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"Media Is Unlike Other Products"

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In the era of 'Facebook revolutions' and Right To Information campaigns, how does the business of media and communication fare? Pradip Ninan Thomas, author of Negotiating Communication Rights, talks to Pramod K. Nayar, academic and the author, most recently, of Cabling India: WikiLeaks And The Information Wars.

In the light of The News Of The World controversy, Nira Radia tapes and Press Council chairman Justice Markandey Katju's comments on media, how does the business of communication intersect with its traditional goal of communication as meant for the community itself?
This really is the nub of the issue and the reason for the launch of media reform movements not only in India but also in other parts of the world such as in the US. I have argued in some of my writings that we need to take the media seriously precisely because the media product is unlike other products. Audiences not only consume it, but unlike eating a biscuit, consuming the media can also affect our consciousness — our understandings of right and wrong, and thus shape our attitude. So, Justice Katju is right because we are in a situation where media agenda is conditioned by business needs and those of the market resulting in really narrow news agenda that discount a major part of the reality of India. However, what is needed is media diversity including a vibrant community media sector that fulfils the need for alternative voices. While there is a need for some balance within mainstream media, we should not expect mainstream media to become community focused. That is not why they exist and is not part of their core business.

Following from the above, and building on your own arguments, how does the business of communication negotiate the communitarianism of Open Source?
Sooner than later, the business of communication will need to negotiate with the communitarianism of Open Source in order to turn it to their advantage. After all, to adopt an ostrich-like attitude or contest this model out of sheer pique — when more and more youngsters are opting to collaborate in the making of software and digital solutions— will fail. The business community refuses to recognise the fact that 'publics' have begun to explore new building blocks for production based on cooperative endeavour. Even governments have begun to explore the value of public software-based solutions. These publics recognise that at the very heart of the digital is the 'copy'. And the many possibilities of the 'copy' have fuelled the growth of a variety of communitarian cultures. Perhaps, what we are seeing is a growth in spaces for people-oriented solutions against business solutions that are neither efficient nor supportive of sustainable futures for all.

Communication cultures are more about the cultures in which these acts happen. How far do these cultures influence the development of technologies — even 'pirate technologies' — of communication, such as Napster, Torrent or file transfer protocols (FTPs)?
There is no stopping these cultures that really have become viral and global at that. It has been close to impossible to regulate or enclose the digital. The free and open source FOSS movement for example is global and every day we hear stories of new applications, new solutions, new possibilities for sharing knowledge that are cumulatively beginning to shape how we think of what a knowledge-based future should look like and who should be involved in the shaping of that future. In my way of thinking these cultures have begun to redefine what democracy ought to be about.

The hype around the Facebook revolutions of Egypt and other parts seem to somehow suggest that it was the technology — an SMS radicalism, if you will— that drove the cultural demand for change. Do you have any comments on the nature of this kind of appropriation and the hype around it?
Well, I would agree that there was a lot of hype related to the Facebook revolution in Egypt. One of the problems with many new technology messiahs is that they implicitly believe that technology is the solution. SMS texting might have played its part in bringing down the Estrada government in the Philippines and the Mubarak government although there were prior conditions that enabled Facebook and texting to make a difference in these contexts. In other words the circumstances were right, and texting enabled people who were already tired of the incumbent government to mobilise. Once people got mobilised, the dynamic of people power took over and we are yet to see definitive accounts of how people, technologies and networks were involved in a mutual shaping of responses and agendas. We also need to remember that these responses and agendas have been contested. It will be interesting to see how far these contested revolutions will result in the making of egalitarian societies in the Middle East.

I loved the emphasis on media diversity and the citizen-angle to communication rights (CR) in your recent book. It seemed to me, however, that there is more optimism than pragmatism there in your evaluation of these two! Any comments?
You are right. There is more optimism than pragmatism in the book and that is unusual for the political economist in me who normally looks at the world through a broken lens. I do not for a moment believe that the old order will change in the light of CR movements. That will not happen and in my way of thinking that is not what is required. I strongly believe that what is required is a variety of media sectors and that the story in India clearly seems to suggest that despite all the ills plaguing the country, there are extraordinary 'movements such as the RTI and FOSS that really have put back the 'demo' back into 'democracy'. The case studies that I have highlighted are all about people shaping democracy and I think this is what makes all that is happening in India very unique and exciting.

In this age of leaks and porous boundaries where information is shared, would you see local CRs as influenced by global CR campaigns? How do you see this manifest in India? I ask because you mention local voices of resistance — many of which are often (as in the case of Dalit demands for Human Rights that are predicated upon global Human Rights regimes) influenced by global movements. Does this not mean that even CR becomes an aspect of globalisation?
While I do think that global CR campaigns have their place, I strongly believe that CR deficits need to be articulated at a local level. And so while the global community radio movement does support the Indian community radio movement, it should not play a role in shaping the future of this movement in India. While Dalit movements certainly have support from outside of India, I think that its strength is that it is diverse and local enough within India. There is not one Dalit movement but many and that is how it should be because not all Dalits are cut from the same cloth. The solidarity that comes from being a part of a global movement is important for local movements as long as global agendas do not overwhelm the local.

What is your next book on?
I have been on this rather insane writing spree over the last three years. I began with a book called Political Economy of Communications in India: The Good the Bad and the Ugly that was published by Sage in 2010. This was followed by the book Negotiating Communication Rights in 2011 also published by Sage and the third in what has turned into a series is The Digital And Social Change that will also be published by Sage in mid-2012. I think that there are clear threads that link the three books. They offer a critical introduction to the media in India.

Click to read the review of Negotiating Communication Rights


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