Cola controversy lesson for media management

Saturday 30 September 2006

-- the day after Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss told Parliament that the Centre for Science and Environment's (cse's) exhaustive study on carbonated beverages was "inconclusive", the Delhi edition of the Hindustan Times carried the story as its lead story on page one. As part of the lead package, the newspaper juxtaposed Ramadoss's mugshot with that of cse director Sunita Narain. Below the two shots were quotes Ramadoss's carried the operative part of his "inconclusive" claim and Narain's carried a statement pointing out that the health ministry report had quoted verbatim from the findings of a London laboratory funded by Coca-Cola. Balanced presentation and journalistic rectitude were in evidence. The same story also appeared in the paper's Patna edition -- with one change. Narain's photograph and her quote had disappeared.There is, of course, no way for us to find out what had transpired. But there is enough to speculate on media management by powerful multinationals and the complicity of press in compromising its independence. At the danger of sounding nave, it may be noted that the advocacy of the public interest is no longer a part of the ethic of the fourth estate in a world driven by advertising revenues and bottom lines.

Lest this be construed as an attack against one edition of one paper, let us clarify the point. In the first flush after cse's revelations it appeared that there was some balance in both reportage and editorial comment. But with each passing day it became abundantly clear that the media had made its choices -- needless to say cse did not figure prominently in the list of priorities. The reportage became increasingly biased and comment increasingly slanted. Long corporate arms had done their job swiftly, efficiently.

There's a footnote to this. While the national media made its choice rather obviously, parts of the international media remained balanced, evincing some sympathy for a public institution doing a job in the public interest. But even in that arena what became increasingly dominant was the spin factor. Reams have now been written on the crisis management strategies of the corporations -- focussing mostly on their weaknesses. In the midst of it all, the vital point has been lost. How can we rescue public health from the grasp of big corporations? How can we force the regulators to regulate?

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