#BookAlert: Freedom, Civility, Commerce

Freedom, Civility, Commerce: Contemporary media and the public”, written by Sukumar Muralidharan, Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Research), Jindal School of Journalism and Communication, is a book published in 2018 that explores themes around media such as the right to free speech, the ethics of journalism, its future as part of the democratic discourse, and so on.

An excerpt from the book:

Cobrapost, a native of the digital media universe, promoted by an individual long invested in sting journalism, has always stretched the envelope and with dogged persistence, ventured into contested ethical territory. Its ultimate reward perhaps comes from the growing recognition that its transgressions, though troubling, are orders of magnitude less than the dodgy practices they lay bare.

The May 2018 revelations from Cobrapost portrayed in vivid and disturbing detail, how some of India’s biggest media corporations were eager to take up the advocacy of a political agenda for assured financial rewards. Launched in 2017, Cobrapost’s “Operation 136” took its title from the global rank India was awarded on the annual press freedom index compiled by Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF).

If that was a deeply mortifying moment, more bad news followed.

In April 2018, RSF downgraded India another two places, on grounds that merit some attention. The hyper-nationalistic cohorts closely gathered into Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s orbit, the RSF argued, had assumed the authority to determine the forms of media practice that could be tolerated, and those that must be ruthlessly put down. Often enough, unquestioning faith in the political leadership was the touchstone.

“Hindu nationalists”, the RSF said, had been “trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate”. These officially encouraged exercises in thought-control ensured that “self-censorship (was) growing in the mainstream media and journalists (were) increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals”.

Operation 136 laid bare how the media industry was an eager participant in its own enslavement to the new hyper-nationalism, which came bundled with commercial incentives for anybody who signed up for it.

Responding to the blandishments of an undercover operative from Cobrapost, top media executives expressed their eagerness to push the political agenda commonly referred to as Hindutva, since it could amply pay its way. It mattered not that the agenda was deeply destructive of basic civility, indeed a threat to the security and the basic constitutional rights of minorities and other vulnerable social groups. All that mattered was the commercial imperative.

Sandeep Dikshit, a journalist, writes in his review of Freedom, Civility, Commerce, “The media is now in several avatars. Sukumar examines all of them. In tune with the seamlessness of their spread, from civil society to the market and even the practice of journalism, the discussion does not remain within national boundaries. The civil society movements, with the media inseparably tied, were a post-Cold War phenomena. And they differed in their reach and goals. But Sukumar establishes that in contrast to the serenading of Facebook and Twitter for facilitating those protests, the media is just an enabling factor.”

Read the full review here.

In another review published in the Economic & Political Weekly, Arani Basu, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Krea University, says, “A well-researched book with an essential ingredient of primary data for anthropological validation, it stands out and is all set to survive the test of time. One is continuously reminded of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous lines: Bol, ke labh azad hain tere/Bol, zubaan ab tak teri hain. Muralidharan has weaved through the idea of free speech intricately throughout the text and driven the point substantially home—freedom of speech goes hand in hand with freedom of expression—hence, a free media is not an entry point but an end product of the right to free speech, especially in a neo-liberal world. This book points out that it is worth preserving the pragmatic identification of the range of the media as the portals of free speech, truth and free expression—from news reports to cartoons and satires to cinema to digital media.”

Read Basu’s full review here. (Login maybe necessary)