India is a far more animated – and honest – democracy than the US. Political propaganda through a national television network is not India's forte – ironically, that belongs to 'the land of the free'. Because America seems to be moving towards an almost regimented political correctness, it becomes difficult to gauge what they really think about issues. By contrast, here in India, although corruption is institutionalised and general chaos prevails, somehow people behave exactly the way they are. So chairs are thrown in parliament and laundry gets washed in public. In part, of course, the credit goes to the freedom our media enjoys.
So, when the DMK contemplates launching a new channel -- because consequent to the Karunanidhi-Maran dispute it is losing valuable air time -- it is adding to the already overcrowded airwaves in Tamil Nadu that are almost entirely monopolised by political party owned (or backed) channels. So the AIADMK has Jaya TV, the DMK had Sun TV (till the split with Dayanidhi Maran) and the PMK has Makkal TV.
Tamil Nadu type developments in the media are a cause for serious concern. What happens when government or a political/private player starts to dictate news content? The ready example we have is US and it is worth exploring it to understand the dynamics. In 1996 Fox News was launched by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. It has grown to become the country's most popular cable news channel, mainly for its decidedly opinionated news coverage. Although Fox mottos read 'Fair and Balanced' and 'We Report, You Decide', it is in fact, anything but. Liberals have widely accused Fox for operating as a mouthpiece for the Republican government. Proof, they said, came the from the internal memos that were leaked by someone in the organization. The memos highlighted the channel's agenda-driven stance on issues, including the Iraq War which, read, "It began Monday morning (NY time) with the US and Iraqi military surrounding Fallujah. We will cover this hour by hour today, explaining repeatedly why it is happening. It won't be long before some people start to decry the use of 'excessive force'. We won't be among that group..." Fox News also painted the world in black and white, something that appealed to the American viewer. For those who knew no better, they accepted opinion as fact, and support for the Iraq war increased because any anti-war sentiment was equated with anti-nationalist sentiment.
In the same vein, imagine if politically backed news channels in India started to broadcast agenda-driven news. While different channels in Tamil Nadu may applaud the ruling party's policies or trash them, depending on its ownership, the matter could get dangerous if party agenda driven subjects began to focus on communalism, casteism, or secession. And like in the US, if a national channel in India were to be launched by a vested interest, the scale of misinformation, especially in a country where the percentage of uneducated and impressionable people is high, would be all the more devastating.
The scenario is not far-fetched. Consider this, in its annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index, 2005, Reporters Without Borders found the US placed 44th out of 167 countries. India was placed at 106, Nepal at 160 and Pakistan at 150. In 2006 the US had moved down to 53 while India had performed marginally better at 103. Nepal remained at 159, and Pakistan dropped to 157. Thus if the world's sole superpower has only the 53 rd freest media in the world, subversion of the Indian media is a distinct possibility.
Political ownership of the media always proves problematic because objectivity can be easily lost. When a political party publishes a newsletter, it makes abundantly clear that party's stand on issues and events. Even in a newspaper, the editorials take stands on issues, although technically, the front page reflects the news of the day. But if a television channel does not openly admit to its political affiliation, it could nevertheless editorialise news bulletin to promote specific political ideology while presenting the news. Take, for example, that while introducing a segment on how American movies were popular in the Arab world, a Fox News anchor said "They hate what we stand for, so why do they love our movies so much?". Instantly the difference between news and opinion is blurred. The danger is in the delivery of content, because unfortunately, people enjoy sensationalism, so that if a media organisation is not inherently responsible or particular about how it portrays events, misinformation and biases take root.
Another reason why political party backed television in particular is worrying for India is because the millions who cannot read rely on the radio and TV for information. And people trust what they see, and there is plenty of room for manipulation. In such a scenario propaganda will turn our vibrant, albeit often messy democracy, into a country of pod-people.
On the other hand, top down censorship is always easy to identify. If the government were to censor certain topics or suppress news, the media would be up in arms. During the Emergency, the Indian Express carried a blank editorial in protest! But, it gets trickier when one is not sure of the mandate that may drive a media house, especially if the accuracy of the news is not questioned and assumed to be true.
Legally, anyone can own a television channel. And if political parties in India are jumping into the fray, whether they admit it or not, media watchdogs and regulators are bound to monitor them. In fact, I&B ministry has a Broadcasting Code to ensure just this, because as Jim Morrison of the Doors said, "Whoever controls the media, controls the mind."