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Brave New World or Else Grave New Challenge awaits Manipur Media in the Days Ahead

Introduction

Media in Manipur is vibrant in many ways, at least as of now. But there are signs that decay is setting in. But before I come to this disturbing trend, a little more thought on why and where the state media draws its strength from will be relevant. Probably this strength is inherited from the history and nature of the birth of mass media in the state. Like in so many other postcolonial nations, India prominently, the inner urges of the society that caused the birth of a mass media here was the commitment of an enlightened and conscientious section of its elite to cater to an urgent need of the time – namely to educate the larger masses of the exploitative socio-political circumstances they were all immersed in. In other words, the mass media here began as an instrument for fostering public awareness aimed at enabling the general public to rise and assert their collective will, and thus hold the governance process of the time answerable to them.

Activist Beginning

On the Indian canvas, we saw this in the shape of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s “Kesari” launched in the late 19th Century, and later Mahatma Gandhi’s “Harijan” in the mid-20th Century, both urging the Indian masses to be conscious of the colonial circumstances they were in and to unite to break the shackles of these circumstances. Manipur’s own media story has not been much different. It is well known how towering pioneers like Hijam Irabot gave life to this medium realising how vital it was in awakening the masses so that they may see the unfair predicament they were in, and thus prepare for a revolution which would bring changes for the better for the whole society. Indeed, especially in the colonised world, the media has always had a social activist role at their inception, and Manipur shares this history, therefore the pronounced activist role the media here has been and still is known for. For a long time, the state media has not been afraid to question and interrogate power, or in the currently popular parlance, “speak truth to power”.

Given this history, most media organisations in Manipur began as purely journalistic enterprises. It has almost always been about a few self-taught but committed writers, journalists and more from all walks of life, coming together to pool in resources to launch a newspaper or journal. This being so, except for a few which were owned by political parties as their propaganda tool, or else well-known social organisations such as Pan Manipuri Youth League, till only a few decades ago, journalists were owners of newspapers and journals, and indeed “proprietor-editors” were not uncommon at all once. Predictably, these newspapers and journals had very limited circulations, and consequently their revenues were also proportionately meagre, with the result that the working conditions of those running them, or employed by them, were far from good. Indeed, most of the early journalists were in the profession for the passion of it, often barely managing to make ends meet. Thankfully for the present generation of journalists in the state, these pioneers hung on bravely and continued advancing the profession of their passion forward relentlessly. If the profession did not have much money as reward for them, their dedicated services to society gave the best among them reputations and legacies no amount of money can ever hope to buy.

Technological March

Thing have changed considerably ever since. The harbingers of this new age change are many. One of the foremost among them is technology. Till the mid-1990s, most of the newspapers in Manipur were printed using the archaic Treadle Machine, some motorised and others still driven manually by foot pedals. This technology is fundamentally the same as that invented by Johan Guttenberg in 1440, and basically employs moveable cold metal fonts and flatbed stone composing. Such machines are capable of printing only one side of a sheet at time at speed less than 1000 copies an hour. This meant less than 1000 copies of a two-sided newspaper in two hours since both sides of the newspaper page had to be printed separately. No prizes for guessing that two and half decades ago, newspapers in Manipur had only a single sheet.

Probably inhibited by the diminutive scale of the newspaper economy of the time, Manipur totally missed out on the linotype instant font making machine, and the hot metal flatbed stone composing, complemented by the flexible flong relief mould technology used for making solid-state rotary casts to be fitted to rotary printing machines, a process known as stereotyping, which was the high points of printing technology in India till the late 1980s before the arrival of offset technology. The state also missed out on the photo-typesetting technology phase which was also the latest in pre-press composing in the late 1980s.

With the onset of digital age in the early 1990s, technology not only continued to transform but also became affordable, and in the mid-1990s offset printing technology made its appearance in the state media scenario. For Manipur then, it was a long jump from a Guttenberg era technology to the latest in the latest in the digital age. With further advancement in the digital technology, alongside also came cable TV channels. Not long after, from sheet-feeder offset machines, media houses began acquiring the web offset machines capable of printing from newsprint spools, lifting not just print quality, but also introducing simultaneous multi-pages printing at exponentially increased speed. In quick successions, colour offset printing technology started entering the scenario and this rapid modernisation continued. Today, Manipur has several presses with state-of-the-art offset printing machines as well as prepress composing facilities, the latest of which is the computer to plate, CTP, image transfer machines. The state also now has a satellite television channel besides several cable TV networks.

Black Tenders

Once upon a time, it was paucity of funds that was the biggest hurdle before the media in Manipur. This also led a fringe section of it to resort to unscrupulous means to make extra earnings. The infamous “Black Tender” as they were referred to, is one of these. In this, this section of the print media, partnered with the infamous contractor-bureaucrat-politician nexus, and for a price, published limited copies of government tender notices under their banners. These copies were also not circulated in the market. The whole purpose was to facilitate completion of the mandatory official formalities for award of tenders to contractors, and hand-picked contractors to win government tenders without competition, therefore at inflated costs, leaving them huge unwarranted profits.

Other than a few who chose to play this dirty game, by and large, the media remained committed to the public cause. However, in the present times, the changing market reality is again shaking up the media scenario in the state radically. In the hi-tech, high-investment media world of today, the activist journalists of yesteryears are witnessing their space shrink. There can be no doubt that the days of the journalist-ruled media, so prominent once, are numbered. Media houses now have slowly but surely transformed into business enterprises, relegating its news dissemination responsibility to a secondary position. The well-known paradox and friction associated with media business in advanced markets in the West in maintaining a balance in the partnership between the business management sections of a media house and its editorial division, is also increasingly becoming the reality here as well. True, the two have to move along for they need each other, but this has to be only as parallel but autonomous units. For the editorial division to sustain, the newspaper’s business must prosper, and for the newspaper business to prosper, a good editorial team is vital. The same is true for the electronic media.

Media as Business

The tendencies in the modern times however has been for the business section to come to not just control, but dominate and dwarf the editorial division. The words of media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, when he was asked what he considered news to be, still rings loud. He infamously said: “news is the stuff that fill the spaces between advertisements.” The same arrogance is reflected by Vineet Kumar Jain, the managing director of India’s biggest and richest media house, Bennet Coleman and Co., the publisher of The Times of India among many others. When he was asked by the reputed American journal what it was like to run a very successful media business, his reply was indicative of the new direction the media industry was heading in India. He said: “We are not in the newspaper business; We are in the advertising business.”

As media scholar Tony Harcup has shown, this control of newspaper editors by proprietors does not have to be overt. The editors do not necessarily have to be told to tow the proprietorial line, but the editors consciously or subconsciously are aware of what would please their business bosses, and without being told, almost always end up trying not to transgress the line that would displease the former. In 2001, when the George Bush administration invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, Harcup points out in “Principles and Practice of Journalism”, that all 153 print and television channels that media tycoon Rupert Murdock owned all over the world, were unanimous in supporting the invasion, a stand that was also very strongly of Murdock’s as well. In such a controversial event as the invasion and destruction of a sovereign nation that shook up the whole world, would 153 so called fiercely independent editors not have differed even a little in their opinions? None of them were personally told to hold the opinion they did, but nonetheless they all ended up writing or saying what would not displease their employer.

Comprador Compromise

This is the danger that Manipur’s media must now also be wary of. It goes without saying that there are always some among the journalist fraternity everywhere, including in the Manipur, who act as power brokers for their business bosses and thereby hasten the blurring of the dividing line that should remain distinct between the management and editorial divisions. These compradors take pride in the borrowed halos and clouts of their employers within their respective organisations, drawing a sense of power from their subservient relationships with their business bosses, and are known for breaking the old and sacred taboo of journalism – the need for the management and journalists to remain at a distance for the sake of editorial independence.

This trend is unfortunate, and in the long run will threaten to rob journalism in the state of the vibrancy it has been known for in the decades that have gone by. But the bright side is, the phasing out of the “proprietor-editors”, and the entry of businessmen owners and professional non-businessmen editors in the field, can infuse a greater degree of professionalism in the media. Growth in business is vital for the uplift of working condition and compensation for journalists, and editors now free from the onerous burden of business management can concentrate and strive to excel in the writing profession they are made for. If the line between the management and editorial divisions can remain sacrosanct and is not allowed to be breached, journalism in the state can grow in health and strength. However, the comprador class in the profession who are part journalist and part manager, have a greater vested interest in defusing this line, if not making it disappear altogether, for they can exercise their borrowed sense of power in this merged territory.

Bonhomie with Power

There are other very grave challenges before the Manipur media other than this gradual fusion of editorial and management territories. One of these is the lure of bonhomie opportunities with State power corridors that editors generally are given by virtue of the unwritten mandate they enjoy as the interlocutors between the masses and those at the helm of State power. There is no gainsaying that the Manipur media is no longer entirely innocent of giving in to this temptation. As a small fraternity, happenings within the media community become known even if they have not been made public. It is hence an open secret as to what kind of expensive gifts or favours several journalists have received or continue to receive from the powers that be. The consequences are also often loudly visible in the very obvious failures to interrogate very prominent wrongs done by those in power.

A few examples will illustrate. A cabinet minister once, probably in an inebriated state, went berserk in the lobby of a high-profile hotel in Imphal, rampaging the hotel wall hangings and flowerpots before all present, which included foreigner hotel guests. This unruly behaviour by a very important functionary of the government could not have missed screaming front page headline spaces or prime time news slots anywhere in a free media environment. However, in this particular case, an unwarranted self-censorship, preceded most likely by phone calls from those who wanted the news buried, resulted in a deafening silence of the media, except for one or two which chose not to bite the bait.

There is also the cases of a scandalous arrest of a news anchor for a Facebook post critical of the ruling party and the State chief minister. The state media again largely remained silent on this episode too. It is quite likely the arrested man was disliked for his irreverence and impudence by the state media fraternity, but journalism is not about likes and dislikes. It is about interpreting and reporting truth. Or to repeat the cliché again “speak truth to power”. The man was first arrested on sedition charges. A court of law however did not see sedition in his offence and released him. The government then re-arrested him under the draconian National Security Act, NSA. Can a Facebook post threaten national security? This was a question the state media chose not to ask. The arrogant overkill of the government was obvious, yet the media remained tame if not deaf and dumb. That a court of law again found no NSA offence in the anchor’s affront and released him should have been a matter of great shame for those at the helm of the media fraternity, but again, as any defanged hound would have done, this was also treated as nothing more than just another run-of-the-mill affair which deserved to be relegated to oblivion at the soonest.

Speak Truth to Power

Here, the media fraternity has to remind itself that the profession is considered the fourth autonomous pillar of democracy precisely because of the role expected of it as an important institution to ensure the checks and balances in the democratic polity remain sharp and effective. True the media should never be partisan to any political party, but without being bitter, it must be ever ready to be the interrogator of power, and not its cheerleader. Its most important role, to reiterate yet again, is to hold power to account.

The last danger I want to highlight is much more fundamental. It has to do with another paradigm shift in the news dissemination technology, namely the advent of the internet. We all know how much this new technology has influenced the profession. The arrival of the social media has actually redefined the role and profile of journalism in a big way. Practically everybody with a smart phone today is a citizen journalist, although this too has its pitfalls, for instance in causing the rise of fake news. Established traditional media organisations have several layers of filters for reportage of news events, starting from the discretion of reporters and then scrutiny of sub-editors, news editors and finally the editors. This is quite unlike in the social media, which is virtually a free for all space. A majority of what the “citizen journalists” post is unfiltered raw information, often misinformation, which need to be taken with a pinch of salt. All conscientious readers need to be reminded that they must crosscheck before accepting these as facts.

The internet medium, like a huge juggernaut, is taking the world of journalism by storm. Especially in the advanced West, the threat to the traditional media’s existence, both print and electronic, is already felt in a tangible way. Circulation and viewership are dropping across the board, but much more alarming than the depleting circulation is the rate at which advertisements are migrating to the internet, away from the domain of traditional media. The fact is, on the internet medium, even the advertisements are interactive. Advertisers who advertise their products for instance on Google or Facebook, know how many have seen their advertisements. They also pay per click on their advertisements and not a fixed amount as in the traditional media, so advertising on internet has become much more cost effective for them. Not only this, purchases resulting out of advertisements on the internet is coming to be significantly higher than those resulting out of advertisements placed in the traditional media.

Internet Challenge

Again, in this age of data mining, personal data collected from social media are bought and sold in the internet marketplace. From the browsing history of every individual internet user, say again on Google or Facebook, online retailers such as Amazon get to know the likes and inclinations of each of their potential buyer. Hence, if somebody has shown an interest in shoes, the next time he or she opens another web page, in all likelihood advertisements of related products and accessories will begin to be targeted at her, raising the likelihood she will click one of them or even purchase the product thus advertised. Against this background, newspapers like the The Guardian London and The New York Times have in fact set themselves timelines for winding up their print editions to find their spaces in the internet marketplace, unfortunately already dominated by the likes of Google and Facebook. Likewise, iconic newspaper Washington Post has sold off, and the once omnipresent Newsweek Magazine has shut down. In the days ahead, there will probably be many more casualties of this new era technological shift.

In India too, we are witnessing the manner many well-known TV channels are in the doldrums because their viewers and advertisers are now preferring the YouTube and other similar mediums. Even the world of cinema is beginning to be influenced in a profound way by the new internet paradigm. Reports from the film industry are evidence that in deciding cinematic formats when a new cinematic project is launched, the trends in smartphone dimensions is beginning to be a factor, acknowledging the fact that more and more cinema fans now watch their movies on their smartphones. This is also why, as all of us would have noticed, new models of high-end TV sets are uncannily beginning to resemble the dimension of the smartphone.

The existential threats posed by these waves in the new internet paradigm will probably be delayed for backwater places like Manipur, but let there be no doubt they will arrive without fail sooner than later. The media here must therefore be prepared for this tsunami. Someday soon it will be here to either devastate or else lift the profession to newer heights, depending on how ready and well-prepared those behind the media enterprise in the state as a collective, journalists and owners alike, are to meet the challenge as and when it confronts them. To borrow an idea from author Aldus Huxley, what is in store for the state media can either turn out to be a brave new world or a grave new challenge.

This article was written for the anniversary commemoration souvenir journal 2020 of the All Manipur Working Journalists Union, AMWJU.

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