalists, editors, advertisers, filmmakers, TV producers etc. It was this professional rather than social science orientation in generic mass communication programmes that contributed to media freedom being foreground in curriculum.
Secondly, and more recently, the discourse of freedom of expression has influenced teaching to focus on media de-regulation and de-monopolisation. While this is extremely welcome, I find an over-emphasis on freedom of expression as a vantage point has ignored the rubric of regulatory design – what I call Re-regulation – within which media diversity ought to be structurally located.
Thirdly, the landmark cases of Sakaal and Bennett Coleman I referred to are prominent in legal education as exemplars of press freedom – without any cognisance to the limited and limiting sense of freedom that they set a precedent for.
Similarly, and lastly, teaching and research in media strategy and innovation-cycles has been essentially a spillover of the moral philosophy of Freedom of Enterprise. This ignores the glaring fact that what we have achieved to date is a crude form of free-market diversity – a product of a particular genre of mercantalist modernity.
Which is why I would like to end by calling all of us to recognise a deeper sense of Diversity. One that goes beyond normative concerns marking media policy in the Atlantic world – beyond the political rhetoric of pluralism – and beyond the mythology of choice that has engulfed our times.
I find there is far greater traction in understanding diversity as something that structures generate for their sustainability.
Research outside the field of media has shown the importance of diversity in imparting resilience to large, fragile structures – ranging from ecological systems to financial circuits.
Structures, especially complex structures, tend to generate diversity not for any charitable end but because diversity provides resilience to these structures – resilience to withstand threats from within, and from outside.
Muting media diversity would therefore amount to muting not just an inclusive idea of media freedom but the very sustainability of media freedom itself.
Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
Photo: Mohammad Hamza Alam
 The conceptual literature on media diversity is too vast to be engaged with here; for see P. M. Napoli (2011) ‘Diminished, Enduring, and Emergent Diversity Policy Concerns in an Evolving Media Environment’, International Journal of Communication Vol.5 (pp.1182–1196)
 This contrasts, say, Canadian policy where there is genre-wise allocation of TV and radio licenses.
 V. Parthasarathi (2014) ‘On the Constituted Contexts of Public Communication’, Media International Australia (Themed Issue on “Public Spheres and the Media in India”) No.152, August, 2014
 This is in response to a leading scholar of the Imperial School of historians who finds “in general the burgeoning Indian press was viewed benignly” by the British; C. A. Bayly (1993) ‘Knowing the Country: Empire and Information in India’, Modern Asian Studies Vol. 27 No. 1 (pp. 3-43) p.40
 Bayly 1993
 Report of the Press Commission (1954) Government of India publication, New Delhi (Part 1) p.310
 Report of the Press Commission of India, 1954
 J.N. Sahni (1974) Truth About the Indian Press (p.216).
 Ryan 1990:59
 Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. & Ors vs The Union of India (25 September, 1961) AIR 305 (1962), SCR (3) 842 (1962)
 Anon (1966) ‘The Press in India: Circulation and Control’ (p.242)
 IENS (1970) A Free Press is the Essence of a True Democracy, Indian and Eastern Newspaper Society, New Delhi
 Banerjee, S. (1982) ‘Crisis of Indian Press: Irrelevance of Press Commission’, Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 17, No. 23 (5 June) pp.931-935
 Ghorpade, S. (1986) ‘Retrospect and Prospect: the Information Environment and Policy in India’; International Communication Gazette Vol. 38 (pp.5-28)