The business of elections

Mar 07, 2014, 06:31 IST | Vanita Kohli-Khandekar

Vanita Kohli-KhandekarIt is by all accounts the biggest event in the evolution of any democracy. As various countries around the world, Pakistan, Egypt, Thailand, struggle with the idea of free elections and free speech, Indians have enjoyed it for over six decades.

This is, in huge part, thanks to the vision shown by the people who led the first few governments in independent India.

They did not succumb to the temptation to grab absolute power at any point of this young democracy’s toddler years. It is rulers’ temptation to have complete control that has led several nations, such as Pakistan, astray.

The worst and best side of the media industry is usually on display during elections
The worst and best side of the media industry is usually on display during elections

The general elections held every five years are a testimony to the fact that we function as a democracy. We do it chaotically, loudly and seemingly without any process. But the idea of freedom is now embedded in three generations of Indians.

It is so intrinsic to us that no army dictator or autocratic leader can quite sway us into believing otherwise. And the news media plays a huge role in completing this loop of transparency. It informs us through newspapers, television, radio, online or various other devices on what is happening and why.

The last general elections in 2009 however were different. In the run up to the election some of India’s best known newspapers and news channels, across languages, are alleged to have charged money from candidates for coverage. Following complaints the Press Council of India (PCI) appointed a sub-committee.

Its report documented more than a hundred examples of paid news based on the evidence within newspapers and news channels and from interviews with politicians of all hues. Almost every media brand accused denied any wrongdoing.

Since then there has been a lot of noise, one government report and little action on paid news. The only institution that is now really worried is the Election Commission of India, which recently demanded that paid news should be made an electoral offence.

Then there is the quality of discourse or debate on news media, online and on television which is appallingly ill-informed, polarised and downright shoddy on most days. Online debates and comments have degenerated into personal attacks which have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

However the ones on television still try to retain the fig leaf of drawing room conversation. In about 20 minutes these usually degenerate into bar room brawls, at least on some of the more popular channels (Which always makes me wonder why we don’t hear more praise about these debates. Since they come out on top of the rating charts, many people it would seem are watching them but wouldn’t like to admit it).

These two trends combined paid news and terrible debating on serious issues — are causing irreparable harm to the whole idea of media’s role in a democracy. And as the election begins next month, the big worry is will the media behave this time? If it doesn’t then any government will have the necessary public opinion on its side to crack the whip.

The reasons for many of these issues are simple. There is greed, there is lack of training and there is some seriously flawed ownership of media. Of these greed has no answer. Even without paid news, elections are an advertising bonanza for almost all media.

Why then resort to quasi-criminal stuff to earn an extra buck? The lack of training, which shows on newspaper and TV reporters needs just 2-5 per cent of editorial budgets to be spent on training. So far very few media organisations have given this the time and attention it deserves.

The last is the quality of media ownership. In India everyone wants to own a news channel or a newspaper. These then become tools to curry influence and favours or extort them. In television for instance, one-third of the 135 news channels, are owned by random politicians and builders. As they compete to fill 24 hours, a race to the bottom on content quality, is inevitable.

Of these three factors, training and refusing paid news are very much in the hands of the brands and editors who care about what is put out. And there are many of those. Can they then stand up and be different? Their participation is essential to the idea that democracy and free speech go hand in hand. Without that conviction we would be heading down a very dangerous path. One where media is constantly questioned, heckled and finally clamped down upon.

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at

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