Thursday, September 20, 2007

Ramar Setu: politics of mythology and mythologies of politics

The political frenzy that ensued from a recent affidavit filed by the Archeological Survey of India in the Supreme Court, threatened briefly like it could take the country down a road recently travelled, with deeply traumatic results. All the ingredients that made the Ayodhya controversy such a lethal cocktail were present: the aggressive protestations that faith necessarily trumped reason, the identification of one particular tradition – of the many that make up the living cultural tapestry of the country – as the unique marker of the Indian national identity, and a craven political order that buckles under at the first signal of turbulence and fails to stand by the conscientious actions of its officials.

There are a number of sound reasons why the Sethusamudram project has stirred unease and anxiety in some quarters. Cutting a navigation channel by dredging up the shallow ocean floor in the Palk Straits may hasten communications between India’s eastern and western seaboards. But fishing communities will probably suffer an irreparable loss of livelihoods and the ecologically diverse and sensitive Gulf of Mannar may be irreversibly damaged.

Yet the petitioners who have sought a judicial directive against the project as it is presently conceived, are unconcerned about these all too real issues. Their concern rather is with preserving a cluster of limestone shoals that lies roughly halfway across the narrowest passage between the Indian and Sri Lankan coastlines. Alternately called Adam’s bridge (after the primal figure of the Semitic faiths) and Ramar Sethu (after a central figure of Hindu legend), the limestone shoals stretch over a length of roughly 50 kilometres. Since the depth of the sea diminishes rapidly in its vicinity, Ramar Sethu has long been seen as a hindrance to efficient navigation. But the petitioners, relying on textual references from some of the many renditions of the legend of Ram, purport to see the origin of the undersea ridge in the historic crossing of the ocean by the armies of the good, as they embarked on their mission of conquering the ungodly lands where the forces of evil reigned.

In responding to this petition, the ASI did what any professional body that is true to its ethos, would do: it weighed up all the available evidence and found that the claim was unsustainable. The submission it made before the Supreme Court, acknowledged the deep significance of the legend of Ram in Indian life, but insisted that Ramar Setu was formed through natural processes of “tidal action and sedimentation”. Indeed, the body of epic literature on Ram, though vast, could not be deemed in any of its variants, to refer to any specific historical figure or pertain to any geographical area.

How these dispassionate and clinical observations gave rise to a political firestorm within a matter of hours, is partly about media functioning in a deeply polarised political milieu. And the government reaction, beginning with the suspension of two ASI officials, the deletion of certain paragraphs from an affidavit placed before the Supreme Court, and the commitment to reexamine the scope of the Sethusamudram project, is a case study in the politics of cowardice and infirm convictions.

The predictable disavowals of responsibility for the ASI affidavit followed and ministers vied zealously with each other to proclaim their faith in Ram, as both divinity and history. The Hindutva forces meanwhile, sharpened their knives to prepare for another assault on the foreign origins of the chairperson of the ruling coalition at the centre. And the mastermind of the Ayodhya campaign, L.K. Advani, seemed to recover his long-lost facility for turning a catchy slogan: to its long record of “pseudo-secularism”, he claimed, the Congress party had now added “sadism secularism”.

One constituent of the ruling coalition though, seemed disinclined to join the ostentatious public display of contrition. The DMK, which is in power in Tamil Nadu, has made a heavy investment of its political credibility in seeing the Sethusamudram project through to completion. And its feisty chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, reprised some of the iconoclastic rhetoric of his party’s formative years, in debunking the claims made on the Ramar Setu.

Retribution came immediately in the form of an attack on a near relative’s home in the city of Bangalore. As with the Ayodhya campaign, the Hindutva fanatics have proven once again that they can act with extreme belligerence and little thought for political niceties. And yet again, the supposedly secular political formations have shown that they have no stomach for a fight on matters that touch at the very core of India’s future as a multicultural democracy.

Weapons of mass distraction: The U.S. media and Iraq

With serious issues due to enter a decisive phase of public debate, the political atmosphere in Washington DC was expectant as the summer of 2007 gave way to the first hints of fall. Both the top U.S. military commander and the ambassador in Iraq were scheduled to depose before Congress on the state of the war that President George Bush had launched in defiance of world opinion, over four years before. Popular discontent was running high and Iraq was increasingly being perceived as the most disastrous cause the country had engaged in since Vietnam. With the electoral season due formally to kick off in a matter of months, politicians were manoeuvring to place themselves in the best position to capitalise on the popular mood.

As the politicians sought new power balances that would preserve their relative immunity from public scrutiny, Barnett R Rubin, a respected foreign policy analyst and recognised authority on Afghanistan, flung a metaphorical fire-bomb that threatened to burn away layers of subterfuge and lay bare the sordid devices through which they win popular consent for their most reckless plans. Quoting unnamed sources from within the Bush administration and the intelligence services, Rubin declared on a web-log (blog) of informed foreign policy comment, that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney had signalled close allies in the media and the think tank circuit, that the week following the Labour Day holiday would be the formal launch of war preparations against Iran.[i]

In making this forecast, Rubin referred back to an article in the New York Times (NYT) of September 7, 2002, which laid out a sequence of manoeuvres, by which the Bush administration expected to “sell” the idea of the invasion of Iraq. The strategy had been “meticulously planned” and Bush’s inner cabal of advisors had determined that they stood the best chance of winning public consent, by waiting till after the Labour Day weekend. The management philosophy for this decision was articulated by Andrew Card, then chief of staff in the White House: “From a marketing point of view,” he was quoted as saying, “you don't introduce new products in August”.[ii]

Despite this level of insight into the “marketing” strategy for war, the NYT proved all too willing to play along with the Bush administration. The very next day, on September 8, 2002, the newspaper carried an article by Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller, in which it reported with breathless ardour, the Bush administration’s finding that Iraq had, “more than a decade after (President) Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction”, “stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and .. embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb”. The report went onto report in graphic detail the allegation that Iraq had “sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes”, which were “intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium”.[iii]

What followed was an epic onslaught of official disinformation. As Frank Rich observed in a recent column in the NYT, the White House that Sunday dispatched “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” headed by Vice President Cheney, with the Secretary of Defence, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor in accompaniment, to the weekend talk shows. Once there, “they eagerly pointed to a front-page New York Times article amplifying subsequently debunked administration claims that Saddam had sought to buy aluminium tubes meant for nuclear weapons”.[iv]

The rest, as they say, is history, all too recent and all too tragic.

Media interest in Iraq falling
On August 20 this year, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), which by its own lights, is “a research organisation that specialises in using empirical methods to evaluate and study the performance of the press” and resolutely seeks to be “non-partisan, non-ideological and non-political”, published a research report on the news priorities of the U.S. media over the second quarter of 2007. It revealed a media that was trying hard to forget the unending nightmare that the country was going through. Coverage of the war in Iraq, the PEJ found after its survey of 48 news outlets across a range of media – print, broadcast, cable, and online – had fallen in the second quarter of 2007, relative to the first.

The reason was simply that coverage of the domestic political debate on Iraq had faded after the Bush administration was granted Congressional approval for its spending plans. Since winning a majority in the U.S. Congress in November 2006, the Democratic Party had insisted on a firm timetable for the withdrawal of troops as a necessary price for granting Bush his authority to spend on the war. Once that particular threat was defeated by the White House, which expectedly used the well-worn formula of “standing by the troops” as a bludgeon to beat down all dissent, media interest in the war subsided rather dramatically – from 22 percent of total time and space in the news media, Iraq coverage fell to 15 percent.[v]

The finer details of the PEJ analysis are interesting in themselves. Of the total coverage of Iraq in the first quarter of 2007, a little over 55 percent was devoted to the policy debate within the U.S. In the second quarter, this fell to just over 46 percent. Events in Iraq involving U.S. interests, merited close to 31 percent of media coverage in the first, and 43 percent in the second. The Iraq homefront, merited 14 percent of news space in the first quarter, and well under 11 percent in the second. Here too, the main priority was internal politics rather than the lives of ordinary citizens in the country that the U.S. had set out with overweening arrogance, to “liberate” from tyranny.

Perhaps it is perfectly comprehensible why the U.S. media should choose collectively to avert its eyes from the unending tragedy of Iraq. In July 2007, the U.K.-based charity, Oxfam International, released a briefing paper on the humanitarian situation in Iraq, depicting a country plumbing the depths of human misery. In a country of an estimated 25 million people – which had reached levels of welfare in the 1970s and 1980s that were the envy of the neighbourhood -- Oxfam found that no fewer than eight million were in need of emergency assistance. The figure included four million who were “food insecure and in dire need of different types of humanitarian assistance”, more than two million who were internally displaced and an equal number that had fled to neighbouring countries like Syria and Jordan and were living on the margins of subsistence.

Of the Iraqis dependent on food assistance, fewer than 60 percent had access to the government-run public distribution system, down from 96 percent in 2004. Over half the population were without work and some 43 percent of all Iraqis suffered from “absolute poverty”. Drinking water was unavailable in anything like adequate quantities for 70 percent of the population and 80 percent suffered from a complete lack of sanitation. Reconstruction had been blocked as much by endemic of violence, as by corruption and an alarming “brain drain” that had seen virtually every Iraqi with an exit option, exercising it.[vi]

For all the misery that it drew attention to, a state of national despair that the U.S. as an occupying power, necessarily bore responsibility for, the space the U.S. media devoted to the Oxfam report was derisory. NYT ran a brief story on July 31, making cursory mention of Oxfam’s findings. With little obvious relevance to the facts of the case, the NYT then reminded readers that Oxfam had “opposed the 2003 American invasion”. It then subtly sought to discredit the findings on methodological grounds, reporting that Oxfam “presents its statistics as hard facts, without acknowledging the wide margin of error that typically accompanies social research in a war zone”. Further, the aid organisation’s failure to offer any proposals on “how to root out the corruption that has hobbled the Iraqi government and international aid efforts in the past”, was deemed a significant weakness in its report, as too was its failure to “address the links between criminal militias and Iraqi government agencies, like the Ministry of Health”.[vii]

In comparison, the Washington Post carried a relatively non-judgmental report, though tucked away on page 14 of its edition of July 31. And the relatively low priority accorded to the Oxfam findings was underlined by the newspaper’s inattention to the need for an official response. The Iraqi government spokesman, it reported, was “out of the country .. and unavailable to comment on the report”. And a “spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad”, similarly, “could not be reached for comment”.[viii]

Blaming the victims
Clearly, the U.S. media would prefer not to even begin looking at the humanitarian tragedy of Iraq, far less to start assigning responsibility for it. On the rare occasions when the issue of accountability is raised, it is only to blame the victims. Thus, Charles Krauthammer, who was among the most obsessive advocates of the invasion of Iraq wrote in the Washington Post on February 2, 2007, that “Iraqis were given their freedom and yet many have chosen civil war”. It was a situation, he said, in which “you can always count on some to find the blame in America”. But “of all the accounts of the current situation, this (would be) by far the most stupid”. Dusting up his knowledge of recent history for analogies, Krauthammer asked: “Did Britain ‘give’ India the Hindu-Muslim war of 1947-48 that killed a million souls and ethnically cleansed 12 million more? The Jewish-Arab wars in Palestine? The tribal wars of post-colonial Uganda?” To argue thus was to betray a strangely skewed perspective on history and to make “infants” of the Arabs and “demons” of the U.S. Perhaps unaware in the passion of his advocacy that he was doing considerably worse than the adversaries he had targeted and tripping over his own rhetoric, Krauthammer concluded with three simple observations: “Iraq is their country. We midwifed their freedom. They chose civil war”.

Krauthammer’s locutions betray a particularly crass form of neo-colonial illogic and conceit. They speak of the overweening civilisational arrogance of a western imperial power that believes it has a divinely ordained right to march into a Third World country and dismantle its system of governance. The people who have been rudely invaded would then be expected to feel no emotion other than gratitude and to eagerly adopt a model of political organisation that the occupying power would be in a unique position to dictate.

Above all, the neo-conservative element in the U.S., Krauthammer being among its most voluble spokesmen, shows little remorse or repentance over the widely-acknowledged fact that all their prognoses about the war in Iraq have proved disastrously miscued. And in a continuing affront to the intelligence of the average media consumer in the U.S., they continue to enjoy the hospitality of media time and space, to propagate their self-serving verbiage. Much as the neo-conservative element has come in for well-deserved obloquy in recent months, their voice continues to be heard and to be decisive in critical junctures, as evidenced by the U.S. Congress’ recent capitulation on a troop withdrawal schedule. What this suggests clearly, is shared complicity. Despite the space that the war’s more consistent critics – such as NYT columnists Frank Rich and Paul Krugman enjoy – the mainstream media has been unable to thoroughly expose the patent fraud that was perpetrated by neo-conservative ideologues and unreconstructed colonialists. More than being unwilling dupes, they have been accomplices in the process. That clearly is the picture that emerges from most systematic studies of the media in the context of the war in Iraq.

Public misperceptions and the media
A research paper published within a few months of Bush’s “mission accomplished” declaration of May 1, 2003, saw certain “compelling questions” raised by the Iraq war, particularly in relation to the “capacity of the executive branch (or the U.S. federal government) to elicit public consent for the use of military force and about the role media plays in this process”.[ix]

This research paper was based upon the results of an extended series of surveys conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and Knowledge Networks (hereafter PIPA/KN). Between January and September 2003, these two organisations in concert, carried out “seven different polls that dealt with the conflict in Iraq”. It found that “in the run-up to the war …. (and) in the post war period, a significant portion of the American public had held a number of misperceptions that have played a key role in generating and maintaining approval for the decision to go to war”.[x] Among these:
Ø That Iraq was directly involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. territory and that evidence of links between Iraq and Osama bin-Laden’s Islamist group al-Qaeda had been found;
Ø That weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the invasion and that Iraq actually used weapons of mass destruction during the war; and,
Ø That world opinion was overwhelmingly in approval of the U.S. going to war in Iraq.

It was also found that while “in most cases, only a minority (had) any particular misperception, a large majority (had) at least one misperception.

These misperceptions in turn, showed a significant correlation – individually and collectively -- with support for the war, prior to the actual invasion. Of the sample surveyed, 30 percent suffered none of these misperceptions, while 32 percent had just one and no more, 20 percent had two and just 8 percent had all three. Going up this continuum of public misinformation: in the first category, support for the war was confined to a mere 23 percent, while 53 percent of the people with one misperception, 78 percent of those with two and 86 percent of those with all three, supported the war.

There were significant positive correlations between the incidence of these misperceptions and several other parameters, such as faith in the integrity of the person in the White House, belief in the values espoused by his party, and education levels. But for present purposes, what is most important is to understand how these misperceptions were related within the sample population, with primary news sources. Here again, the results are striking and need extensive quotation: “The extent of (U.S. citizens’) misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from NPR or PBS (respectively the National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service) are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot simply be explained as a result of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience”. (Words in parentheses added for clarity).

Within the total sample, 80 percent of those who identified the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News as their primary news source, had one or more misperception. The corresponding figures for other news sources are as follows:
Ø CBS 71 percent
Ø ABC 61 percent
Ø NBC 55 percent
Ø CNN 55 percent
Ø Print media 47 percent
Ø PBS/NPR 23 percent

These levels of misperception are not on account of inattention to detail in news coverage. As the PIPA/KN poll found: “While it would seem that misperceptions are derived from a failure to pay attention to the news, overall, those who pay greater attention to the news are no less likely to have misperceptions. Among those who primarily watch Fox, those who pay more attention are more likely to have misperceptions. Only those who mostly get their news from print media, and to some extent those who primarily watch CNN, have fewer misperceptions as they pay more attention”.

Summarising the findings of the study and delineating its political implications, Kull and his co-authors conclude as follows: “From the perspective of democratic process, the findings of this study are cause for concern. They suggest that if the public is opposed to taking military action without U.N. approval and the President is determined to do so, he has remarkable capacities to move the public to support his decision. This in itself is not worrisome – to the degree it is the product of persuasion, based on the merits of an argument. What is worrisome is that it appears that the President has the capacity to lead members of the public to assume false beliefs in support of his position”.

The further inferences drawn from here are also powerful cause for concern for those concerned with the integrity of the media as a public institution. “It also appears that the media cannot necessarily be counted on to play the critical role of doggedly challenging the administration”, the study points out: “The fact that viewers of some media outlets had far lower levels of misperception than did others (even when controlling for political attitudes) suggests that not all were making the maximal effort to counter the potential for misperception.[xi]

Evidently, Fox News was ideologically committed to the President’s program and also believed the invasion of Iraq justified, irrespective of the stated rationale. This made them completely inattentive to the abundance of evidence that had surfaced about the flawed case for war, and the quite deliberate effort by the Bush administration to inflate the threat from Iraq in order to justify its bellicosity. What Fox News felt at liberty to completely ignore, CNN and the other networks may have felt obliged to at least cover in a cursory manner, in accordance with a certain residual commitment to a doctrine of “fairness” in media coverage. This might have engendered some reservations in the audiences of these channels about the rush to war, especially among those who paid greater attention to news bulletins.

Similarly, as Michael Massing has pointed out in a surpassingly clear and uncompromising analysis of media failures in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, unequivocal signals were not lacking, that the case for the invasion of Iraq was rife with misrepresentations and outright concoctions.[xii] The media just failed to take these signals, to give them the public prominence they deserved, and to knit together diverse pieces of information into the compelling master-narrative of an administration intent on going to war for reasons it was unwilling to reveal. The sceptical notes did however, come through some of the cracks and crevices in the print media and the news channels. The attentive viewer of Fox News was rewarded for his pains with a greater burden of misperceptions. But as would be expected by anybody who has been told – as most have – that paying attention is the way to gain knowledge, other channels and the print media did reward the attentive audience with a relatively more authentic appreciation of reality.

The results of the PIPA/KN study also prompt a number of other questions. For instance, does the media choose its audience or does the audience choose its media? Is Fox News impelled to give its own pro-war skew to the facts because its audience tended to view the invasion of Iraq as necessary and inevitable? Or did the audience develop its fervour for the war as a consequence of watching the feverishly hyperbolic coverage that Fox News never failed to provide? Alternately, is the reality -- as in much else that has to do with the real world -- one of mutual reinforcement between the two? The channel chooses its audience just as the audience chooses its channel. And they reinforce the worst insecurities and political perversities of each other.

Downing Street Memorandum and after
Subsequent events showed how the media was failing to hold up the political leadership in the U.S. to any standard of morality and integrity, despite growing signs of public disquiet. On May 1, 2005, The Times of London published the entire transcript of a secret memorandum written by a top political aide of U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, dating from several months before the war in Iraq began. Referring to the impressions gathered during a visit to Washington by the chief of U.K. intelligence, codenamed “C”, the memorandum informed the ministers handling the top national security portfolios in the British government, that “there had been a perceptible shift in attitude” in the U.S. “Military action” against Iraq “was now seen as inevitable”.

Bush was intent on deposing the Iraqi president and stamping out his regime through military action, which would be justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD (weapons of mass destruction)”. And the British official’s professional assessment was that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”. The U.S. evidently had no patience with going through the United Nations or in making an elaborate case on the “Iraqi regime’s record” to win broad-based international approval. Yet with all the enthusiasm for unilateral military action, the memo warned, “there was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after (sic) military action”.[xiii]

The preamble to the intelligence chief’s briefing clearly suggested that the U.S. was in utter self-delusion, walking into a military quagmire. The main priority of the participants at the meeting though, was not to warn an ally to steer clear of a potentially suicidal course, or to distance themselves from its baneful consequences, but to work out a program for participating in what already seemed a likely military disaster. As the Defence Secretary remarked, “it seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided”. The case against Iraq though, was “thin”: “(Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran”. The optimal course for the U.K. then, seemed to “work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the U.N. weapons inspectors”. That might in the reading of the Defence Secretary, “help with the legal justification for the use of force”.

The Attorney-General though was unconvinced that “the desire for regime change” was a “legal base for military action”. Self-defence and a humanitarian crisis could potentially be grounds for intervention, but neither applied in the case at hand. A third option would of course be the authorisation of the U.N. Security Council. But the mandate of the Security Council, which had last considered Iraqi disarmament three years before, could not be taken for granted.

The deliberations over, the participants were assigned specific tasks. The Chief of Defence Staff was required to send the Prime Minister “full details of the proposed military campaign” by the end of the week. The Foreign Secretary in turn, would “discreetly work up the ultimatum to Saddam”. And the legal issues being in themselves deeply troublesome, the Attorney General would initiate discussions with advisers in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence.[xiv]

As The Nation of New York put it shortly after the Downing Street memorandum (or DSM) surfaced, it was not exactly a news flash that Bush and Blair had flagrantly lied in making the case for war in Iraq.[xv] But the DSM was conclusive proof that the course was set as early as March 2002, well before either leader began speaking in public about war as a possibility. And far from being a contingent outcome of weapons inspections, the path to war was deliberate and premeditated. Every seeming concession to the spirit of multilateral consensus was little else than a pretence – indeed, for those who retained even a fraction of their critical faculties, a lurid exercise in falsehood.

Yet for all the potential it embodied for renewed public scrutiny of the case for war, the DSM sank into a mire of media indifference. Around mid-May, 2005, the economist and columnist Paul Krugman commented that there had “been notably little U.S. coverage” of the DSM.[xvi] In a posting on the web on May 24, the Public Editor of The New York Times, whose function is to attend to the readers’ interests, responded to a torrent of complaints about the newspaper’s rather casual attitude to the DSM. And he put on record the following observation: “The (New York) Times's coverage of the once-secret memo started alertly with a May 2 article .. that laid out its contents in the context of the possible impact on the May 5 British election. But the news coverage languished until this morning when a Times article from Washington focused on the reaction to the memo there. This has left Times readers pretty much in the dark until today -- and left critics of the paper's news columns to suspect the worst about its motives.”

The Public Editor found no grounds to suspect that news content in the NYT was suffering from any form of censorship. But his final judgment was evidently that the newspaper had failed to perform its role of contributing towards an informed public discourse: “even if the editors decided it was old news that Mr. Bush had decided in July 2002 to attack Iraq or that the (DSM) didn't provide solid evidence that the administration was manipulating intelligence, I think Times readers deserved to know that earlier...”[xvii]

On May 17, two weeks after the DSM became public, the Christian Science Monitor was speculating on the reasons why the story had been a “dud” in the U.S. Audience indifference was obviously not to blame. As it observed, the ombudsman of the Washington Post, who serves as a watchdog over ethical standards, had admitted to being “inundated” with write-in campaigns on the subject. And he was “amazed” that the leading newspaper in the U.S. capital had taken “almost two weeks to follow up” on the story.[xviii]

As June 2005 wore on, the media began to take note of an undeniable shift in public mood. The Washington Post reported the results of an opinion survey early in the month: “Americans continue to rank Iraq second only to the economy in importance (and) many of them are losing patience with the enterprise”. A clear majority of those interviewed thought the war in Iraq had made no contribution to the “long-term security” of the U.S. -- in the estimation of the newspaper, the first recorded instance of a majority of citizens disagreeing with the “central notion Bush (had) offered to build support for war”. All this, combined with popular worries about the economy and social security, made for a significant drop in Bush’s overall rating: 52 per cent of the respondents to the survey actually disapproved of his handling of the U.S. presidency.[xix]

Around the same time, The Economist was reporting that “one-third of Americans (in a poll by the Pew Research Centre) and almost half (in one for ABC) say Iraq will turn out to be another Vietnam”.[xx] People in the U.S. and the U.K. had waited long enough for the flower-strewn parade and the triumphal march of the victorious “allies” that in pre-war prognoses, was represented as the rosy culmination of the invasion of Iraq. They had endured the handover of sovereignty to Iraq, the conclusion of elections in that country, and the installation of its first supposedly democratic government. Activist groups that had opposed the war, were speaking out in public about the infinitely greater suffering that the Iraqi people were suffering as price for the vainglorious ambitions of long defunct colonial powers.

Growing public disquiet called forth a new propaganda effort by Bush, beginning with a sequence of weekly radio addresses. But as he prepared for a climactic speech in the cycle, to rally the flagging spirits of a war-weary nation, an opinion poll was reporting that for the first time, a majority of citizens believed that he had “deliberately misled” the country in making the case for invading Iraq.[xxi] Once the speech was made at the military base at Fort Bragg to a strangely subdued gathering of service personnel,[xxii] a survey of the public found that it had imparted little “bounce” to Bush’s approval ratings. Indeed, the Zogby International poll seemed to suggest that much of the public was inclined to the view that Bush’s time was up: “more than two-in-five (42 per cent) voters say that, if it is found that President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should hold him accountable through impeachment.”[xxiii]

Perhaps the best assessment of Bush’s speech came from Daniel Ellsberg, the former U.S. Defence Department official whose act of moral conscience in leaking the so-called “Pentagon Papers” to the public in 1971, turned the mood in the U.S. decisively against the Vietnam war. Hearing Bush’s words , said Ellsberg, stirred in him a “sense of familiarity, but not nostalgia”. He had heard all the themes before, “almost word for word” in speeches delivered by the three presidents he had worked with: Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Indeed, he had perhaps drafted an identical speech four decades prior, with like purpose: “how to rationalise and motivate continued public support for a hopelessly stalemated, unnecessary war our president had lied us into”.[xxiv]

Within hours of the Labour Day weekend, Fox News devoted two prime time slots to all-out warmongering propaganda, calling for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Norman Podhoretz, one of the gurus of the neo-conservative cabal, had a book out, provocatively titled “World War IV: The long struggle against Islamofascism”, which made the case for unrelenting warfare by the U.S. against a range of enemies, beginning of course with Iran. And Michael Ledeen, a shadowy political operative suspected to have been a key player in the forged documents purporting, in the months before the war, to show an Iraqi intent to import uranium from Niger, had a book out which said all that was needed in its title: “The Iranian Time Bomb: The Mullah Zealots’ Quest for Destruction”.[xxv] The neo-conservative cabal was responding with expected fervour and alacrity to the signal from its acknowledged leader, Dick Cheney. And sections of the media were again beginning that dangerous lockstep march into war, as the propaganda arm of the most dangerous elements in U.S. politics. All that remained to be seen was whether other sections of the media, known for at least a semblance of sanity and rationality, would blow the whistle at the alarming new buildup of belligerence, or, as in 2003, meekly play along.

[i] Rubin is a highly respected foreign affairs commentator with a special expertise on Afghanistan. His revelations were posted on the “Informed Comment Global Affairs” blog and they are available at this writing on:

The first Monday of September is by national custom, observed as Labour Day in the U.S. It also marks at the popular level, the cusp between summer and fall, though the autumn solstice is typically three weeks later.

[ii] Elisabeth Bumiller, “THE STRATEGY; Bush Aides Set Strategy to Sell Policy on Iraq”, The New York Times, September 7, 2002; available at this writing at:

[iii] Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller, “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts”, New York Times, September 8, 2002.

[iv] Frank Rich, “As the Iraqis Stand Down, We’ll Stand Up”, The New York Times, September 9, 2007, available at this writing at:

[v] Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Iraq War Coverage Drops Off in 2nd Quarter”,

[vi] Oxfam International, Briefing Paper number 105, “Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq”, July 2007, available at this writing at:

[vii] Damien Cave, “Aid Organization Says Iraqis and Foreign Donors Must Ease a Growing Humanitarian Crisis”, The New York Times, July 31, 2007.

[viii] Megan Greenwell, “A dismal picture of life in Iraq”, Washington Post, July 31, 2007, page A 14.

[ix] Steven Kull, et al, “Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War”, Political Science Quarterly, Winter 2003-04, Volume 118, Number 4, pp 569 to 598 (the words in the parenthesis have been added for clarity).

[x] PIPA/KN, “Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War”, October 2, 2003, available at this writing at:

[xi] Kull, et al, pp 596-7 (emphasis added).

[xii] Michael Massing, “Now They Tell Us”, The New York Review of Books, February 26, 2004.

[xiii] The text of the memorandum was extracted from,,1-523-1593607-523,00.html with emphases added in both places. The accompanying story in The Times dated May 1, 2005, sets out the explanation of the memo’s significance and places it in context, with a comprehensive identification of all its dramatis personae. The Guardian and The Independent of May 1 also provided extensive coverage of the memo and its significance, though priority in breaking the story went to The Times.

[xiv] It needs to be added parenthetically, that the Attorney General first submitted the opinion that the war in Iraq would be illegal. This advice, proffered on March 7, 2003 – less than two weeks before the war began – cited three grounds for this finding: that Security Council resolution 1441 setting down conditions for the resumption of arms inspections in Iraq, provided no trigger for war independent of further deliberations in the world body; that a duly authorised body for weapons inspections was in place; and weapons inspections were underway. Ten days later, on the eve of the war, Britain’s top law officer changed his views, cerifying in Blair’s words, that the war would “unequivocally” meet the tests of legality. How this spectacular conversion was achieved was never made clear. See the column by Simon Jenkins in The Times “Does it matter if the Iraq war was legal?”, April 25, 2005, extracted from:,,6-1584733,00.html

[xv] Steve Cobble, “After Downing Street”, posted online on June 6, 2005, and extracted from

[xvi] “Staying What Course?”, The New York Times, May 16, 2005.

[xvii] Extracted from The New York Times, public editor’s web journal, at: “The Times” refers here, of course, to the shorthand description The New York Times

[xviii] Available at

[xix] “Poll Finds Dimmer View of Iraq War”, The Washington Post, June 8, 2005, page A01.

[xx] “That not-winning feeling”, Editorial, The Economist, June 16, 2005.

[xxi] “Survey Finds Most Support Staying in Iraq”, The Washington Post, June 28, 2005, page A01. Characteristically, the headline conveyed the single respect in which the mood of the public had not diverged from the political posture of the Bush administration. And perhaps in a slight anomaly in relation to the survey conducted three weeks prior, 52 per cent of those sampled in this survey seemed to think that the war had contributed to U.S. national security. But independent of perspective, the point at which the survey results broke fresh ground was in reporting that a significant 52 per cent of the respondents believed that “the administration deliberately misled the public before the war”.

[xxii] It was perhaps a sign of the times that the contrast with earlier speeches that Bush had delivered to U.S. military personnel, when the audience response had been little short of exuberantly jingoistic, was much remarked upon. See “Troops’ Silence at Fort Bragg Starts a Debate all its Own”, The New York Times, June 30, 2005. Questions reached a sufficient pitch for the president’s official spokesperson to clarify that the audience had been under instruction to remain quiet, since the occasion was deemed to be a solemn one at which significant matters of policy were being laid out by their commander-in-chief.

[xxiii] The results of the survey were posted on the web at: They have since been archived but should be available at the Zogby International website.

[xxiv] Daniel Ellsberg, “I Wrote Bush’s War Words – in 1965”, The Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2005, available at this writing at

[xxv] For brief reviews of these two books, see “Enemies List”, The New York Times, September 9, 2007. For the background to Ledeen’s possible involvement in the Niger-uranium forgeries, see this author’s “American Exceptionalism and the Multilateral Pretence: Or, John Bolton and the New Lawlessness”, Economic and Political Weekly, May 7, 2005, especially page 1944.

Broadcast bill: once more into the limbo

The fleeting public reappearance of the Broadcast Services Regulation Bill (BSRB) and its subsequent relegation to a legislative limbo, is consistent with the Central Government’s record of continually failing the test of creatively managing the airwaves as a public resource.

In comparison to its immediate predecessor -- the 2006 bill with an identical name -- the 2007 visitation of the BSRB shows some inclination to accommodate reservations about the Government’s obduracy in holding on to its formal powers of control. A concession to autonomy has been made in the 2007 draft by ceding the power of appointing the broadcast regulatory authority to a supposedly non-partisan committee comprising the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.

The delicate political balance within this collegium though, is perhaps upset by the norm that a quorum of two would be sufficient to effect all appointments if the last named post is vacant. And if the committee fails to arrive at a consensus within thirty days of the Central Government putting up its nominations, the matter would go to the President of India for a decision.

Inevitably, initiatives in broadcast regulation will be assessed against the background of various proposals tabled since the mid-1990s. The norms on appointment of a broadcast regulator at once bring to mind the provisions governing the choice of the board of the public broadcast trust, Prasar Bharati. Precisely such a non-partisan framework of decision-making was enshrined in the Prasar Bharati Act, notified in 1997. But in practice, the process has degenerated into blatant political and bureaucratic cronyism.

In consequence, Prasar Bharati, which was already floundering in the face of the challenge from the new generation of cable and satellite broadcasters, has now been quite decisively banished to the distant margins of the broadcast sector.

That apart, the Government succeeds, in the following clauses of the BSRB, in clawing back much of the power yielded to an autonomous regulator. For instance, the broadcast regulator would be obliged to choose its “secretary”, who would be its chief executive officer, from a panel of names that would be put before it by the Central Government. The qualifications specified for this post clearly suggest that the nominees would be drawn from the bureaucracy. And the same process would be followed by the authority in its appointment of chief executives to the various regional regulatory bodies envisaged under the BSRB.

Any residual suggestion of autonomy is extinguished by the provision that the broadcast regulator would have to adhere to “policy guidelines” issued by the Central Government in the performance of its tasks, which would include the registration of broadcasters, allocation of frequencies, and the governance of content. The identification of public service broadcasters whose signals would by law, have to be carried by all cable networks, was within the province of the regulator under the 2006 bill. The current version brings it under the jurisdiction of the Central Government, despite an entire chapter being added on the powers of a putative “public service broadcasting council”.

These apart, the BSRB 2007 reserves a large area of discretionary authority for the Central Government to intervene in broadcast content on grounds of “external threat or war involving India” or other “exceptional circumstances”. These eventualities, which are already inscribed into article 19 of the Constitution, could include public order, friendly relations with a foreign country, or internal security.

Where the functioning of the media is concerned, these constitutional restrictions have never, except during the Emergency regime, been used to justify prior restraint of the right to free speech. The BSRB formally introduces the possibility of prior restraint into the debate on free speech. This in turn, could well mean a significant abridgment in the public right to information, since free speech and the right to know, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, are closely intertwined principles.

While invoking the 1995 Supreme Court judgment on the airwaves being a public resource, the BSRB 2007 seeks little else than to extend the bureaucracy and vest it with formal powers that have long ceased to have any constructive purpose. The powers of search and seizure though, stand undiluted in relation to the 2006 draft. Whatever its ultimate fate, the BSRB 2007 perhaps, suggests nothing so much as bureaucracy’s ingrained resistance to change and its talent for confusing the public interest with the perpetuation of its own powers.

Broadcast regulation: Narrow consultations, indifferent results

Broadcast regulation, for all its importance from a public interest standpoint, today seems reduced to an elaborate game of feint and manoeuvre between the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the country’s bigger media houses. Played out every so often in public view, there is yet no accounting for the specific intervals at which the two principals choose to enact their practised routine, except perhaps the Ministry’s reading of when it is in need of some media attention.

In its two most recent visitations, the drama has played itself out with remarkable similarity. A bill is introduced and opened up for public comments; it is greeted with a torrent of adverse comment by the country’s main media houses; the Ministry concedes the need for further consultation and organises a few such events, marked more by the exertion of lung-power than reason. Finally, the Ministry, in acknowledgment of the strong sentiments of the media industry, accepts the need for further deliberations and defers the introduction of the bill in Parliament a little longer.

In its phrasing, the new version of the Broadcast Services Regulation Bill (BSRB) differs in a few minor matters of detail from its immediate predecessor. In spirit though, it partakes of the same inspiration, making no more than a pretence of letting zealously guarded governmental powers go. That these powers are now a pale shadow of what they once were, is seemingly of no consequence. The erosion of the governmental monopoly over the airwaves has not yet engendered a constructive spirit of engagement with the potential rewards of open access to the airwaves.

The BSRB in its most recent avatar was introduced for public discussion on July 21, with the stipulation that all comments be submitted within two weeks. Even by the standards of a bureaucracy that has reduced public consultations to an empty ritual, this was rather cavalier. In the days that followed, the Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, seemed to retreat from his earlier expressed intent to introduce the bill in the monsoon session of Parliament.

The reasons for the minister’s reticence can only be guessed at. But it was almost certainly a powerful consideration that industry associations and the big media houses had uniformly, reacted adversely to the draft bill. And thus, after one more round of public consultations, confined to representatives of the broadcast industry and a few other bodies that the Ministry chose to identify as “stakeholders”, the fourth attempt at broadcast regulation in a decade passed into history. Like its predecessors, it had fallen victim to the hostility of the broadcast industry and the failure of the Ministry to go beyond a narrow circle in assessing the larger public stakes in broadcast regulation.

This most recent attempt at introducing a broadcast law has shown more clearly than ever before, that the Government is unlikely to get very far if it continues to use the approval of big players in the broadcast industry as the touchstone for assessing the worth of any proposed legislation. But while the government dithers, facts on the ground are being created that make the job of regulation increasingly difficult. Cross-media ownership was once non-existent in India. Today, giant companies with entrenched interests in print, radio and television are increasingly dominating the media scene and exercising a virtual veto over any proposed legislation.

The consequence is that, 12 years after a historic judgment by the Supreme Court, which laid down the principle of public ownership over the broadcast spectrum, the Government continues to be in default on the task it was specifically enjoined to undertake: the creation of a public authority that would oversee the allocation of the spectrum for optimal public benefit.

Civil society groups, anxious to see the principle of public ownership operationalised, have focused on the many serious lacunae in the process of drafting and introducing broadcast legislation. Invariably, there has been little public consultation. Committees are formed in accordance with opaque criteria and these committees, in turn, function without any serious effort at eliciting a broad range of opinion. They finally arrive at legislative drafts that are an uneasy compromise between the government’s reluctance to let go of its controlling urge, and the broadcast industry’s aversion to accepting any form of oversight.

Yet, with every successive cycle through which this game is played out, the Government’s hand steadily weakens. Its monopoly over the airwaves has long since been breached by technological changes. And its voice, once a decisive influence in the policy debate, is steadily being diminished by the growing clout of the broadcast industry and its ability to tap the resources of the print media, to further its cause.

Though the Ministry has been insistent that it has factored in the perceptions of media consumers in producing its draft bill, there has yet been no credible account of how these consumer groups are identified. Other civil society groups have perhaps by design, been a marginal presence in the discussions so far. They have, moreover, been reluctant to join the debate on terms determined by the Government and the broadcast industry.

These aspects of the process that has been followed by the Ministry are reflected in the text of the BSRB, in its latest draft. At no point does the bill make the slightest concession to public as opposed to political control of the broadcast spectrum. The process that it conceives of for the appointment of a Broadcast Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) is entirely political and involves little consultation with the public on a broader scale. The powers of the BRAI moreover, are not derived from the public in accordance with the mandate of the Supreme Court’s 1995 judgment, but delegated from the Government.

Discussions organised by advocacy groups around the most recent draft of the broadcast bill have thrown up a significant issue of process. The 1995 airwaves judgment gives the Government contingent rights of custodianship over the airwaves, but no enduring powers to determine how they should be utilised. Broadcast regulation, certain civil society groups have argued, should in this sense, begin with the constitution of a broad-based forum that would represent the public in the most comprehensive possible manner. The institutional forms and procedures of broadcast regulation should then be worked out by this body, rather than be assigned to it by the Government.

Media houses have for obvious reasons focused on the powers of search and seizure that the BSRB confers, as an area of serious concern. This apart, the bill identifies certain contingencies, such as an “external threat”, “public order” and more mysteriously, “friendly relations with foreign countries”, as occasions when the Government would feel entitled to abridge the content of broadcasts, or even proscribe certain categories of broadcast. This amounts to little less than the introduction of a doctrine of prior restraint into the jurisprudence on the media and the right to free speech. It is a legislative provision with farreaching consequences, which obviously deserves more than the cursory attention it has attracted so far.

Among the grounds on which the BRAI could stop certain categories of broadcasts, is a failure to abide by the so-called Self-Regulation Guidelines for the Broadcasting Sector, that have been introduced as a corollary to the new draft of the BSRB. These “guidelines”, otherwise known as the “content code”, are partly about relieving the judiciary and the Government of some of the burden of administering post facto remedies and sanctions. Broadcast service providers will be expected to set up in-house content auditors to ensure that all broadcasts are in conformity with agreed norms. Complaints from the public if any, would first be dealt with through this in-house mechanism.

If redress is unavailable at this level, the complainant would be entitled to take his grievance to the next tier in the hierarchy, which would be the industry body. All apex associations in the industry – such as the News Broadcasters’ Association, the Indian Broadcasting Federation, the Community Radio Forum, the Cable Operators’ Forum of India and the Advertising Standards Council of India – would be expected to set up “complaints commissions” to address these public grievances.

Beyond this, the BRAI comes into the picture and then the higher judiciary. Though this regulatory mechanism does not supercede the judicial process, it is expected to relieve some of the stresses that the courts endure when called upon to adjudicate on matters of media practice.

The utility of this very intrusive charter, which goes by the name of “self-regulation”, should be weighed against the possible impact that a minimal number of sound judicial precedents would have. A set of clear and transparent judicial rulings could conceivably be of far greater significance in this respect, than a policy that seeks to internalise within every media house, certain restraints on free speech.

Viewed from this perspective, there is ultimately no alternative to establishing the juridical foundations of free speech and media practice. Anything less would mean undue concessions to a doctrine of prior restraint. In this respect, there have been proposals mooted by professional bodies, to widen the ambit of the Press Council of India, to enable it to deal with the broadcast media and to tighten up its procedures so that its findings are minimally binding on the industry.

Yet the Government in addressing the mission of broadcast regulation, seems to adopt the reverse perspective: that post facto remedies are impossible or useless, and that prior restraint is the only feasible recourse. In seeking to justify the strict application of the “content code” to the media for instance, the Ministry argues that “damage or injustice resulting from news and current affairs contents of television cannot be undone post facto”.

This must seem a rather curious plea in an age of proliferating media channels, when erstwhile constraints that were deemed to arise from the physical limitations of the broadcast spectrum, are no longer operative. The changes that have arisen from these changes are apparent all around. In 1949, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the U.S., enacted what came to be called the Fairness Doctrine, which was premised upon the notion that broadcast companies were no more than “public trustees” over the airwaves and obliged as such, to provide a fair hearing for every conceivable viewpoint within society. It was always a doctrine that was clumsy and selective in its application. But in 1987, with erstwhile limitations on the broadcast spectrum proving inapplicable, the FCC felt emboldened to repeal the Fairness Doctrine, on the grounds that no member of the public would be deprived of the means to access the airwaves to put his viewpoints across. Though a decision based as much on ideology as fact, it does highlight how a regulatory regime that guarantees fair rules of access, can make notions of prior restraint thoroughly superfluous.

The remedy in other words, lies not in constraining the right to free speech, but in allowing it greater latitude. Though the Government has chosen to overlook the infinite possibilities available on that front, recasting the Prasar Bharati apparatus to transform it into an authentic public service broadcaster, that ensures fair rules of access, would be one way to guarantee that false and scurrilous news reports in other channels do not go unchallenged. But with its well-known aversion to “letting go”, the Government seems unwilling to consider any progressive change on that front.

Certain other locutions within the “content code” seem to give rise to a fair suspicion that its true purpose may be to restrain the public scrutiny of official malfeasance. The following, patently illogical clause hints at this hidden intent: “Any infringement of privacy in the making of a news based/related programme should be with the person’s and/or organization’s consent or be otherwise ‘warranted’.” (Chapter IV, clause 14.4).

Though poorly enforced and understood, laws protecting an individual’s privacy are very much a part of the Indian Penal Code. Any intrusion into an individual’s privacy by the media has in this sense, to clear certain legal hurdles. Over time though, it has become an accepted principle that in cases involving the public interest, media intrusions into an individual’s privacy may be warranted, though if the revelations do not measure up in their seriousness to the gravity of the intrusion, the media would be laying itself open to sanctions under the law. Privacy in other words, cannot be a shroud for gross acts of malfeasance. The “content code” seeks to reduce this common-sense to absurdity by insisting on an individual’s consent for an invasion into his privacy.

These are matters involving media practice in its most fundamental sense, as a duty to inform the public and to contribute to the quality of the public discourse. Viewed in this manner, it would seem inadmissible that the Ministry should proceed with broadcast legislation in the complete absence of any consultations with accredited bodies of media practitioners and the larger public. That in short, is the reason why the fourth effort at broadcast regulation, like its immediate predecessor, has lacked public acceptance and legitimacy. Indeed, the principal reason why broadcast regulation has sunk into a rut, may well be the determination of the Government to keep the public interest, defined in as broad a manner as possible, out of the debate.

Sukumar Muralidharan
September 10, 2007