In times of great deceit, as George Orwell said, speaking the truth is a revolutionary act. These are times of deceit and Manipur has proven to be a front runner thanks to our politicians for whom it is clear there is nothing as loyalty. They have also blatantly and shamelessly redefined leadership, both in substance and spirit, to mean not leading the people by being the beacon light for the masses in their struggle to find the path to individual and alongside it, common salvation, and are instead scrambling to be the favourite sycophants of their masters in Delhi in the hope that they get to keep the choicest slices of the crumbs from the tables of their masters. The tunes of their songs have changed and would do so again for any number of times, depending on who gets to be at the drums in Delhi. For the moment it is the BJP, therefore, on the eve of another Assembly election, the stampede by a great deal of our politicians to be in the saffron party’s favour. Tomorrow if the colour the flags in the corridors of power changes in Delhi, our homegrown politicians too will begin to see and love that colour, as if this was their deep longing from childhood, just as easily as they are switching sides now. Salute to anybody who choose to belong to any party out of belief and conviction in its ideology, regardless of whether we agree or not with that ideology. What is most repulsive on the other hands are the ideological derelicts with no scruples about drifting into any political camp of any colour just to serve their narrow and selfish gains of being on the side of whoever is likely to emerge the winner and not strive to have their own ideologies win even when the odds are against them. Although this was expected of politicians who are in politics not out of any sense of calling, but for the lust of wealth and power, this absence of a strong and independent political leadership class cannot but bring with it a grim sense of foreboding of a listless and vegetative future, bereft of the lights of creative living for everybody. The uneasy truth is, this cowardly outlook of rudderless drift has also now come to corrupt a great many, not just Manipur’s brand of politicians.
The media too has been exposed to this dreary atmosphere and sure enough an alarming many have fallen to lure of lucre, but happily it is also noticed there are many young journalists who have kept the fire of idealism and belief in the strength and importance of the profession. It was interesting to see this on November 16 again as another National Press Day has fleet by. Despite their lowly salaries and less secure jobs, many still have kept their commitment to speak truth to power. November 16 is the day in 1966, when the Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial institution meant to arbiter press freedom and ethics came into being.
As in every year, this was an occasion for media fraternity in the Northeast, as in other parts of the country, to sit together for stock taking. The younger lot were the more optimistic, while a measure of disillusionment among the mid-career scribes was also expected. There can be no argument that compared to government jobs, the media profession, like most other enterprises functioning in the open market, fall far short in salary and job security, especially given the fact that the market in the region is extremely small, with little or no big advertisements forthcoming. Although the working conditions of journalists in India’s booming metropolises are better off, their working conditions too by and large are behind government and other corporate jobs. Making matters worse have been the ravages of COVID which took its fair share of toll on the media, not just in terms of personal tragedies but also job losses. While many small media organisations with already meagre incomes did not manage to keep afloat during the prolonged crisis, even the biggest and riches among them resorted to job retrenchments, cuts in salaries and perks and even closures of entire satellite editions. But these are hard times and pandemics like natural disasters are unpredictable and beyond targeted blames, though some did relish resorting to this game. In any case, it helped nobody.
Despite the pandemic and all the gloom that it brought, it is heartening to see at all the places I was present on the eve as well as during the media day, there is still a flicker of the rare sense of optimism and faith in its own universally acknowledged importance as a vital pivot in the upkeep of democracy’s health among the profession’s loyal soldiers. Debates also dwelled on the grave challenges posed by the advent of new age media which has made virtually everybody with a smartphone a journalist, at least to the extent that anybody can become a witness of news events empowered to report and spread the information. Has this depleted the importance of those full time in the profession. When the idea of citizen journalists first dawned and subsequently exploded, it indeed was thought that the days of journalism as a profession was numbered, but after the initial euphoria, and the news consuming world having experienced the shortcomings of the anticipated revolution, things are settling back where the importance as far as news identification and dissemination is concerned, journalists trained and committed to the profession can have no real replacement. This however does not mean there are no challenges left ahead and things would be back to where they were. It only means the paradigm of journalism has changed and it would be for journalism and journalists to enter the new paradigm and make it their own. It is also true that the new paradigm has new and powerful players such as Google and Facebook who are the foundation for what has come to be known as “social media”. They now command the internet advertisement market and unless new laws to break their monopoly come about, it is not going to be simple. As of today, any media player entering the internet space and launching their own websites will have little advertisements coming to them directly and therefore will have enlist with these existing big players to get some shares. Advertisers will book advertisement space with Google (or other platforms such as Amazon) and Google will then use their algorithm to determine the clientele of the websites subscribing to them, and place advertisements from its stock with the websites accordingly. When a client clicks on any of the advertisement from these websites, or a purchases result out of the clicks, Google will charge the advertiser, and from this payment Google will give a small percentage to the website owners from where the advertisements were clicked. In other words, Google gets the major chunk of payments for advertisements from websites subscribing to them, and the websites themselves remain as their subordinate partners getting only what Google apportions for them. Till a new law or laws straighten this dynamic, news organisations wishing to enter the internet will remain as second fiddles in this market.
The other challenge, more relevant to small regional media is, what must its relations be with the governments in their respective states. Since they do not get enough private advertisements, government advertisements are a big source of sustenance for them. The danger often is for a patron client relationship to develop. While this is a very big problem, it is also true that there have always been media professionals and organisations who preferred independence even if it meant losing the resources of government as patrons. This is another room for optimism. Hence, though some always end up sold out, the regional media, Manipur included, by and large have been able to hold up their adversarial role visa vis the government. This has often been misread as a basic anti-establishment characteristic and an inclination for negativism. This is naïve, for this position of the media ultimately has the best interest of the establishment. It is, to use a cliche, a demonstration of the mechanics of a free society’s unwritten laws of checks and balances. Hence, the government and the media may not stand on the same side of the debate but let there be no quarrel over the fact that they seek in their own ways to see the established moral and temporal orders strengthened.
On the immediate morrow of another National Press Day then, here are two cheers for the media. The third we will reserve till the day it is able to shame the turncoat brand of politics which has overwhelmed our societies, Manipur in particular, and induce them to imbibe a new sense of loyalty to ideology and commitment to independent thinking, therefore become inclined to commit themselves to charting out a path to dignified life for everybody.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author