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Media in the time of crises

By Darryl D'Monte

Did the media – and indeed all the economic gurus – miss the telltale signs of the impending financial meltdown? The Asia Media Forum in Bangkok recently analysed media in the time of crisis

“Crisis” is the media’s all-time favourite word, used indiscriminately and universally at the drop of a hat. It is applied to everything, but hardly ever with reference to itself. The first Asia Media Report, published in 2006 by the Asia Media Forum, a pan-Asia network, was titled ‘Media in the time of crisis’. The recent forum, in Bangkok, was also similarly titled, a la Marquez.

The second report, edited by this columnist, was titled ‘Missing in the media’ and released at the forum. When it was planned, some 10 months ago, the idea was for each chapter to concentrate on who and what was missing in the media in every country -- mainly those who are marginalised in society. No one could have predicted at the time that the world, and the media with it, is in the throes of a far worse crisis at this juncture.

As John Samuel, co-editor of www.infochangeindia.org and international director of ActionAid, which supported the forum, put it at the inauguration of the meet: “The software of the world has been rebooted since the 1970s.” The period 1977 to 1982 saw the birth of the worldwide environmental movement, which was triggered by the oil price hike of 1973 and food crises. China saw the rise of Deng Xiaoping and its emergence as a global force; Thailand was rocked by student rebellions. India witnessed the end of single-party dominance and the formation of multi-party coalitions; in Pakistan, Bhutto was overthrown by General Zia-ul-Haq, a move that changed that country radically.

In this crucible, there was a “crack” or space for civil society. The period saw the emergence of a new culture of NGOs, the third sector -- for instance, with the universally acclaimed success of microfinance as practised by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, a country that was otherwise seen as a basket case by the development sector.

The third major change, according to Samuel, was in the media. After undergoing the current “rebooting”, which is by any reckoning a painful process, marked by closures and downsizing, and the decline in the clout of mainstream newspapers and TV news channels, things will certainly never be the same again. The churning has impacted all of civil society and politics, which is why one has to locate these crises in history.

There were two major discourses that emerged between 1977 and 1982. One was the environmental movement in India, marked by the debate over the Silent Valley hydroelectric project in Kerala, which was accompanied by heated controversy over ecology and economics. Although the Marxist-influenced state government was hell-bent on building a dam over the Kunthipuzha river, the views of activists belonging to the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, and further afield, finally won the day. This was seen as a significant victory for environmentalists throughout the country, since a scientific view had prevailed over the need to generate power in a state that was starved of industry and employment.

The other movement was for the assertion of women’s rights which, if anything, had even more far-reaching implications.

Samuel believes that there is now a “hyper-institutionalisation” of civil society ideas and ideals, where these are all sucked into one gigantic production and consumption machine. In the 1970s, the media was influenced by ideas of freedom and justice; the entire sociology was different with journalists often seeing themselves as activists, not cogs in some vast delivery machine (increasingly, of infotainment). One has only to recall that in the late 19th and early half of the 20th centuries, journalism in this country was largely inspired by the freedom movement.

This sociology changed in the 1990s, with the emergence of what Samuel calls “the Wikipedia generation”. In other words, journalists didn’t conduct original research but were content to “google everybody” and cut and paste, sitting at their desks. Worse still, advertising managers increasingly decided the content of the media. As Samuel put it, “Page 3 took over FP (front page)”.

The current crisis was one where vested interests took precedence over ideals. There was a crisis within this domain. There were only a few who rebelled against this “fossilised” situation, like Lasantha Wickrematunge, the intrepid editor of The Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka, one of the country’s only investigative journals, who was shot dead in broad daylight this January. His widow was to have travelled to the Bangkok forum to collect an award on behalf of her husband but, for obvious reasons, she -- a fellow journalist on the paper -- has gone underground. Lasantha was always outspoken and journalists such as him, and his fellow scribes in Swat, in Pakistan, have paid the price. “We need more Lasanthas in our midst,” said Samuel.

The media in most Asian countries acquired their freedom during the anti-colonial struggle. The irony was that with heavy doses of liberalisation, such freedom had degenerated into license. Samuel predicted that within the next decade, much of the institutional media would be eclipsed by blogs and the ‘new media’.

The current economic crisis was, in fact, a crisis of democracy, where bankers, not voters, decided the fate of millions of people. The Sensex was the sign of an internal -- a near-fatal? -- disease rather than of prosperity and wellbeing. Indeed, to carry the metaphor further, the growth was malignant in every sense of the word.

This was a larger moral crisis within civilisation, which was waking people up from the euphoria of their decades-old slumber. The food crisis was by no means new so far as 1 billion people in the world are concerned. Later during the meeting a speaker noted how food production was sufficient to meet the needs of the world, but speculation in commodities by multinationals such as Cargill was the undoing. New economic gurus wanted urban-centric growth, where farmers and fisherfolk are ignored. Samuel urged the audience, consisting of media professionals, NGO representatives and a few academics, to “think beyond institutional boundaries and work towards a paradigm shift”.

Kumar Ketkar, editor of Loksatta, also presented a historical overview that dovetailed with Samuel’s. He cited how even an economist guru like Nobel laureate Paul Krugman (and his fellow American laureate Joseph Stiglitz) didn’t foresee the current meltdown. As it happened, Time magazine -- which, someone else pointed out, had published nine cover stories on the financial crisis -- did plan one on how the US was in the grip of a deep economic crisis, in September 2001, but had to scrap it overnight when 26/11 took place. In that sense the signs were there, if people had only bothered to look for them.

Ketkar saw 1991 as a watershed, either as conspiracy -- as too many journalists are fond of saying -- or coincidence, or sometimes a bit of both. That was the year of the break-up of the USSR, and Yugoslavia was balkanised. It was Gorbachev who introduced perestroika (economic restructuring) and reforms that led to such a denouement. Whether Gorbachev, in retrospect, was Man of that Decade or Man of the Second Half of the 20th Century, only future historians will tell.

1979 was another landmark in contemporary world history. That was the year in which the Soviets entered Afghanistan, and the revolution in Iran. With prodding from the US and armaments from Europe, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran. Zia had overthrown Bhutto, who was hanged that year. Afghanistan-Iran-Iraq became a toxic trio of countries where western powers played out their own games, with oil supplies very much in their sights.

In the West itself, Margaret Thatcher was elected in the UK, signalling the triumph of neo-liberal economic doctrines and the dismantling of State safety nets throughout the small island. President Carter was defeated in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis, and the path was paved for arch conservative Ronald Reagan. Old-timers may recall a Hollywood-style poster with echoes of Gone with the Wind, depicting the B-grade cowboy actor carrying Lady Maggie in his arms and fading into the sunset… They were certainly made for each other -- an Anglo-American alliance of an extremely dubious nature, it now turns out.

The oil crisis of 1973 was also the year that socialist President Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile, with the active connivance of the CIA. That was the year when Arabs and Israelis went to war. In the US, not so much due to intrepid Washington Post reporters as to a section of the US elite disillusioned with the Vietnam war which, they realised, the US couldn’t win, that was also the year of Watergate.

Coincidence or conspiracy, Ketkar repeated, leaving his historical sketch tantalisingly open to either interpretation. But he had no illusion that in the current situation there would not only be an economic meltdown but a new order would emerge, the contours of which are being discussed but no one had the perspicacity to predict.

Speakers at the forum referred to how, to some extent, Asia was insulated from the financial crisis, and this could well be “the Asian century” since it has 40% of the globe’s population and is growing at an average of 4% per year. Kishore Mahbubani of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy spoke about the “new Asian hemisphere”. As Dr Saman Kelegama from the Institute of Policy Studies in Sri Lanka pointed out, Asia had the largest foreign currency reserves in the world and was, to a large extent (particularly China), financing the US deficit by investing in that country. “Asia’s prosperity is based on the US consumer,” he observed.

However, by that same token, presumably, with the US consumer going into hibernation things couldn’t be all that good for Asian countries. Kelegama mentioned how India’s exports were declining; so were capital flows to emerging markets. In South Asia specifically, the meltdown has hit migrant workers, remittances from whom actually exceed the total amount of aid or “overseas development assistance” (which itself is declining in these difficult times).

Rashed Titumir, who heads policy at ActionAid for Asia and is based in Bangladesh, wondered if this was a financial crisis or a long downturn for the world economy. In the US, since the ’60s, there were signs -- business cycles with their ups and downs had indeed been occurring. The rate of profit had been declining, as had real wages; there was over-capitalisation of the economy. All this led to smaller surpluses for capitalists. During the Clinton era, spending in the public sector had declined and there was a crisis in the fall in aggregate demand, which was quite different from what the financial press (the pink papers in some countries) saw.

There was some discussion on why the media had missed the crisis. One participant even wondered whether excessive coverage could actually have worsened it. There were also other impacts on society which the media had missed. For instance, the US had lost some 4.4 million jobs, and this had led to an increase in crime and could conceivably culminate in anarchy if the situation worsened much more this year and beyond.

It took some plain speaking by Ketkar to question the notion that the media was merely a mirror of society. Far from being so, he asserted, it coloured, even distorted, reality. Too much space was being devoted today to celebrities and the entertainment culture. Ketkar went so far as to characterise it as the “chloroform or anaesthesia of the mind”. Other speakers added that in the so-called “war on terror” in Asia, the media was alarmist, almost apocalyptic in its pronouncements -- a big departure from its customary complacency.

Kalinga Seneviratne from the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre in Singapore spoke about how journalists needed to change their mindset on “poverty reporting”, a not very elegant phrase. He cited how Dr Mahbub-ul-Haq, the late eminent Pakistani economist who pioneered the UN’s Human Development Reports, had pointed out that “the basic purpose of development is to enlarge people’s choices”. One could extend the argument and draw the inference that the purpose of journalism is to make people aware of these choices and, where possible, criticise those who restrict such choices and publicise those who do. Joseph Pulitzer put it more bluntly when he said the role was “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”.

Seneviratne made a strong case that new media -- China has some 300 million people using the Internet and 50 million bloggers -- could not do enough to improve things. And one had to re-invent the role of public service broadcasting. For instance Vietnam, doubtless influenced by its communist ideology, had a State-run TV station in each of its 60-odd districts, which lent an immediacy and authenticity to their broadcasts, in sharp contrast to the increasingly universal appeal of the globalised media. He also stressed that community radio should be made less expensive. In India, this medium is still entangled in red tape and not permitted to broadcast news for inexplicable reasons, when 24x7 international TV news channels like BBC World Service and CNN are allowed to.

It was in a session on the environmental crisis that speakers drew the convergence between the financial crisis and climate change. Both have their origin in western, industrial societies -- the former more particularly in the US -- and both have spread their “toxicity” or “pollution” to countries in the developing world which are least responsible and less able to deal with the consequences. As Jose Barroso, president of the European Commission, wrote on the eve of the G20 summit: “Developing countries must not pay the price of a crisis in developed ones.” Perhaps the only glimmer of hope so far as the financial crisis is concerned is that since the financial sectors of these countries are less developed, they would not be as badly affected and, by the same token, would recover faster than wealthy nations. But there is no such refuge from the sweeping impact of the looming climate catastrophe.

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009