Arvind Rajagopal, the author of Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India and a professor in the department of media, culture and communication and affiliate faculty at the department of sociology at New York University, said news channels in India imitate TV news formulas elsewhere. In an email interview, he shared his thoughts on new media and the erosion in the function of a newspaper. Edited excerpts:
Is television playing an important role in the forthcoming elections in India? Is the electoral contest, which is being made into a prime ministerial one between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, a part of this trend?
India’s TV news culture is as yet very young and imitative of TV news formulas elsewhere. Here Fox News is the most important model since its aggressive for-or-against debates and jingoistic anchoring are commercially successful even if they are not always good at predicting outcomes. (US President Barack) Obama could not have won two presidential elections otherwise since Fox TV was steadfast in opposing him. But meanwhile we also have a polity where identity assertion and reasoned debate both have to find a place.
The other relevant factor is that at present revenues in the TV industry are tiny while investments are huge. This leads to aggressive coverage emphasizing emotion over analysis. TV news is itself insecure and unable to adopt a long-term strategy for building a news culture since the competitive pressure is to imitate the market leader.
What do you make of the growing fetish for smartphones, tablets, etc? Is it akin to the fascination with TV as you had outlined in your book?
Every commodity has its fetish aspect. But cellphones are also very useful... Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron’s new book Cellphone Nation shows this in detail. Jeffrey and Doron argue that smartphones are tools of popular empowerment. As is quite clear from the many different strategies being employed by political parties, smartphones can also be used for propaganda by political groups.
Rural India has also begun to see substantial consumption of mass media, especially television. Are there aspirations coinciding with urban India through this medium?
Studies show that Modi’s support is weak in rural areas and rises sharply in towns and cities. There are differences in aspiration, and Modi maybe able to channel this to some extent. More importantly, the impact of TV is much greater in urban areas, and where TV is present, it is more likely to be cable and satellite channels, which are proportionately more likely to lean towards Modi.
What do you think are the defining features of a corporatized media? A lack of ideological diversity, the absence of a pro-labour or a pro-market distinction between different channels? Is that because Indian media has not matured or is it because of the fact that they themselves are corporatized.
For a long time, private media demanded autonomy for electronic broadcasting. But the challenge of creating an inclusive public media is not easy, especially when large sections of the government and private sector are pushing for market-based incentives.
Another place where this shift is occurring is the focus on different parts of economic organization. Organized labour was a significant political actor until the Emergency of 1975-77. After that, concerted attempts were made to reduce unions to a symbolic role. The recent Maruti strike has been interesting because the business press largely saw it as a story about mismanagement rather than as a labour rights story per se. That signals a shift in media perspective, in relation to the kind of coverage labour used to receive before. Major political leaders used to emerge from the ranks of organized labour—V.V. Giri and George Fernandes being two examples. No longer. The major news media have accepted these changes rather than interrogating them from a historical perspective.
What do you believe is the role that newspapers are playing in this new public sphere?
Newspapers keep having their obituary written, but they survive because they are trusted content vehicles. One should not regard their technical format as sacred however. There will be a scattering of formats; it is already occurring. Whether newspapers are adapting to tablet, computer and mobile formats optimally, i.e. genuine engagement with the realities of different platforms, or is there essentially the exportation of one kind of media format that of print being exported to mobile, digital and others, I cannot say—clearly this would take some time. But for example, Twitter and perhaps Facebook, too, represent an adaptation of news and commentary to these new devices that has gone ahead of newspaper organizations themselves. So in this sense, along with a scattering of formats, there is an erosion of the function that old media organizations used to serve.
Are there different forms in which the English and vernacular press have take sides in this new setup?
Take the hue and cry over corruption. It is an English-language media focus, and Indian-language news media treat corruption in a more matter-of-fact way. In some issues, it is the Indian-language media that is globalizing in a more reflexive and savvy way. English media in India is often more parochial and insular.