No Issues: a recession of the intellect


There is little in the media that informs our audiences that we are part of the greatest economic crisis the world has seen in 80 years, the worst since the Great Depression.

At least two major newspapers have informed their desks that the word "recession" is not to be used in connection with India. Recession is something that happens in the United States, not here. The word stands exiled from the editorial lexicon. If a rather disastrous situation has somehow to be indicated, the term "downturn" or "slowdown" will suffice – and it is to be used with some discretion. But not recession. That would upset the happy buying mood so vital amongst media audiences for the economy to come out of, er, um, well, recession.

This don’t-worry-be-happy decree throws up both funny and tragic situations. Several times, the same and other publications in this denial mode sport headlines telling us "the worst is over and recovery is just around the corner." The worst of what? Recession? And what are we recovering from anyway? Now many of the publications and channels into this kind of evasion have also been laying off employees in droves, including several journalists.

Those poor souls (many with large home loan EMIs contracted when the economy was in even less of a "downturn" than it is now) are losing their jobs because of – well, whatever. Imagine you were one of them, working at the desk, filtering copy for your readers to reassure them that all is well. In the evening, you’re exorcising the columns of the ghosts of recession. Next afternoon, you find you are a victim of what you’ve purged. The hypocrisy of the media in acting the opposite of what they tell their audiences is the reality – gee, that’s part of business strategy. Scare the public and there will be less spending. Which means less advertising, less revenue, less etc.

The one time a headline in one of these dailies mentioned the ‘R word’, it mocked it as in "What recession?" More cars were being sold in a particular segment; rural India is shining (the word here is "new found prosperity"). We need the sunny side up stories – even as we practise something quite different on the underside. Television channels also trot out the usual (suspect) experts to explain that things are not as bad as they’re made out to be (By whom, we are seldom told). There were happy headlines for a while about declining inflation. (Though a few have lately become cautious about making a production number of this). But there is much less on how serious a problem food prices are. How huge an issue hunger still is. One indication of that does surface in the manifestos of political parties promising rice at Rs. 3 or Rs. 2 or even at Re. 1 a kg. (Oddly, to a population which seems to be set on buying cars, not foodgrain.) But then you know what these manifestos are.

So the media speak to their select bunch of certified experts, spokespersons and analysts and declare: there are no issues in this election. There certainly aren’t many the media are talking about. And yes that comes as a relief to political forces enabled to evade some massive problems now unfolding. Even the chance of highlighting the emerging issues – which would be a big help to many voters – gets spiked. So we were treated to IPL versus elections, Varun Gandhi, Budiya, Gudiya, and heaps of similar blather. It is to the credit of Jarnail Singh (who gives Barefoot Journalism a whole new meaning) that he got us off the Varun Gandhi trivia and actually scored on an important issue of all elections since 1984,

There is a bizarre disconnect between what we report as developments in the United States and what we insist is the reality here. And, of course, there are significant differences – but we don’t want to explore how those came about. For years, we’ve touted the benefits of one particular form of globalisation. In which the more integrated we were with the world economy (read U.S. and European), the better things got to be. But when things get worse there, it doesn’t affect us. Oh no, not at all.

It’s also a measure of the distance, in many ways, between the partygoers and the plebeians. For the latter, there was not much to be gung-ho about, anyway. Many of them would assure you they have issues. But how do we address problems whose existence we barely acknowledged in the first place? So forget about the agrarian crisis, and the 1,82,000 farm suicides associated with it over the past decade. And when was hunger or joblessness an issue (in the media), anyway? Most publications have given zero space to India’s dismal show in the Global Hunger Index. All these are problems that pre-date the meltdown in Wall Street (itself something that, for the media, happened out of the blue, without warning).

Over the last year and a half, things have not been so great elsewhere either. The crisis of industry, negative growth in manufacturing, the loss of some jobs in these sectors – all these do find some mention. Most often, a passing mention. But things get really bad when the Top Ten per cent get spooked. They need to be reassured and must keep buying cars. At some point "not spooking them" means blurring the lines between illusion, ideology, reality and reporting. It could have very dangerous consequences.

For the vast mass of the population, which does not receive stock market updates on cellphones, things were not so bright anyway. The year 2006 is on record in the media as one of our great boom years. But it is the data from that year that place us at 132 in the United Nations Human Development Index. That’s a fall from the already dismal rank of 128 we held – and places us below Bhutan. In terms of underweight children and malnourishment, India is a disaster zone. Many below us in the index fare a lot better on that front. We have the largest number of such children on the planet. And there are no issues? That the dominant political forces are able to evade the issues does not mean an absence of them. That we are unable to give coherence to the giant processes unfolding around us says more about the media, less about the issues.

As their orders run out, export-oriented sectors are in the doldrums. That’s true of Gujarat, Maharashtra and elsewhere. As that happens, lakhs of workers – migrants from elsewhere – return to their homes in Orissa, Jharkhand or Bihar. What do they return to? To districts where there is an acute shortage of work – which is why they left in the first place. To a public distribution system in tatters that could not cater for even the earlier reduced population. To an NREGA that was insufficient to begin with – and which certainly, at present levels of funding, cannot cope with the addition of lakhs of people.

There is a time lag between the onset of the latest phase of recession – or call it what you will – and voting in these elections. We go to the polls this month and in May. The job losses amongst migrant workers and others are mounting by the week. You could have a pretty bad situation by the time the monsoon sets in. A few months later, it could be spectacularly bad. But the voting takes place now. Were these polls held some months from today, you would have very decisive results in most States. And the issues would not be Varun, Budiya, Gudiya or Amar Singh’s endless adventures.

Meanwhile, there is little in the media that informs our audiences that we are part of the greatest economic crisis the world has seen in 80 years, the worst since the Great Depression. Nothing that prepares readers, listeners and viewers for what could follow. The only slowdown is in the news (and paralysed editorial intellect). The big downturn is in the media’s performance. For the rest of the world it’s a recession. One from which we could move towards far worse.

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