Upper-caste Domination in India’s Mainstream Media and Its Extension in Digital Media
Empirical data from the last two-and-a-half decades tells stories of upper-caste hegemony and lack of lower-caste representation in Indian media. After the advent of digital media, and especially after the proliferation of social media and content-sharing platforms, Dalit–Bahujan professionals and many amateur journalists started their own websites and video channels, and Dalit–Bahujan intellectuals have their footprints on social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. The rising phenomenon of Dalit–Bahujan media in the digital space and their success or failure in democratising Indian media is examined.
Dilip Mandal (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Former Managing Editor, India Today Hindi Magazine, and Executive Committee Member, Editors Guild of India.
Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse. Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires, and needs. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion.
— Jurgen Habermas (1991: 89), while discussing the basic principle of discourse ethics and arguing that such rules are not “mere conventions,” but “inescapable presuppositions.”
Public requires true representation, access and membership, of all sections of the society. When this does not happen, it only becomes a mean of masking private interest … Whether a space or organisation is truly public, truly universal, whether the whole people are involved or not, can only be ascertained by asking questions about such (concrete and partial) identities … They are specific to specific society, one would not ask about caste identities in the US, or whether the member is “Black,” or “White” or “Hispanic” in India.
— Gail Omvedt (2003: 131), while elaborating on the ideas of Jotirao Phule in the context of Brahmin caste domination in Sarvajanik Sabha in the city of Pune.
The question of lack of lower-caste representation and corresponding domination of the upper castes in newsrooms in India has been a subject matter of academic and public scrutiny since long. The first known attempt to investigate caste composition of newsrooms in India was done in 1996, when B N Uniyal, a journalist associated with the Pioneer, showed in his report that there was not a single Dalit journalist in Delhi at the time of his study.
This study was done with a limited purpose, as Uniyal was not doing any academic or detailed survey to find out the composition of different caste groups in Indian newsrooms. His goal was only to find out whether there was any Dalit journalist in Delhi or not. This was necessitated as the then South Asia Bureau Chief of the Washington Post, Kenneth J Cooper (1996) wanted to put the views of a Dalit journalist in one of his reports but was unable to find such a journalist himself. Cooper requested Uniyal to help him find a Dalit journalist in Delhi. It is interesting that the first inquiry into the caste representation in Indian media came from an African American journalist.
Then, in 2006, Yogendra Yadav, Anil Chamaria, and Jitendra Kumar extended the scope of inquiry of social composition of the newsrooms in Delhi. Their survey analysed the important organisational positions in the media houses. These are the organisational positions that take decisions regarding selection and rejection of news items, and the display, tone, and tenor of the coverage. The survey revealed that “Hindu Twice Born Upper Caste (Dwij or Savarna) Men” dominate the higher positions in Indian media. This social group accounts for around 8% of India’s population, a gross estimation based on the 1931 Census (castes have never been enumerated after that). They occupy as many as 71% top positions in the media. Out of 315 key decision-makers, not a single person belonged to the Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Scheduled Tribes (STs). The proportion of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) was as low as 4%. The non-OBC intermediate castes are also under-represented (Chamaria et al 2006).
The lack of diversity in the Indian media has also been reported by media researcher Robin Jeffrey. He noted that “there is not a single Dalit newsreader on any television channel” (Jeffrey 2005). He put forward a question: “When will we get a national Dalit weekly, doing what The Chicago Defender did for African-Americans from the 1920s to the 1950s?” The Chicago Defender was one of the leading publications, which has gone completely online now. At the height of its popularity, it had a robust print order and was considered to be quite a powerful and influential newspaper. It must be underlined that the US has a tradition of popular Black publications and the “Negro Press”
In this context, Jeffrey (2001) mentioned that Dalit organisations submitted a memorandum—“End Apartheid in Indian Media—Democratise Nation’s Opinion”—to the Press Council of India (PCI) in 1998. These organisations demanded that the PCI should ensure that by the end of 2005 the caste composition of the Indian newsrooms was in proportion to the numbers of different social groups. They also demanded that there should be a National Commission for Democracy in the media.
Media researcher Pramod Ranjan (2009) has drawn similar conclusions while studying the social composition of media newsrooms in Patna, Bihar. His survey highlighted the disproportionately high representation of the “Hindu Upper Caste Male” in the city’s media. The representation of the upper castes in Patna’s media is as high as 90%. He attempted to trace the historical background of the problem and concluded that this situation existed since the inception of print media in Bihar.
The same situation was observed in the neighbouring state of Jharkhand, which has 26.3% ST population according to the Census of 2001. The state editions of two national Hindi dailies in Ranchi did not have a single ST journalist. Another Hindi newspaper that was started from Ranchi had only two ST reporters (Anand 2015). At the decision-making positions, there is not a single ST or SC journalist.
The latest study to find out the social composition of the newsrooms was conducted by Oxfam–NewsLaundry (2019). This report again shows the domination of upper castes in Indian newsroom, including television, print, and digital media. Out of the 121 top positions analysed under the study, 106 were shown to be occupied by upper-caste journalists. None of them belongs to the SCs and STs.
The report states that
Three out of every four anchors of flagship debates are upper caste. No one belongs to the SC (Dalit), the ST (Tribal or Adivasis), or the OBC. For over 70% of their flagship debate shows, news channels draw the majority of the panelists from the upper castes. Not more than 5% of all articles in English newspapers are written by Dalits and Tribal. Hindi newspapers fare slightly better at around 10%. Over half of those writing on issues related to caste in Hindi and English newspapers are upper caste. Around 72% of bylined articles on news websites are written by people by the upper castes.
The situation is quite serious, if not alarming as, according to the Census of 2011, the SCs are 16.6% of India’s population and the STs constitute 8.6%. According to the estimate of the second Backward Class Commission, popularly known as the Mandal Commission, the OBC population is 52%. The Oxfam–NewsLaundry report shows that these three social groups are almost non-existent in leading positions in Indian media.
These reports showed that there is a visible lack of social and caste diversity in Indian media and it has been largely an upper-caste domain. I want to argue that even after the advent of digital and social media, the Indian media space largely remained upper-caste dominated. The age-old caste domination and hegemony has been reproduced even in the sphere of digital and social media.
In the current investigation, I ask the following questions. What is the importance of diversity in media in a hierarchical society like India? After almost one-and-a-half decades of India’s tryst with digital and social media, how much progress has been made in terms of diversity in the media space? Which social group controls digital and social media?
A media diversified in terms of ownership, workforce, and content is imperative for a vibrant democracy and substantive public sphere. In the following sections, examples from global debates are evoked to understand the Indian media. There was a hope that digital media and social media would create a technological rupture and will translate the media space into a democratic and egalitarian institution. However, I have argued that the digital media looks like a replica of the conventional media both in terms of class and caste domination. Finally, in the conclusion, I shall discuss my entire thesis in brief and argue that change in the medium will not necessarily change the caste hegemony in the Indian media landscape.
Importance of Media Diversity
Mass media plays an important role in the functioning of large democracies. It not only provides information and entertainment, but also plays a central role in the functioning of democracies, enabling discussion and debate on vital issues of the society. In that sense, the media has a role in shaping the public sphere. Public sphere, in an ideal sense, includes all the places and forums where issues of importance to a political community are discussed and debated, and where information essential for citizens’ participation in public life is presented (Habermas 1989).
The Habermasian idea of the public sphere is “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed.” In a perfect public sphere, “access is guaranteed to all citizens with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions about matters of general interest.” For Habermas, newspapers and magazines, radio and television are the media of the public sphere. Habermas noted that with corporate media–ruled media spaces, the public sphere cannot function in a proper way. Big corporations create media monopolies and dominate the debates and discussions to further their interests.
Gail Omvedt (2003) raises the concept of public sphere in the context of India and argues that “public” requires the representation of all sections of the society. She draws her idea from Jotirao Phule (1891) to say that if an institution or organisation does not allow representation to all sections of the society, then it becomes a mask to safeguard private interests. Such institutions are not truly public, even if they claim to be.
The systematic study of (lack of) diversity in the newsrooms is a comparatively new topic in the academic discourse. This issue found prominence after the racial riots of 1964–67 in Detroit and other industrial cities of the United States (US). The Kerner Commission, constituted by the Federal Government in 1967 to study the causes of the violence, had produced a voluminous report on the issues related to racial violence.
The Kerner report delivered an indictment of “white society” for isolating and neglecting African Americans. In its report, the commission also underlined that the lack of diversity in American newsrooms had resulted in biased coverage of the issues related to the Black population and ghettos. According to the commission, this was one of the prime reasons for the alienation of the Black population and the resultant violence. The Kerner Commission concluded:
The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed. Slights and indignities are part of the Negro’s daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls “the white press”—a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America. (Kerner et al 1968)
After the severe indictment on the racial hiring practices of the media, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) had set a “diversity goal” to make newsrooms as diverse as the American society was. Similar processes were going on in the other spheres to increase the employment of the minority groups. The US newspapers have yet to achieve that goal, but the situation has changed for the better as the number of journalists from minority communities has shown a rising trend. From 1978 onwards, the ASNE has been producing annual media diversity reports and every year this body of editors dedicates itself to the diversity goal.
The problem of lack of diversity in Indian newsrooms and the lack of SC/ST/OBC journalists is one that has continued despite the emergence of lower castes in electoral politics in the late 20th century. Even the transition of the Indian economy from a socialist to a capitalist–liberalised phase has not changed the upper-caste domination in Indian media. There is a strong upper-caste bias in the mainstream media content. This is more visible when caste is at the centre of the news, such as in the case of reservations, the caste census, or the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Dalits having their own media platform is not a new idea or phenomenon. In 1920, B R Ambedkar started the publication of Mooknayak. Ambedkar further published four more periodicals during his lifetime: Bahishkrit Bharat, Janata, Samata, and Prabuddha Bharat. His most successful disciple, and the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Kanshi Ram also emphasised having a media house of the party and published a newspaper: Bahujan Sanghatak. There has always been a separate category of Dalit literature, at least since the early 20th century. There are hundreds of book publishers and distributors who deal exclusively in this domain. Dalit literature is more popular in Marathi, Hindi, and Punjabi languages. But these and many other similar efforts never became a part of the so-called mainstream media in terms of circulation, reach, and revenue, as well as in terms of their impact.
Another problem with the legacy media is that it is mostly owned by big corporates. The ownership structure of the mainstream media further makes the industry undemocratic and discriminatory. As the legacy media platforms—print, television and radio—need a high volume of investment and also require complex organisational structures, the threshold to own and run such media is not within the reach of ordinary citizenry. Ben Begdikian (1988) has demonstrated how five big corporations own almost all of the US media space. Media monopoly and cross-media ownership have been a matter of concern for the policymakers in India as well. Telecom regulator TRAI (2008) had published a consultation paper in this regard, but strangely, this matter has failed to become a matter of academic scrutiny. Unlike most other democracies, in India we do not have any cross-media ownership regulation. In India, we have media houses that run newspapers, magazines, television news and entertainment channels, DTH platforms and cable networks, radio stations, and now they also own digital platforms. This has created uninterrupted media monopolies in India.
These corporations run the industry with the sole aim to maximise their profits. According to Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (1994), there is a propaganda model, in which ownership, revenue structure, and sourcing of the content play a dominant role in shaping the media. Mass media, and especially news media, has two separate sets of customers: the audience and the advertisers (Tunstall 1970). Media corporations in the West and also in India earn larger amounts of revenue through advertising (FICCI 2019).
Since advertisers always want to reach the class that can consume their products and ideas, the media too always tries to curate its content in such a manner that it is palatable to the rich and middle-class audiences. In the Indian paradigm, this translates into exclusion of the poor and rural masses and of the content related to them.
As Indian media is advertisement-driven, which is the case in almost all democratic countries, there is a bias for the content that is suitable to the upper strata since they are the people whom the advertisers want to have in their media plan. Since the government is the biggest advertiser in Indian media, many a time media houses try not to antagonise the government, even if it results in publishing something that is not in the interests of the masses.
Thus, the problem of lack of diversity in media and its content has both caste and class aspects.
Advent of Digital Media
While teaching a course on new media in New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Mass Communication, I often used to encourage students to express themselves on blogs and other social media platforms. My common refrain used to be that even if you have only `10 in your pocket and there is a cyber cafe around (this was in 2011 and smartphones were a novelty in those days), you can still do journalism. I used to tell them that you might not be a journalist associated with any legacy media company, but with a blog, podcast, or video you can still reach to millions, at least theoretically. The internet, at least in its early years, had a promise to be a democratic medium. So, the euphoria around it was not completely misplaced.
This euphoria at that time was shared by many scholars, who were perplexed with the Leviathan-like structures of big media corporations and were worried that corporate-owned big media are weakening the democratic discourse. With the arrival of the internet, and especially after social media gained popularity, many of the scholars were under the impression that as there were no apparent gatekeepers in this sphere, these platforms were going to act as a public sphere where people would be sharing their views on issues of public importance.
As Ann Cooper (2008) has said, anyone with an internet connection could do journalism. She narrated an incident when she, as a member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, decided to take up the issue of the arrest of five Chinese bloggers despite them not being associated with any media organisations. This was a big departure in a sense that it had broadened the definition of journalists.
Scott Grant (2011) argues that
freedom of the press now belongs not just to those who own printing presses, but also to those who use cell phones, video cameras, blogging software, and other technology to deliver news and views to the world.
He further says that citizen journalists and bloggers are just filling the gaps as the majority of news businesses are taken over by big corporations and this has led to intense focus on profit.
When the era of blogs and social media platforms ushered in, there was euphoria, that the media matrix of four—big capital, veto power of the advertisers, dominant ideology, and government control—can now be challenged by millions of nobodies. My hypothesis at that time (2010–11) was that the voiceless underclass of India will finally express itself in a big way in the digital space as they have countless stories to tell and the financial threshold or the bar to own a media platform has been lowered.
Ten years down the line, I have been proved both right and wrong. I have been proved right because now millions of people, many of them from the underprivileged sections of the society, have started writing and uploading content in the form of videos and photographs on digital and social media. As the cost of mobile data has gone down with the aggressive data plans introduced by Reliance-owned Jio and the price of entry-level smartphones has also been reduced, there are now a plethora of social media users creating all sorts of content. It is now easier for Dalits and other subaltern youths to start their own Facebook page and YouTube channels. These digital platforms are getting good traction and they are trying to fill the gap created by the upper-caste-dominated mainstream media.
There are at least 10 YouTube channels having more than five lakh subscribers that claim to post videos related to Dalit–Bahujan (for the purpose of this article, Dalit–Bahujan is a political category consisting of SCs, STs, and OBCs) issues (Table 1).
How to make sense of this interesting phenomenon of Dalit–Bahujan media? Why are Dalits and lower castes subscribing to such media outlets? The “About Us” sections of some of these YouTube channels read as follows.
National Dastak: The mainstream media caters only to the requirements of the elites and it ignores the needs and aspirations of the marginalised sections of the society like—SCs, STs, women, minorities, farmers and laborers.
Bahujan TV: It will propagate the ideas of Jyotiba Phule, Shahuji Maharaj and Dr Ambedkar and at the same time also strive to end the superstitions and irrational beliefs.
National India News: The mainstream media silence the voices of toiling and struggling masses. It claims that Indian media functions as the enemy of the Bahujans. There are some benevolent voices in the mainstream media that works only as a camouflage to push its upper caste agenda.
Prior to the digital revolution, having a media house was a mammoth exercise that involved huge money. In the digital age, the bar to start a media outlet has been lowered, especially in terms of finances. Shambhu Kumar Singh, the editor of National Dastak, says that
it only requires a smartphone, a tripod, a freely available editing app and internet connection to run an online video channel. This has created an opportunity for the Dalit Bahujan youths to start media outlets. (personal interview, May 2019, New Delhi)
But I have been proved wrong on the other count. I was under the impression that the digital and social media space will be a pluralistic–democratic place where all voices will be heard and debated, thus making it a perfect public sphere. But in India, access to digital media is not equal to all communities. The Indian public sphere is quite hegemonic and distorted, and the same structure has been reproduced in the realm of digital media. Many of us thought that this lacuna will go or at least be mitigated after the advent of digital and social media. But those optimists are now feeling dejected and disillusioned.
Who Controls Digital Media?
By the time digital media was ushered in, the legacy media already had the content-generating structures in place and had also built a rapport with the audiences over the years. They were in a better position to grab the new space created by digital media, which they came to dominate in no time. The legacy media became the foremost publisher in the digital space as well. As they were already producing news for television and/or print platforms, they just hired some people, created new teams and tasked them with uploading the same content on their websites and their digital media platforms were ready to go! For them, the digital media was just an extension of their news operation. They saved on money also, as the print and television reporters were asked to file copies and videos for the digital arm as well. This made their digital media operations quite efficient and cost-effective.
Table 2 provides a snapshot of the digital might of some of the legacy media platforms. This is not at all a comprehensive list as some of these outlets have many offshoot platforms covering different states or topics such as sports, movies, astrology, etc, and are also drawing good numbers. Dalit–Bahujan digital entities are in no position to pose any challenge to the legacy media companies in terms of reach, revenue, and impact. The combined might of the top 10 Dalit–Bahujan media platforms cannot match the might of the numerous platforms of India Today, or Zee, or Times of India groups. It is not only about the numbers. These legacy media companies have built the infrastructure and also the trust quotient that cannot be created in a short span.
Ownership is also an important factor in the media diversity debate as it plays an important role in deciding the content. Robert L Johnson (1997), founder of Black Entertainment Television, argues: “We must make sure that in this rush to push technology in the hands of a few, we do not forget that the First Amendment can be lost if diversity is denied.” He asserts that diversity includes the ability of the minorities, provided they are willing, to own media.
In this context, if we check the ownership of large digital media conglomerates, we notice lack of diversity. These are some of the large media platforms dominating the digital and social media space (Table 3).
Even the non-legacy and emerging digital media companies like the Wire, Print and Quint are mostly controlled by Brahmin and Bania communities. The journalists and editors associated with legacy media companies are immensely popular on social media and have become important influencers. It is not surprising that the top 20 most followed Indian journalists on Twitter are all from upper castes (Table 4).
Out of the 20 most followed journalists in India, 19 belong to Hindu upper castes, while seven of them are women. Rubika Liyaquat is the only minority journalist in the list. There is no one from the SC, ST, and OBC categories. The list is dominated by English and Hindi journalists. There is no one from the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Bangla, Marathi, Gujarati, or Odiya news space. It implies that the upper echelons of Indian journalism is a sociolinguistic ghetto dominated by a single caste group.
Ambedkar (2014) has said it about the Brahmins (true for other upper castes also) in the Annihilation of Caste, “the Brahmins form the intellectual class of the Hindus. It is not only an intellectual class, but it is a class which is held in great reverence by the rest of the Hindus.” Hence, it is not surprising that the upper-caste journalists and editors rule the roost in the legacy media. The same structure of domination is being reproduced in social media.
It is true that all popular social media platforms are free for the users and these platforms do not put up any barriers for anyone. But unhindered and universal accesses to these platforms do not make social media a democratic space. Rather, social media is quite hierarchical and creates divisions between the users. In that sense, freedom of speech does not necessarily mean that there will be equality of speech.
In social media, hierarchies are created by the process of verification. It is similar to a medal or trophy that is given only to some of the users. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube give special badges to verified users. Twitter has never disclosed the method or the parameter for verifying an account. It announced, in 2017, that the verification process is on hold. But, it has never stopped verifying accounts.
Verified accounts generally get more traction and response because of the badge of authenticity. Usually, the verified handles start the conversations and other users follow them and, in the process, amplify them to the point that they become the dominant, oft-quoted narratives. As social media companies have decided to keep the process of verification subjective and arbitrary, and because it also involves human intervention, it can be argued that it may lead to prejudices and biases. Another major lacuna associated with social media is that it allows the users to pay money to increase the reach of their posts. It implies that money can be used to boost any idea or product on social media.
Upper-caste domination in Indian media spaces continues even after the advent of digital and social media. The SCs, STs, and OBCs have launched a number of digital media platforms, but they are just trying to fill the gap created by the upper-caste-dominated media. Dalit–Bahujan media is proliferating, but these platforms are still at the margins of the various discourses dominating the Indian society. The saddest part is that in India, we do not have anything resembling the Chicago Defender in the print, television or digital space. After almost one-and-a-half decades of India’s tryst with digital and social media, we are now in a position to say—with the empirical data to prove it—that the upper-caste domination in legacy media has reproduced itself in digital media. The hope of a democratic digital media appears to be a myth.
Courtesy : Economic and Poltical Weekly