(Image: Zina Saunders

In his controversial book “Manufacturing Consent” author Noam Chomsky states that the media plays a a vital role in the public’s acceptance of an unequal society. That seems like a damning view of political reality. In light of the recent Cobrapost expose, that view seems if anything, rather mild.

As a society, it is easy to forget that the way things are, is not the way they should be. For instance, regardless of what the Constitution says, when it comes right down to it, we are not all equal. We should be. But we are not. And in Mr Chomsky’s view, the media has an important role to play in making us swallow that bitter pill. Given the ability and disposition of popular media to “distract” via entertainment, that opinion becomes even harder to counter.

In other words, “Life is not fair”. Stop being a snowflake and just accept that every time your rights get trampled on. (Cut to ad for swanky car surrounded by bikini clad women). Sure, it may be fairer to the guy making the rules but such is the way it goes. Do not question it. (Take a look at this. Can you believe celebrity XYZ wore THAT to the royal wedding?!). Point is, its not fair for “you” and you shouldn’t complain about it. (And now, heres a video of a kitty trying to talk like a human).

It’s like jangling shiny keys in front of a crying baby to get it to swallow the hated broccoli. It usually works.

Furthermore (in his view), the media protects the interests of the elites. (Traditionally this has usually meant the “the rich/business elites”). And though there is a vested interest to not appear purely monolithic, the media will only criticize the ruling elite ONLY when opinions within the elites is divided. This gives the impression of equanimity. But like most things in popular media, this too is an illusion. As satisfying as this view is to any contrarian, I believe there is more to it than what Mr Chomsky says. And as far as Operation 136 is concerned, we’d be best served by refraining from viewing things too narrowly.

For one thing, the term “paid media” is just silly. All news is “paid for”. It has to be. Journalists need a livable wage just like anyone else. Any media outlet must have a revenue stream to survive. But sources, whether it be for information or funds, do matter. There is a definitive quality of difference between the reporting of state controlled newspaper vs one that is free of corporate control or is purely reader supported. Sources can also belie intent.

For another, that the idea the media is out to “convince” people may not be accurate. Henry Truman once said “If you cant convince them, confuse them.” That, to me seems like the penultimate aim. Convincing someone is a resource intensive process. It involves collecting hard data, making a strong logical argument and then presenting it in a palatable way to the audience. An audience that is ideally well informed. None of those assumptions hold true in the world today. That is doubly true for India. Most of the population is still uneducated and a history of casteism have made the very idea of “critical thinking” an impractical fantasy.

Convincing people is hard. From a purely strategic standpoint it is much better, much more effective to just confuse and distract. Or better yet, simply affirm currently held beliefs. Do that and convincing becomes that much easier. It is fascinating to see how Russian media for instance (which is heavily state controlled) has managed to do precisely this. The idea may be best explained by a personal experiment I have repeatedly conducted over the last few years.

Take for example of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was blown up in 2014. There is no doubt that it was blown up by Russian made military ordinance. The only question at this point is who exactly did it and why. Given my career in the merchant navy, I tend to work with a lot of Russian nationals. I have asked my Russian shipmates about their views on the incident. These are some of the more popular ones:

1) “It was the Americans. They will stop at nothing to smear us. They used old Russian equipment purchased on the black market to kill those poor people just to undermine Putin.”
2) “It was Chechen rebels supplied by the CIA. What else can you expect from jihadis? Besides, wasn’t Osama one of the CIA’s own too? This is what they do.”
3) “The whole thing was an elaborate conspiracy by western powers. An empty, remotely piloted, civilian jet was deliberately crashed into Ukrainian territory.” (The goal was to legitimize UN intervention in the area.)
4) “There was no plane. The whole thing is fake.” (My personal favorite)
5) “Ah, who knows what happened.” THAT right there is the real goal. The pot of fake gold at the end of the illusionary rainbow.

To get the public so fed up, so intellectually exhausted, that they just give up. Shrug their shoulders and go on with their lives. Make them view every source of information with understandable suspicion. Even legitimate ones. THAT is a victory. To win a war, one does not necessarily have to defeat the enemy outright. Sometimes denying him a victory is enough.

That kind of societal fatigue is paralyzing. It empowers the string pullers to say whatever they please. We puppets no longer care. The strings are the only thing holding us up anyway. Let the puppet master control the narrative. Life is hard enough thank you very much. Just let me watch my cricket and leave me in peace.

Such leverage is powerful to say the least. Trouble is, those strings can quickly become a garrote that slices a democracy’s throat. Lets keep that in mind going forward.

What the Cobrapost expose is alluding to, is the fact that India now has a sort of state control over media. Only it isn’t as blatant as it is in Russia (yet). Here control is exerted by patronage. Both political and monetary. Operation 136 exposes just how deep the rot has spread. If a free press is one of the pillars of a democracy, India’s has been exposed as a hollow broken thing that has been plastered over to cover up the scary truth. Given everything else that has been happening lately, the structure, as it were, now rests uneasily over a broken foundation.

To understand how, it is imperative to look at the whole thing in relation to all that has happened before and around it. This not something that should be viewed and weighed in isolation. A vacuous understanding will lead to, at the very least, a distorted picture of reality.

Lets understand what happened here. In a nutshell, the govt in power did two things. First, by forcing demonetization on a country that was at least a decade away from being ready for it, it cut the financial legs from under its opposition. No regard was given to what it did to the business sector or the poorer sections of society. By protecting its own (just as illegal) funds from the worst of this self styled crusade against “black money”, it effectively positioned itself to be the only show in town. Meanwhile the complaints from the opposition (the INC in particular) fell on deaf ears. The irony here is tragic, if the INC hadn’t been as corrupt as the BJP, this would have left them completely unscathed, indeed, the BJP would have been shooting itself in the foot. As it stands, it cut the financial legs from under the INC. All this while giving itself an advantage that is perhaps unprecedented in (post independence) Indian political history. Ethical considerations aside, this was truly a brilliant move from a strategic perspective.

Secondly, after gaining this financial high ground, the BJP leveraged this position by outright “buying” the loyalty of some of the most prominent media houses in the nation in an effort to control the political narrative. Distraction wasn’t enough. Confusion was the goal now. Once that was established and people were exhausted by all the smoke and mirrors, the electorate was shown only that which portrays the BJP in a good light. Lies and all. Soon, the puppets will no longer care. Then, it’s time to make them dance. As for the constitution, well, when the time comes, the garrote will be ready.

The details are out there for anyone see but one of the more egregious examples of such tactics is with Zee news in particular. For one thing the network is owned by BJP MP Subhash Chandra. It is as if the notion of conflict of interest does not even exist. For another, many of the media channels got their instructions directly from the PMO. In essence, advertising was no longer just dictating the content of news. Rather, news straight up became advertising.

Putin is probably taking notes right now. What is scary about Russia in particular is how misinformed people are about not just the news, but also their own history. Much like inquiring about MH17, my questions on Stalin also revealed some shocking opinions. Most view him as a “strong” leader that kept Russia together during a trying time. No doubt, the death toll during his era is vastly exaggerated by western media. Yes, people did die, but it was a regrettable albeit necessary step. As for the deliberate liquidation of the Kulaks, that is a myth. That last part is especially terrifying. The calculated genocide of almost 400,000 civilians by a carefully implemented pogrom is now widely regarded (at least in my modest data set) as a “myth”. No wonder authoritarian regimes throughout history make it a point to focus their ire on historians.

Contrast that to what is happening here. The narrative that the BJP/RSS is pushing is singular in its focus. They are claiming to be the voice of the “true” people. A strategy that is both poisonous and exclusionary (This is something I am covering in detail with my ongoing series with News Central 24/7). It pits anyone that doesn’t agree as either traitors or their sympathizers. Add to that their insistence on rewriting history to serve that view and it becomes easy to see what the intention is. As far as tactics go, this is fascism 101.

That is not to say that the media, even what most would call “legitimate media” do not have an agenda. The sad fact is that the most popular media today, regardless of the source, does follow a propaganda model (purely reader supported outlets maybe the exception). This is hardly news (pun intended). Economic incentives tend to muddy the motivations of any endeavor. The “Lying Press” label was used as early as 1848 in the “March Revolutions” of Germany.

The point is, regardless of agendas and preferred models for pushing them, there is going to be a bias of some sort with humans at the helm. But agendas can either help or hinder the idea of a democracy. And regardless of how the human motivations for uncovering it, the truth still matters. It has to.

The fact is that no political party can claim innocence here. Campaign financing in India has basically been running on illegal funds for decades now. And simplistic as Mr Chompsky’s view may seem to some, there is a core of bitter truth in there that is hard to swallow. The irony? The INC, the party which by its many failures, was the most responsible for paving the way for the BJP and its politics of hate, now stands as the only real opposition we have left. This isn’t a black and white world. But even in a world this murky and grey, one can still rate things on a moral curve. But damn if that curve isn’t slippery as ice.

Democracy is a tough sport. Political strategy is messy with few black or white choices. Apologists of the current government will claim that this game was always rigged. Both teams cheated. And it is a sad, sad, state of affairs when the only defense to that is “Yes but both cheated equally”. Now though, one team has its hands tied behind its back whilst their opponents poke them with poisoned spears. But heres the thing: the ones that are really being cheated are the fools paying to watch this ridiculous charade.

Life isn’t fair is it?