IS THERE ROOM FOR POVERTY IN THE MEDIA?
by P Sainath

Part 1
The 90s can be characterised as the period of the fastest growing inequality among human beings, not just in the so-called developing nations but across the world.

I'd like to give you a few snapshots from India which somewhat catch the paradox of what's happening to the masses and what the mass media are recording.

Between 1991 and 1996, hundreds of weight-loss clinics proliferated across urban India, attracting tens of thousands of Indians in what the media cutely described as 'the war on obesity'. In the same period - 1991-96 - hundreds of millions of Indians were desperately trying not to lose any more weight. The per capita availability of food grain was falling, and falling sharply every year in those six years.

In 1991 when we embarked on our bold new world of "market fundamentalism" as I call it, the average availability of pulses and cereals to Indians was 510 grams. By 1996/97 it had fallen to 436. This doesn't mean that 1,000 million Indians were eating 74 grams less, it means that 400 million people suffered a severe contraction of their diet due to poverty and the collapse of their purchasing power under the structure of existing programmes.

So on the one hand you had tens of thousands of people rushing to clinics to lose weight, while on the other hand you had hundreds of millions of people trying desperately not to lose any more weight. The media got the first story. They missed the second completely.

The second snapshot I'd offer you is related to an occasion when I took out all my old magazines (which I'd piled up without reading because I was trying to write for them instead). I placed them on the floor and looked at the covers to see what journalists were covering. The largest single number of cover stories was on India's automobile revolution! The story was exactly the same in every magazine because it was probably a corporate handout. It read that in 1980 you had three choices in India, you either bought a Fiat or an Ambassador or you walked - most of us actually still walk - but anyway by 1985 we had another choice - you could also buy a Suzuki. But today we are in the promised land and there are 34 brands of automobiles on the road. And this was a revolution that has occupied the cover of every magazine at least four times in the last few years.

So that was a very wonderful story, but would you believe that in a country which has five million registered automobiles on the road, there are three television shows weekly dedicated solely to the automobile on the Indian road? Wonderful, but there are no television shows and there is not even a single story in the magazines that tells you that between 1991 and 1997 when this incredible proliferation of automobiles took place, the rate of growth of sale of bicycles actually stagnated and declined, which is a far more reliable indicator of rural well-being. That story was missed. The automobile story was captured very brilliantly and inanely.

The third snapshot that I would offer you is that the next biggest story that you will find on the covers of Indian magazines between 1991 and 1999 is the fantastic new salaries drawn by young CEOs in their twenties. The brat pack as they're called, who earn more in the first year or two of their new jobs than their parents together earned in the previous 30 years, and we're all very proud of them, thank you very much. The salaries are absolutely fantastic; they run into tens of millions of rupees each year, and this is the brave new face of India.

In the same period that the salaries of young Indian CEOs touched the highest earnings ever known in the sub-continent, the real wages of agricultural labourers, who constitute the poorest section of Indian society, fell three times. The agricultural minimum wage in many states has not been revised for eight to ten years, leaving the real wage in a downward spiral of decline under the pressures of growing prices.

The media got the stories of the executives, but it didn't get the stories of the agricultural labourers, many hundreds of whom had committed suicide between 1991 and 2000, especially in my home state of Andhra Pradesh, where in 1997-98 four hundred farmers committed suicide in two districts of Warangal and Nizamabad. And again this year nearly 40 more have committed suicide. The media gets that story very marginally. The government responds by sending psychiatrists to Mehboobnagar to counsel the farmers, because committing suicide is a dumb thing to do, isn't it?

The central disconnect that we have been witnessing during our times is between mass media on the one hand and mass reality on the other, between the media and poverty. I'd like to the make the point that disparity and inequality are not Indian (though we do have the largest number of absolute poor in the world) but they are global. Between 1994 and 1998 the 200 richest people in the world more than doubled their net worth to more than one trillion dollars. There are three individuals who are richer than the combined gross domestic product of 48 less developed countries. Under globalisation, the illegal drug trade accounts for 400 billion dollars, eight per cent of world trade which is more than that the trade share of iron, steel, motor vehicles, a figure that is about the same as textiles, gas and oil.

Between 1991 and 2000, as measured by the UNDP Human Development Report, the gross national product of 59 countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe, has declined steeply. Death rates have increased in these countries. Infant mortality and illiteracy have actually risen in countries like Russia. In 1960 the income gap between the top 20 percent of the world's population and the bottom 20 percent was 30-1. In 1997 the gap had risen to 74-1. In this period Africa lost one fifth of all her income. The average African household consumes 20 percent less today than it did 25 years ago.

Today Americans spend eight billion dollars a year on cosmetics, which is two billion more than the estimated annual total needed to provide basic education for every child in the world, and 17 billion dollars a year on pet food. Two hundred and twenty-five individuals, of whom 60 are Americans with total assets of 311 billion dollars, have a combined wealth of over one trillion dollars. That's equal to the annual income of the poorest 47 percent of the world's population. The top 20 percent of the world's population consumes 86 percent of all goods and services when the bottom 20 percent consumes just 1.3 percent. Indeed the top 20 percent consumes 45 percent of all meat and fish, 58 percent of all energy used, 84 percent of all paper, 74 percent of all telephone lines and owns 84 percent of all vehicles.

It is estimated that the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, reproductive healthcare for all women, food for all, clean water for all, safe sewers for all, would total roughly 40 billion dollars a year - less than four percent of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people on our planet. That side of poverty is never explored by the media in the way it should -- the link between the incredible misery of the many and the obscene affluence of the few.

So what is it that we do cover? To entertain myself every now and then I look at one of the beats we're covering in the Indian press (beat is a portfolio given to a reporter). Around 1991, when I first started this exercise, the largest number of correspondents in the Indian press were political correspondents like myself. We produced earth-shaking stuff like 'and the Prime Minister sat here today'. The second largest were the Ministry correspondents and the third largest, sports correspondents which in India largely means, cricket correspondents. One venerable newspaper in the East of India has a full-time golf correspondent. Now the statistical negligibility of golf in the Indian population is beyond my mathematical ability! We have correspondents who are highly paid for doing this noble job.

Today there is a proliferation of new beats The ruling tribe are the business correspondents. Non-financial dailies regularly have 11 correspondents covering highly specialised aspects of business. I think this rather sadly reflects a world-wide situation. This is not only true of India. As I look at how beats have changed in newspapers world-wide, I find that the same transformation has taken place. I have a friend who just covers market futures, and he calls himself a journalist. He's got a card to prove it and that's all he does but he's paid about six times more than what I earn.

In India, since the 90s and the advent of liberalisation and globalisation, there has been a proliferation of new portfolios. We have full-time fashion correspondents, glamour correspondents and design correspondents, although my favourite is the eating out correspondent, which I'd love to be. And now we have 11 correspondents covering business in a non-financial daily in a society where less than two percent of the population have investments of any kind. But in spite of these beats, you do not have a single full-time correspondent covering poverty. I cover it but I'm not a full-time employee of any newspaper. In a country that has the largest housing shortage in the world we do not have a full-time correspondent on housing, urban or rural. We do not have a full-time correspondent on education, by which I mean primary education. The guy who has to do primary education is usually saddled with other important portfolios like maybe plumbing and poultry farming or whatever else they can think of.

The beats related to covering the lives of ordinary people have shrunk and vanished at a rapid rate. Central to this trend is the factor of growing monopoly in the media. It is simply wiping out space for social sector issues; it is driving that out of the media, it is drumming good journalists out of the press, out of television and radio and it is completely contracting the space in which serious journalism can take place.

Now to give you some examples: when I came back to Bombay a couple of months ago and visited the Times of India on May 12th, there were four journalists working on serious city stories of housing and land scams. A day later on May 13th I received a call from one of the journalists, who said "we've stopped all our stories and there's no work for another three months". I said '"That's ridiculous. Why?" To which they replied, "because yet another Indian woman has won a Miss Universe title: Lara Datta. "Now the management will fill the papers because it will become ads parading as news. We do not have work to do for three months. If we take leave and come back in a couple of months no one will notice." That is because there is so much money riding on the beauty business and the newspapers and the media are fully into that.

There's a very strong commercial side to the whole beauty business that doesn't get explored in the media, because the media are neck-deep in that racket. In 1994-95 two young Indian women sparked the world-wide trend of winning the Miss World and Miss Universe titles. Across six major newspapers the coverage of space given to this event exceeded all social sector news items covered in major publications during the same period. The media interpreted this development in terms of a new self-respect and maturity for Indian women!

 

Part 2
In the 90s, as poverty and distress deepened, the media have turned further away from reporting poverty. When, for the first time since independence, large-scale hunger-related deaths began to surface, they did so in some of the richest states of the country like Maharashtra, of which Bombay is the capital. It began to surface in the very rich states, not in traditional distress areas. And when they did, when 37 children died 90 kilometres from the very rich metropolis of Bombay, the country's leading magazine gave it two pages and a quarter of a column. It a very well written story. In the same issue nine pages were given to the wedding of cricket superstar Imran Khan.

In 1994 the plague in India was an international story. It touched urban areas, disturbed the beautiful people and scared the global community stiff. It actually claimed 54 lives and we still don't know what the hell it was all about. But that got the front pages of every newspaper in the world because the beautiful people were scared. You see, one of the distressing things about plague germs is that they are notoriously non-observant of class distinctions. And what's worse, they board aircraft and fly first class to New York and London, so all the aircraft had to be sprayed here and that also became a front page photograph. 54 people died. Each year half a million people die of tuberculosis in the same country. You will not find two columns on this because they are the wrong sort of people and so they do not deserve to figure in the news. More than 1.5 million infants die of diarrhoea in India each year: find me two columns for that, in the whole output of a newspaper in a year find me two columns for that.

Only two newspapers in the year 2000 have actually reported official statistics that confirm that during 1991-1997, the so-called reform programmes have added another 70 million people below the poverty line to add to the 327 already there. And this has not made news in the so-called national press.

It's important to know who these poor that we're talking about are. When I spoke to you about the young chief executives, new jobs, new technologies, the new opportunities that are being opened up, I wanted to say that in the same year that we celebrated our top executives, the number of Indians registered as job-seekers at employment exchanges touched 40 million, which is the population of the Republic of South Africa.

India is a peninsula country and, if you stuff those 40 million people into a single queue two to a meter so that they're breathing down each other's collars, that queue would be three and a quarter times the length of our coastline, and our coastline is 6,083 kilometres long. No one's done a cover story on that, no one's done a TV programme on that because they're the wrong kind of people.

What happens when the media actually covers poverty, what happens when we actually go out there and do it? Because we've not had beats, because we've not had structured attempts at covering this in the same legitimate way as we cover business or sports we end up mucking it up. So you have basically certain modes of coverage which I think are again prevalent world-wide: 1. The poor as unending victims. They're victims -- or they're passive recipients of development, never the source. 2. The poor as romantic heroes - which some of the NGOs require to keep themselves going. 3. The third aspect of the coverage of poverty is the complete lack of humour associated with it, which is exactly the opposite of the amount of humour you find amongst the poor who need humour as a survival mechanism. 4. All poverty is reported as events, not as process. Poverty is generally covered in terms of breathless horror, purple prose and it focuses on the shock and agony of the correspondent seeing somebody, not on that somebody and what their needs are and where their problems are rooted and how we are part of the problem.

Much of the coverage of poverty that I've surveyed in the Indian press consists of rhetoric and overstatement. Reports tend to speak of poorest village, the poorest man (you know I don't know how anyone decides that) typical clichés by which poverty is covered. I've been glad to find out while looking in the UK press that it's not very dissimilar here. Any journalist visiting a poor village will write "here time has stood still". Time hasn't stood still anywhere except in the writer's brain. But the more important points about the coverage of poverty are disparity and poverty as calamity; distress as natural calamity is a central idiom of the media.

India Today has reported on a district in Madhya Pradesh in India called Tikamgarh, calling it the "most barren, infertile, hostile, unproductive land and a whole population has no alternative but to contemplate suicide". They actually wrote this! I have visited the same district many times over the years. It has extreme poverty; it has an infant mortality rate of a 194, but it is also the richest district in Madhya Pradesh in terms of food production. The media can't understand the link between extraordinary affluence and miserable poverty. If you look at the 45 districts of India's biggest state geographically, this district is number one in terms of food production. If you take human development indicators, Tikamgarh is number 8. So in the same state, and I'm addressing the gospel of growth here, you have these fantastic productivity levels and its immeasurable poverty. How do the two go together? It's because there's an old-fashioned word that many of us have forgotten - exploitation. It's called class ex ploitation and it is the basic source of poverty. That's inequality and disparity in ownership of resources and control of basic human resources. These stories are never covered in this context. The fake sensationalism and the breathless horror actually hide the truly sensational. They hide the truly sensational degradation that human beings knowingly impose on other human beings through their policies.

So poverty coverage is all about events and not processes. Poverty is a process, not an event. Some of us would like to consider that new technologies are going to liberate us. This is one of the favourite staples of the Indian media these days. It is true that that Telugu and Tamil are spoken more widely than English in IT places like the headquarters of Microsoft in Seattle. In fact there are more Indian kitchens here than any other because there are so many of us working there, and we are so terribly proud of them.

The state from where the maximum number of software engineers emigrate - Andhra Pradesh, with its capital Hyderabad, now called Cyberabad, also has the lowest human development indicators for any southern state in India. It's about 30 percent below the literacy levels of Kerala, 20 percent below the literacy levels of Tamilnadu, and it has the worst infant mortality rates for a state in Southern India. The chief minister of the area, who is known as a visionary, Chandrababu Naidu has installed a computer at various block headquarters so the villagers now have access to e-mail. The joke I heard when I went round the villages was "it's absolutely wonderful, now we can e-mail our chief minister that there's no water, no housing and no food, but we can only do it when there's electricity!"

Please consider a few things about the Internet. I'm a net buff myself but let's not get into this romantic bullshit about the Internet. It's a very traditional medium in many ways. Look at the ratio profile and the gender profile of net users and you will see how traditional a medium the net has already become. It may be the fastest growing medium among the young people of the world, but two-thirds of the world's children have never had access to a telephone line, let alone computers and the net. Tokyo and Osaka have more telephone lines than the continent of Africa. The in-built inequality in every other sphere of human activity will now get equally entrenched in this. Are we forgetting already the new AOL, CNN, Time-Warner mergers that are taking place on the net? Monopoly is making its way there, and is central to this entire process that we're talking about.

While I think India's achievements in computers are fantastic in many respects, let me balance that by pointing out that there are more PCs in New York than there are in all of India. The figure I give you is from the Information Technology Manufacturers Association of India in their bulletin of 2000 March. These are the guys who are making the revolution, and they say that there are more PCs in New York than in our country, because one of the problems in India is that a hundred million children are outside school. So the IT race is actually deepening an already existing divide.

While newspapers and magazines do stories of the top ten schools in India - the schools at which Microsoft and Oracle do their 'body-shopping' -- there is another reality which is hardly covered. Of every hundred children of school-going age, 70 are enrolled. Out of the 70 who join class one, 35 drop out by class five due to economic pressures. Out of the 35 who survive class five all but 10 drop out by class eight, and of the remaining 10, five complete high school. You can look at the efficiency of the educational system in India in two ways: it's five percent or it's 95 percent. The system gets rid of all the undesirables before they come to college and lead demos and agitations.

Those drop-outs have a class composition, they have a caste composition, they have a regional composition, they have an indigenous people composition, they have the so-called untouchable class composition - a Dalit composition. These stories are not being told. So yes, the new technologies offer you tremendous possibilities, I maintain that. I can think of tremendous applications by new technologies in the fight against poverty, but it's not going to happen by romanticising it and it's not going to happen by pretending that you can do it without addressing the basic issues of inequality, lack of control over resources and lack of decision-making by many people in the process of determining what it will be used for. If we just keep chanting the mantra of new technology without addressing human inequality you're going to make things a lot worse than they already are.

In answer to the question - is there space in the media for poverty? I would say yes, but only if we are willing to fight for it. If we are willing to treat the media as public property, as a public forum where we have rights, where ordinary people have rights, where people's movements have rights. If people have civil rights they also have media rights. They also have a right in the public forums that influence opinion and policy in the world.

In discussing poverty the most important thing today is please don't de-politicise it. Poverty is an extremely political process. I describe the era that we are living in as market fundamentalism: it is the most vicious fundamentalism of our times because it cuts across all religions, all cultures, all geographical barriers; it is existent in almost every society in the world today. By the way market fundamentalism is also a very religious fundamentalism. It too has its temples and churches. It has its popes and pundits. It has its higher and lower clergy. It has its conflicting denominations in IMF and the World Bank. And it even has its tele-evangelists. You can see them any day. Put on any channel. It is based on the gospel of growth and gospel of greed. There is a film now being circulated called the 'Virtue of Greed'. It is fundamentalism of the most devastating kind and it has done more damage to more human lives than any other fundamentalism in the preceding decade.

The space that currently exists in the media is one point. The other point is what is it that we can do to change that? Today poverty exists in the media under the following preconditions:

  1. Poverty is natural; the rich/poor divide has always been there; the poor have always been with us. Sad, but this has always been the case.
  2. Poverty is particularly inherent in the Third World. The poor in the rich countries - all those guys - they're basically slackers and welfare cheats and single mothers feeding their alcoholism habit on welfare funds.

    I'm only discussing the main trends: we can celebrate the exceptions separately. The exceptions that go on to win Pulitzer prizes and things like that. It's almost as if the papers have a space for this very reason, a moving story on inner city Chicago and the rest of the year you are driving policies that are driving the people of the inner cities of Chicago to absolute devastation. The same newspaper editorial drives those policies, demands those policies and then has one sympathetic two-page spread on the plight of the poor.

  3. The third situation under which poverty exists in the media is as natural calamity not as exploitation. If exploitation must be admitted to, it's somebody else's exploitation, not ours, because we are the good guys. You see, it's those bad landlords and feudal landlords in the Third World and it's a few bad people who are smugglers of illegal immigrants; someone else's exploitation, not our own. Or it's the outcome of unending tribal conflict in Africa. It's not seen that the tribal conflict is an outcome of these factors.

  4. Fourthly, poverty -- and this is very important because the coverage of poverty in the media today is conditional on this -- is in no way the result of free market capitalism, or you don't have space as a journalist. Take my word for it.

    No coverage of poverty may be undertaken which solidly suggests the idea that free market capitalism is the source of much inequality and poverty in the world. If the link between poverty and free market exists, it's because we aren't free market enough, the reforms have not moved fast enough -- that's the reason, not because of the reforms. In short, you may have some space for poverty, but in no way can you question the prevailing ethos of market fundamentalism, the dominant fundamentalism of our times.

  5. The fifth precondition of poverty coverage is based on the view that the poor need us, the elite. They are useless themselves. They cannot do a damned thing themselves. And this is what has driven project development for the last fifty years - at the end of which there are more poor people in the world than there ever were. Project development has really benefited the rich enormously. I make the distinction between project development and people development. You just have to pick up a United Nations Bulletin that comes out 26 times a year. It's called Development Business and count how may billions of dollars worth of contracts there are.

Right now the World Bank and the WHO are behind a wonderful programme in India against malaria: it's making millions. The programme consists of distributing millions of mosquito nets impregnated with anti-mosquito repellent to people who don't have beds. Now the other problem with the anti-malaria programme is that mosquitoes are not keenly active when you are asleep, they're active at dusk. Now of course you could make a bold new fashion statement by walking about in your net but I suspect it would curb your activities somewhat, but you could try it. You know the Bank and the WHO have said it's a good thing, what do I know?

If we are going to create genuine space for poverty in the media then we are going to have to do some things:

  1. We are going to have to challenge and confront the mindset of market fundamentalism, the idea of market as God and the idea of growth as the gospel. I read a very beautiful saying by an American environmentalist which sort of sums up my feeling on this, which says: "Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell". If you're going to look for genuine space in the media, you're going to have to confront the whole mindset of market fundamentalism; you're going to have to fight against monopoly; you're going to have to fight for more diversity in the media; you're going to have to fight for the small voices to be heard in the press. A whole slew of legislation goes through every year in more and more countries allowing the media to get more and more concentrated. Very often the debate goes by default because we're not intervening in that debate. If you think that you can fight poverty without fighting monopoly; if you think that you can change the media without fighting concentration of ownership, think again. It isn't going to work.

  2. It also means redefining human rights. I find that a lot of human rights groups are much more comfortable with prisons and barbed wire, with jails and disappearances which are very important issues that all of us must support entirely. However I think the biggest violation of human rights is poverty. I think you have to redefine human rights to include poverty as a violation of human being and human dignity. You're going to have to redefine the concept of human rights to include this. All of us quote extensively from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, but there are four clauses that have remained invisible because the media never speak about them. Articles 23-26 of the Declaration of Human Rights are about the right to unionise, the right to organise, the right to assembly, the right to decent wages, the right to a dignified life. Those clauses don't get mentioned when we discuss poverty. Everyone knows Article 19 right? Obviously we all support it. Please just look a little further down the p age. It will help - about a billion people or so. So I would say that it's going to be up to us to place poverty in the media into a human rights framework. We need to challenge the notion that people have to live the way they do, that people have to live without the basic minimum of a dignified existence, I think that's going to be up to us.

Lastly, I'd like to say that I think that the system must be challenged. There are challenges everywhere, and different kinds of people are protesting everywhere. I think Seattle was a manifestation of that kind of protest, I think the French truckers and farmers' strikes were a manifestation of that kind of protest. Wherever I go, I see people protesting; I see people resisting. Let's draw inspiration from the ordinary people who want to change their lives.

What can you do as an organisation? I think that as an organisation, you have the capacity to intervene in the policy debates of your societies and say no to Murdoch. Speaking about global government, he may be the next global government; he may be the first.

I think that you have to intervene in the policy debates of your societies to fight monopoly in the media, to fight monopoly generally -- monopoly in the realm of ideas, completely and absolutely. It's never been easy; it has been done. It won't be easy; it can be done.

Formerly the deputy chief editor of the weekly Blirz, P Sainath began covering issues related to rural poverty full-time after winning a Times of India scholarship to do the same. He has won several prestigious awards including the European Commission's Lorenzo Natali Prize. His book Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts is an extraordinary account of how the poorest survive in India.