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Media and civil society

Do the media and civil society complement each other? Pamela Philipose explores this proposition through a series of conversations with A K Shiva Kumar, Syeda Hameed, Tarun Tejpal, Sevanti Ninan, and Lysa John

‘The media fail to pick up silent deprivations’ 


A K SHIVA KUMARA K Shiva Kumar is a noted development economist. In addition to serving as an advisor to Unicef, he teaches economic and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and is a visiting professor at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.  

The media, as opposed to civil society organisations, are much more focused on information-gathering. This may entail some analysis, but their overriding concern is to put out timely information. Civil society organisations, in contrast, see for themselves a role that has much more to do with public education. Information is, of course, the first step in awareness-building, but, beyond that, there is the business of influencing public reasoning and debate.  

The second aspect is that the media, because they are driven by concerns of topicality, don’t see the entire story through. They may mount a short campaign, but they don’t have a long-term interest in systematically or strategically influencing policy. Although it is also true that just as there is evidence-based policymaking -- that is, you don’t make policies without evidence to support them -- there is policy-based evidence-making. The media, to some extent, do that. They may be in favour of a policy, say privatisation, and they constantly ferret out information that supports that position. But the good thing is that readers invariably discern this. Today, there are so many different sources of information that I don’t fear that the position of one newspaper or TV channel is going to make a great difference. 

We must also remember that in a country as large as India, media discourse tends to be variegated. If you are sitting in Delhi, the main discussion about security would be around Pakistan and Kashmir, but if you are located in Chennai, coverage of issues like Kashmir is minimal, while that of the Tamil crisis would be much wider. So location matters for the media. Anything that is distant in time and space does not make an impact for the media, while that is not the case with civil society groups.    

Then there is the fact that the media are definitely driven by the need for financial sustainability. They cannot do what a lot of civil society groups and NGOs can, or try to do, of managing on low budgets. The way in which the media are organised, their motivations, and so on, make the compulsion of financial sustainability crucial. This means they always have to move on. They cannot afford to harp on a particular issue. This also means that the media fail to pick up silent deprivations. Malnutrition, responsible for hundreds of thousands of child deaths, for instance, is not big news. If, however, ten children die of a wrong vaccine, it is.  

It is important to understand why this is the case. I think this is not so much the fault of the media as the fault of the nature of public discourse. After all, the media will only report what exists. If there is a public debate generated by civil society, it will get reflected in the media. For instance, when the Right to Information and National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) Bills were being discussed, or when the CNG controversy hit Delhi, or when there was a public outcry against domestic violence, these issues did figure in the media. But given that the volume and quality of public debate in India is so poor, it may not be realistic to expect more from the media which are essentially reactive, not proactive.  

Having said this I would add that if I were a development NGO I would definitely have a well-thought-out strategy on partnering the media. A strategy that puts forward information and issues that would appeal to them. And because India is so big it makes no sense for an organisation to have a national strategy. The media are very differently developed in Chennai than they are in Jharkhand. So there is need to think through how one partners the media to take a particular issue forward.  

‘The media is responsible for the conflation of Islam and terrorism’ 


Syeda HameedSyeda Hameed has just been appointed Member, Planning Commission, for a second consecutive term. She founded the Muslim Women’s Forum, which has been involved in legal literacy for Muslim women, and is a Founder Trustee of WIPSA, which works for people-to-people contact in South Asia.  

The important question is how does one define ‘civil society’?  Non-governmental sector? Too negative a way of seeing things. Voluntary sector? Then there is the differentiation between funded and non-funded organisations, between being a charity and working to a business model. ‘Civil society’ is a very broad category indeed. 

For me, civil society is an entity that articulates concerns that affect the entire community. At this very moment, the people of Sikkim are protesting the building of a hydroelectric project on the Teesta. It is the classic clash between ‘progress’ and ‘environment’, ‘modernity’ and age-old beliefs. Many in government critique such activism, seeing it as some people making it their business to egg local people to voice disgruntlement. I don’t buy that argument because ordinary people don’t know how to work the system. They need to be taught how to express and fight for their interests.  

Now, ideally, the media should help in articulating these social concerns but I don’t see that happening. The media, especially the mainstream media with their enormous powers of influence, either fail to articulate these concerns or articulate them in a way designed to cater to their own interests and drive up their TRPs. They thus end up ignoring concerns that are life and death matters for people whose lands are being inundated, or whose hold on life is slipping. Take the state of Benaras’ handloom weavers. I believe the next spate of suicides will be from here. There is some very good and courageous work being done by civil society organisations in that area, but I don’t see mainstream media paying much attention to the specific factors that have impoverished these weavers, or indeed the important work being done by groups here. 

I have seen such great developments in the most unexpected pockets of this country, thanks to civil society organisations. Take healthcare. Some initiatives have amazingly halved the level of infant mortality or taken health delivery to the hinterland. If these practices and strategies are adopted across the country, they could make a huge difference to India’s health profile. But the media do not do their bit, and these examples remain largely unknown.  

I understand, of course, that the media are not totally free to do what they want and that journalists work under many constraints. But a great deal depends on those at the top. If the signal from the top is all about shoring up the entertainment quotient and milking the vicarious pleasures of reflecting the lives of the famous, nothing is going to happen. There is a small percentage of the media, some of them with very limited reach, which keeps working at transforming society. But it is so insignificant.  

Nothing to my mind reflects the state of the mainstream media today better than the coverage we got of 26/11. It disturbed me greatly, both as a Muslim and an Indian. As a Muslim, I was perturbed by the anti-Muslim sentiments that were whipped up. Today, if Islam and terror have become conflated, the responsibility for it lies to a great extent on the media. Then, as an Indian, the way everybody reacted worried me a great deal, given the fragile security situation on the subcontinent.    

If media and civil society were to be partners, they could potentially be a very strong force. But we must also recognise that the resources that are driving the media today come from the commercial sector. How then can the Lepchas, who want to protect their sacred groves against the move of a big corporate giant to build a hydro project on those very lands, expect to get media support? 

‘We run with the hounds and hunt the hares’ 


Tarun TejpalTarun Tejpal is Editor-in-Chief of the newsmagazine Tehelka. He is also a well-known commentator and novelist. Tehelka has broken new ground with its strong public interest journalism and sting investigations. Asiaweek listed Tejpal as one of Asia’s 50 most powerful communicators in 2001.   

The media today have become a purely commercial construct. Civil society, in contrast, is not -- there is no money to be made out of the activities that civil society is involved in. I think that this has become the fundamental difference between the media and civil society organisations.   

Ideally, civil society should be amplifying what the media do, and media should be articulating the concerns of civil society. But today this complementarity is not very evident. Of course, there will always be issues on which journalism and civil society find themselves on the same side, but when this happens it is largely because the media do not see those issues as handicapping them commercially. So, on Jessica Lal, for example, everybody is on the same side and all the big media houses clamber to project the story. But if it is about a SEZ acquired by Reliance, it’s another story.  

I always say, in the last 25-30 years we have seen many political exposes but you will find it difficult to get five big exposes of corporate wrongdoing in that list. This journalistic atmosphere has been teeming and growing by the day. The Indian media constantly focus on soft targets and completely steer clear of hard targets. So if television happens to get a rabbit in its crosshairs, it will run the rabbit down until it is dead. But it will never take on the hound, because the hound can hit back. So we run with the hounds and hunt the hares; that’s what we do, and we make a virtue of it. 

Also, many in the profession have come to believe that if you can stick a microphone in somebody’s face you become a journalist. This is absurd. If you want to be a purposeful journalist, it is critical you understand the framework of Indian democracy.   

I am not being wholly disparaging, I am only trying to see what is happening. The model of the media today is so flawed. All your money comes from advertising, and so journalism becomes not what the reader wants but what the advertiser wants. If readers today begin to pay the entire cost involved in generating good journalism, things may change. But if the reader pays Rs 2 for a newspaper that costs Rs 20 to produce, the role of the advertiser becomes that much more crucial.   

Also, unfortunately, the idea of public space, the idea of public good, is still so underdeveloped in this country. And this is ironical given the fact that the idea of India emerges from the idea of the social contract. Our national movement is full of examples of people who emerged from backgrounds of privilege and wealth and who rejected their wealth and privilege in order to create a public good.  

The best thing that can happen is for the media to amplify civil society’s battles and understand how very crucial they are. But the challenge really is that there are not enough people in both journalism and civil society who are able to articulate arguments in a manner that forces both money and power to be accountable.  

‘Work by NGOs like National Election Watch and Lok Satta is an enormous resource for media’ 


Sevanti NinanSevanti Ninan is a columnist and author who focuses on media issues. She writes columns on the media for The Hindu and Hindustan, and is the Founder Editor of, a media watch website.   

I believe that, increasingly, the media have been forced to reach out to civil society. Take television. There is a constant seeking out of data and opinion from those in the field, whether it is for a panel discussion or simply to keep programmes going. After all, civil society groups are the people with the data; they are the ones who interact with those on the ground and understand local issues. The media have to always seek out people who have done the groundwork for them.  

Take the recent elections. An NGO like National Election Watch was constantly sending information to the media. They were the people scrutinising affidavits, doing specialised research and generating information. Such work is an enormous resource for the media, given that there is so much competition and given the fact that they have to churn out so much stuff in so little time.  

Civil society, too, needs the media. After all, anything it does, whether it is a time-bound intervention linked to the general election or something broader like dalit welfare, requires it to reach audiences and draw more people into its own work, something that is difficult to achieve without the media. So there is a potential partnership here. 

Take Lok Satta, set up by social activist Jayaprakash Narayan. He began about ten years ago, using the Internet effectively to send out timely information to various media houses and individual journalists. In this way, Lok Satta was able to build up awareness on the need for electoral reform. The media gave the initiative a lot of coverage.   

Of course, I also believe the media don’t critique themselves as rigorously as they should. We set up The Hoot specifically to create a space in which the media can cover and critique themselves. Have you, for instance, seen in any newspaper a story about how much selling of media space took place in these elections? It happened in five or six major states, and some of the biggest newspapers in India did this. The media in India have become decidedly more self-serving. Look at the way some newspapers work. If they need to run a discotheque to get new clientele, they will. There are also no ethical moorings of any kind, although the nature of the media demands them. And this lack of ethical moorings is contagious. If the big guys don’t have them, everybody happily follows.  

The media are often criticised for being commercial. This is an old, well-worn argument. But people forget the competition media houses face today. There are far too many media products chasing far too few resources. Everyone wants a piece of the commercial action and that leads to the inevitable scramble for advertising. An important contributory factor for this is that media consumers refuse to pay for their media content. If everything has to be cheap, if you switch to a newspaper when it drops its cover price by a rupee, you’ll find that the media too will search for unorthodox ways to raise finances.   

But I believe one central concern -- that the media routinely ignore the Other Half in a country like India -- is not so apparent anymore. Even commercial newspapers do a lot of that kind of social development reporting because they realise that middle class consumers have a social conscience and are interested in social issues too. In the old days, newspapers did see themselves as playing a broader social role, but they fulfilled it in a distant sort of way. Today, you will be amazed at how good some of these regional channels are in covering the hinterland. Criticise the media by all means, but do it for the right reasons! 

‘Civil society has taken on the mantle the media once wore’ 


Lysa JohnLysa John, Global Campaign Director, Global Call To Action Against Poverty, coordinated the Wada Na Todo Abhiyan initiative, which has been recognised for its efforts to broaden and influence the public policy debate in India. It has focused on decentralised state campaigns on governance accountability by developing an extensive network of organisations and activists.  

Civil society as a concept has come into use only in the last few years. It needs to be interpreted much more broadly, in terms of citizen action for society, than is generally the case. This is not just about the contributions of traditional NGOs but encompasses any kind of citizens’ formation which looks at larger issues of social or political change -- work that is not being done through the government or private sector. 

If you consider civil society and the media today, it is almost as if civil society is at the point where the media were some decades ago. For instance, a number of media organisations came up during the nationalist movement and articulated important public concerns. Today, the media are much more commercial in their orientation -- and not just in a negative sense because, after all, they need to sustain themselves. But they now no longer consider it necessary to speak or work for the poorest of the poor.  

It is almost as if civil society has now taken on the mantle the media once wore. I think this is also interesting for us in civil society because it shows us the challenges we need to watch out for as we evolve -- like ensuring financial sustainability, for instance. Already, you see some civil society organisations privileging profitable avenues or getting attracted to glamorous agendas.  

I also find today that the media have a very simplistic understanding of civil society organisations -- they end up over-simplifying their efforts or portraying them in very stereotypical ways. They project civil society groups either as harmless do-gooders or extremist elements that spell harm for society. Also, usually the media individualise effective civil society campaigns and attribute their success to the efforts of one great leader. These campaigns are never represented as a collective and professional effort. 

But I don’t blame the media completely for this. Civil society organisations are often unable to articulate what they are thinking. They really need to show that they have a wide reach and impact, and are able to make a difference; that their initiatives are more than just “doing good”, they also have a political and social relevance. This is also a question of how civil society organisations engage with their external environment, because even within civil society there is an obsession with internal priorities.  

The media, for their part, may want to be seen as proactively engaging with a social cause. But the problem so far is that they have always looked at civil society as the implementing arm of a concept that their business counterparts have created. I think both the government and the media don’t realise that the most progressive, far-reaching and visionary ideas today come from civil society. The media are largely falling in line with the interests of the powerful. The only people who are thinking out of the box to transform lives and existing structures are the people who constitute civil society.  

Also, the perception that the only way to get people and policymakers to listen is through the media is simply not true. A lot of the policy advocacy we have done has been through direct engagement with policymakers. As for making contact with people on the ground, I don’t think the media have helped at all. We have really not cracked the formula of using mass media to get people involved and engaged. The only thing, perhaps, that has worked to an extent is online mobilisation. But even here there are limits. You may contact a huge number of people through the Net but none of them are physically available to you when you want to work for change on the ground.  

So there is no replacement for actual physical mobilisation. Take the example most quoted -- the Barack Obama campaign. It went beyond online campaigning; there was a lot of door-to-door effort put into it. In any case, if you are talking of representing the interests of the most marginalised, most of them do not have access to the media that we are talking about. I would say, therefore, that for civil society groups, a media strategy is important but it can only be one among many others. 

(These interviews were conducted by Pamela Philipose, Director, Women’s Feature Service (WFS), and coordinated by WFS (

Infochange News & Features, November 2009