There was a time when being earnest or sincere was rated as a virtue and it did not matter very much whether this came with attendant rewards, something akin to the Bhagvad Gita's dictum of Karmaniyevadhikaraste mam phaleshu kadachana' the age-old message of doing one's duty for its own sake and never for its fruits. But the times they have-a-changed and what has become of paramount importance is that of becoming an opinion-maker and an earnest one at that!
Who but an opinion-maker could influence Britain's Tony Blair into doing a complete volte-face with regard to a referendum on the European Union? After repeatedly saying that he was not for it, Tony has now suddenly called for a vote on the proposed constitution. And all because of the clout of one man, Rupert Murdoch, who has the power to influence opinion through his widely-circulated British newspapers, The Times and The Sun, as also his stake in Sky TV. Murdoch who, for his own reasons, has not favored the idea of a united Europe, made it known in a recent television interview, that Blair could not take for granted the support from his media conglomerate and that it was capable of shifting its loyalties to the Conservative party, if the government did not go along with it. The Sun, which famously took credit for the Labour party's landslide victory in the 1997 elections, has been continuously running a campaign in support of the referendum at the behest of one man, the Euro-sceptic, Murdoch, who earnestly used his influence to change the opinion of the British government on an issue of paramount importance to the whole of Europe.
Closer home, there are many such opinion makers and media barons, who have influenced, and continue to influence, public opinion through the channels under their control. The most recent examples of these are the Exit Polls that have been made public after the first phase of polling. Five different surveys have come up from five different media sources, leading the political parties to ask for a ban on these polls, expressing the fear that these motivated results might influence the next round of voting. The most interesting suggestion came from a newspaper reader who suggested that all these media agencies pool their resources to get the most accurate results in the future!
Putting aside the facetiousness, the issue at stake here is that of the manipulation of public opinion. With 24-hour news channels holding sway, more and more people are glued to their television sets (or did someone wisely name it the idiot-box?!), resulting in them swallowing a lot of the stuff that is dished out, without really verifying whether there could be another side to the whole story conveyed so convincingly over one's favorite channel.
The Iraq War revealed to the world the concept of embedded journalism, where popular opinion was influenced by what the occupying forces wanted to put out for public consumption. Little wonder then that the public favorite's alternative became the Al-Jazeera channel, which showed it like it was, with none of the sanitizing that the American media indulged in. Contrary to belief, the popularity of this channel has extended beyond the Arab world to include the West, and many in India have also asked their cable operators to make this option available. In the case of the present insurgency in Iraq, it is Al-Jazeera and the work of independent journalists like Rahul Mahajan, with his dispatches titled Empire Notes, who are giving the lie to what the American administration would like the rest of the world to believe.
With the media in the grip of big advertisers and business barons (this is as true for India as it is for America), it is they who have the power to make opinions, and even decide if a certain piece of news should be kept out, if detrimental to the interest of its supporter or owner. One example of this was one newspaper in Bangalore that kept away from reporting on the Cauvery riots, which were a disastrous consequence of the then Chief Minister's faulty decision-making. The reason they did so was because this CM had wisely married off his daughter to one of the owners of this newspaper. A marriage of convenience and one of great benefit to both the CM and the newspaper!
In more recent times, some examples of big-business backed media are Vijay Mallya's UB Group-owned newspaper, The Asian Age (this was the paper in which the Bofors story was resurrected, just after Rahul Gandhi made his bid for a seat in Amethi), and the Jain-controlled Times of India group. Stories are rife about how some newspapers charge a fee to put in a plug in the form of a lead article in the editorial page of a newspaper. As this area is sacrosanct and most readers lay great store by it, this is the most blatant misuse of a respected area.
What could be the alternative? Public service broadcasting, as is the case with the BBC? But even the Beebs has taken a beating after what happened with the Kelly affair, and there is every possibility that Tony Blair may press his advantage when the administration of the BBC comes up for review. The internet is probably an up and coming option where writers can write fearlessly without the editor's ill-motivated pencil or the publisher's business interest coming in the way of an earnest, honest piece of writing!