Caste leadership and bias in the media

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It happened over a weekend. This was the summer of 2006, the height of what was then called Mandal II. Indian media was spewing venom against the idea of caste-based reservations in higher education for OBCs (Other Backward Classes). Television and newspapers were lionizing upper caste protests against reservations. Some of us were fighting a lonely battle defending the idea of affirmative action and caste-based policies to redress caste-based disadvantage and discrimination.  It was tough as it involved public debates [link: Indian Express, my debate with PBM] with friends like Pratap Mehta, someone I have always admired.

We were sitting in my office at the CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies). Jitendra Kumar, then a young struggling journalist, was fuming: “I have seen it first hand. The media is packed with upper caste journalists with a Brahminic mindset.” Anil Chamaria, a crusader for non upper caste voices in the media, was also with us. “But where is the evidence?” I asked. Both of them rattled off names of well known journalists and their castes to prove their point. They had a point, but I knew their evidence would be called anecdotal. There has to be a way to test this commonsense by collecting hard evidence, I suggested. They agreed.

Thus began what I believe was the first survey of the social profile of the national media professionals in India. It would be too much to call it a survey; it was more a rudimentary head-count. We began on a Tuesday or Wednesday and, for some reason that I cannot recollect now, we wanted the findings released by Monday.  Much of the work happened over the weekend. Since the sampling and data collection could not meet academic standards, we did not involve Lokniti or CSDS in this exercise. The three of us did it in our personal capacity.

The task was surprisingly easy. We drew up a list of 40 media outlets (Hindi and English TV channels and newspapers) and requested someone there to draw a list of top ten editor-level decision makers. There were some minor issues about who would fall in the top ten, but not the kind that made much different. Then we recorded information on the gender, religion and caste of each. Some were happy to share this information, but most of the editors were either unavailable or unwilling. So we turned to ‘informants’: we asked someone in the journalistic community who knew them and their family well to share their caste details. That is never difficult in India. Over the
weekend, we managed to fill the excel sheet with information on 315 of the 400 persons we had short-listed.

The results confirmed our worst suspicions. A staggering 88 per cent of this elite list of those who decided news and editorial line in the national media were upper caste Hindus, a social group that cannot possibly exceed 20 per cent of the country’s population. Brahmins alone, no more than 2-3 per cent in the population, occupied 49 per cent positions. Not even a single person in this list turned out to be from dalit or adivasi background. More relevant to the case in point, the OBCs, whose population was estimated to be around 45 per cent, were merely 4 per cent among the top media professional. The inverted pyramid was stark: SC+ST+OBC accounted for over 70 per cent of the country’s population but had a share of 4 per cent among the decision makers. We also recorded other predictable disparities: women accounted for only 16 per cent and Muslims just 4 per cent in this list.

We issued our findings in the form of a press release. Despite obvious reluctance, it did get some coverage, including in mainstream papers like The Hindu. News portals were not so popular those days, but alternative media outlets used this extensively. Predictably the survey was called “controversial” though no one ever said why. We were chided for insinuating that the caste of a journalist determines their opinion, something we never said. We stuck to a bland statement: “India’s ‘national’ media lacks social diversity, it does not reflect the country’s social profile.” I remember a signed editorial in Dainik Hindustan by Mrinal Pande, one of the most respected editors, the breed that has disappeared since, entitled “Jaati na poochho sadhu ki”. She was graceful enough to publish my counter, with evidence on the bias in her own paper’s reporting.

These days our foreign educated upper caste elite has borrowed a language of justice from the western context. We worry about ‘menals’ these days. We look down upon non-inclusion of people of colour in any discussion. But it doesn’t quite translate into a deeper self-awareness about the privileges that they have inherited in the Indian context.

No one ever contested our empirical findings. No one ever spoke about it. And no one did a thing about it. Cut to 2022. Last week Oxfam India has released a report “Who Tells Our Stories Matters: Representation of Marginalised Caste Groups in Indian Media”

[https://d1ns4ht6ytuzzo.cloudfront.net/oxfamdata/oxfamdatapublic/2022-10/TMR%202022%20Caste%20Report_Final%208mb.pdf?bIYmiiOHQaHqj2o0ROaOzFug.ztJzYLu].

This is the fourth report in an annual series, beginning 2019, that is released at “Media Rumble”. I was happy to see that their coverage is much wider and sampling more systematic than our first-cut survey: besides, newspapers and TV channels, they cover magazines as well as digital media. I am sure future editions will extend the coverage to “regional media”. Their definition of “leadership position” is more precise now: they include proprietors as well as designated editorial positions. They also analyse the TV anchors, panelists and journalists who get a byline. Their data collection is more transparent and rigorous.

Yet, it breaks my heart to see that the big picture has not changed one bit over the last 15 years. Of the 218 persons occupying “leadership position” in all categories, 88.1 per cent come from upper caste Hindus. (I have renamed what the report calls “General Category” since their definition of it excludes all religious minorities and SC, ST and OBC). Actually it should be 90 per cent if you exclude the “Don’t know” from the calculation (That is what I would do here). The share of SC+ST+OBC is just about 7 per cent, about one-tenth of what their population share would require. If we exclude magazines and digital media, the share of these three marginalized social groups in the leadership of our English and Hindi newspapers and TV channels is exactly Zero.

The present survey takes one big step forward by analyzing the social background of TV anchors, panelists and bylined journalists across various forms of media. As you wade through hundreds of those tables (worth a careful read) the overall number remains static: barring a few exceptions, the Hindu upper caste grabs 70 to 80 per cent share (once you exclude Don’t knows) in every category, even in the coverage of caste issues. So, the big picture is that 20 per cent of the country gets 80 per cent voice in the media and the remaining 80 per cent is limited to 20 per cent space. We have accomplished without any formal apartheid what the white regime did in South Africa.

I must again underline that every upper caste media person need not share an upper caste mindset. Just as every white is not a white supremacist, not every male is a male chauvinist. Yet, is it merely an accident that news of caste oppression gets virtually no coverage in our media? That communal flare up gets 9 times more coverage than caste conflict? That brazen anti-minority headlines get generated routinely? That there is a near consensus against Caste Census?

These days our foreign educated upper caste elite has borrowed a language of justice from the western context. We worry about ‘menals’ these days. We look down upon non-inclusion of people of colour in any discussion. But it doesn’t quite translate into a deeper self-awareness about the privileges that they have inherited in the Indian context. Rarely do they go beyond but-I-never-knew-my-caste kind of response. Is the Indian media open to self-correction? Or are we waiting for an outsider to break this stranglehold?


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