On the morning of 6 May 2010, in the English town of Rochdale, a retired council worker nipped out to buy a loaf of bread, and made a bit of history.

Gillian Duffy, a 65-year-old lifelong Labour party supporter, bumped into Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was on the campaign trail in her town. In the UK, door-to-door campaigning continues to occupy an important place in general elections. All politicians—including party leaders and government ministers—are expected to answer questions from voters on the doorstep.

Brown was being interviewed live on television when Duffy walked up with some perfectly reasonable, if difficult, questions about his policies on education and immigration. Brown, never a people person, was patient, even when she complained, “All these eastern Europeans what (sic) are coming in… where are they flocking from?"

Later, in his car, unaware that he was still wearing the microphone, Brown described Duffy to his staff as “a sort of bigoted woman" and correctly predicted a media storm. He was wrong on the detail—the media did swoop on the story, but not on immigration: it was the “bigoted woman" comment that grabbed the headlines. So… Labour thought all working class people who worried about eastern Europeans were bigots? Everybody knew that wasn’t true, but the perception quickly gained ground.

In a scenario where race and immigration had already become a tinderbox waiting to be lit, the unguarded comment by Brown, a strong advocate of skilled immigration and globalization, did just that—and lost Labour the election.

In the run-up to the general elections, Labour had been accused of allowing uncontrolled immigration, costing local jobs. Labour actually had the facts to back up its case—jobs weren’t being lost to foreigners and immigration wasn’t quite as “uncontrolled" as made out. Yet, in the hustings, it was having a hard time getting its message across hardened perceptions.

In the battle between facts and forceful if “less-true" political claims, data is always going to lose the day—not because voters are gullible, but because most election debates are fashioned to ignore data.

This is true of settings where television, followed by social media, seems to be setting the agenda for debates—such as the general elections in India.

With news and current affairs broadcasts banned on private radio, which remains the most egalitarian of all media, Indians have a relatively limited choice of election coverage platforms. A newspaper may strive to be scrupulously balanced in its political coverage, with a massive focus on data-driven journalism, but television grabs the eyeballs with its hectoring ‘debates’ that are less debates than platforms to shout out a particular point of view—the antithesis, in other words, of balanced and quality journalism.

Equally, there is social media, with its explosive potential to spread complete lies, half-truths and shape perceptions. In the “bigotgate" affair, in the days before Twitter was overwhelmed by the virulence it is known for today, the hashtag #bigotedwoman made an appearance.

Elections, arguably, are all about perception. And the perception battle, increasingly, is being fought, fashioned and decided in television studios.

India presents a massive market for media consumers, attracting lavish advertisement expenditures. But the market seems skewed toward television and the Internet. Between 2016 and 2018, television viewership grew 7.2% to 836 million, while television ownership increased by 7.5% to 197 million, according to the Broadcasting Audience Research Council, or BARC.

Television accounts for the largest share of advertising revenue at 45%, and there’s even better news for TV network owners—in this election alone, political parties are expected to spend `300 crore on advertising, Mint reported this week citing media buyers. That’s only natural, given that an increasing number of Indians are watching more and more television—urban Indians spend around four hours, while those in rural parts 3.5 hours every day watching telly, an average 3% increase in 2018.

A lot of it, no doubt, is spent in watching television news and what goes for debate (essentially, the most extreme extracts from campaign speeches followed by a loud, data-less slanging match).

Digital media grew equally exponentially. Internet users were expected to register double digit growth to reach 627 million in 2019, driven by rapid internet growth in rural areas, market research agency Kantar IMRB was cited as saying by the Press Trust of India. Already, internet usage has exceeded half a billion people for first time, pegged at 566 million.

It is fair to assume that far more Indians are watching this type of television news and scrolling through Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook snippets than are reading balanced newspaper coverage and analysis or thoughtful, reasoned editorials.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, around 57 million Indians were newspaper subscribers in 2018, with Hindi-language readers leading the lot (38.7%), followed by English-language subscribers (18.4%). Subscribers grew 5% between 2008 and 2015. However, when it came to readership (that single newspaper of the day shared by five customers sipping tea at a dhaba), the country added 110 million readers between 2014 and 2017 on the back of an increase in literacy rates, population and number of publications, according to the Indian Readership Survey (IRS).

Back in 2014, a perfect storm brought the BJP to power and introduced Narendra Modi to the national stage. With low economic growth projections, high inflation, corruption, scams and protests by the BJP-led opposition paralysing Parliament, the Indian media was all for a change in the tired Congress-led government. With some 23 million 18-19 year old first-time voters, social media platforms played a massive role in mobilizing support for Modi.

This time around, although the ground reality has changed, with the Congress finding its bearings once again after assembly election victories in three major states, television news channels have found it hard to shed their old habits, perhaps buttressed by conceit at their self-bestowed ‘king-maker’ tag. Digital media, too, is hostage to deeply polarized views.

This is not surprising, given that India is home to 35% of the world’s illiterate population, according to Unesco. Brown’s “bigotgate" affair shows that perceptions rather than facts can take centre-stage even in a literate society. Still, reading newspapers cannot hurt. Debating issues over steaming cups of chai at home or in a dusty dhaba beats watching ridiculous television debates. Every time.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1.

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