When a democracy deploys weapons of mass distraction

In authoritarian regimes, television is roped in to disseminate events that the ruling strongman presides over.
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

Napoleon spoke of the press as “the seventh great power”. Its significance became politically visible with the beginning of the French Revolution, and maintained its position for the entirety of the 19th century. The century’s politics were largely determined by the press. One can hardly imagine or explain the major historical events between 1800 and 1900 without considering the powerful influence of journalism.—Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister in the Hitler regime, 1938

In August 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor, Goebbels inaugurated the 10th International Radio Show in Berlin with a speech titled ‘The Radio as the Eighth Great Power’. Very neatly, he separated the press—Napoleon’s “seventh great power”—from the radio. They were, in his eyes, two different journalisms, so to speak: the press being print, shackled by the reach of industrial machinery such as printing presses and distributive facilities such as roads and trucks, and radio, travelling through unstoppable air, hampered by nothing at all.

That very year, German citizens were deluged with a range of cheap bakelite radio sets under the rather clipped rubric of Volksempfänger, or the people’s receiver. Available on instalments, these ubiquitous radios pushed Goebbels’ cause for a medium that would be “an intermediary between the government and the nation”.

The government arm-twisted twenty-eight manufacturers, including Philips, Siemens and Telefunken, into mass-producing clones of the Volksempfänger, with not a circuit or art-deco design permitted to be out of place. The radio’s construction might have been tightly controlled, but Goebbels, a master of the methodology of propaganda, held a loose but selective rein on programming. For light consumption, he allowed operas, Tanzmusik, concerts and games; at the same time, he banned music he considered corrupted, such as jazz and the rambunctious swing. Enthralled by the possibilities of entertainment at the twist of a dial, the German public accepted the censorship. Notwithstanding these little pleasures, the German public was pounded incessantly with the incendiary oratory of one man: the putative Reichsführer.

“Ultimately,” wrote Allison Marsh in Inside the Third Reich’s Radio, “Goebbels’s propaganda machine and the Volksempfänger transformed the soundscape of cities across Germany and led to a uniformity of culture.” When minorities—Jews, Poles, homosexuals, the antinormative demonised through repetition—began to disappear, some overnight, the Volk, or the people, deep in their enthralment, were unmoved. Many became active participants in the Reinigungsprojekt, or cleansing project of the Nazi regime.

Meanwhile, the number of newspapers in Germany shrunk year by year from 4,700 in 1933, of which only 141, or three percent, were controlled by Hitler, to 1,100 in 1944, of which 325, or 29.5 percent—not counting the regional editions—were owned by the Nazi party. About half of all newspapers were in private or institutional hands, but their readership withered to 4.4 million, while those owned by the Nazi party—fewer in number but with immeasurably greater clout—had 21 million.

After the depredations of WWII had settled into an anxious regime of study of causes and effects, communications scholars began analysing the active linkages between electronic outreach, politics, culture, media and bossism.Although many in recent times have concluded that social media is the closest cognate of the Nazi radio, studies in comparative politics often skate over the missing link—television.

Television has the equal informational ubiquity of radio, with the added seduction of the visual. Like Germany, modern-day authoritarian regimes co-opt, by hook or by crook, by inducement or by diktat, by cajoling or by kompromat, the organisational disseminators of information: electronic media houses or standalone organisations.

In authoritarian regimes, television is roped in to disseminate events that the ruling strongman presides over. The studios are stripped of decision-making powers on which news to purvey when, leave alone on whether to purvey it at all. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s exhortation to US conservatives in May 2022 comes to mind: “Have your own media”, which is a euphemism for ‘own your media’. Orbán has sidelined Hungary’s independent media, with the TV channel Partizan being pushed to a crowdfunded existence on YouTube, a journey reminiscent of former NDTV anchor Ravish Kumar’s journey from a professional TV studio to a personal YouTube channel.

No TV news channel in a democratic country with untrammelled access to newsworthy events, politicians, newsmakers and protagonists will share the exact same footage of a politician expounding—at the exact same moment, from the same angle of vision, often from the same camera—which means that it has been handed out by an official agency.

But this is exactly what happens in India’s national TV news channels—and many regional ones—at least thrice a week. Our primus politicus is always on an inauguration drive of some minor infrastructural development or the other—from Vande Bharat trains (he flagged off nine in a day a few days ago, a task earlier reserved for either a railways minister or a railways honcho) to highways, short stretches of metros, convention centres, addressing party workers or junior bureaucrats, to science seminars with few pretenses to scientism.

Each one is covered end-to-end by our news channels that pretend to exist for a while in a paradisiacal realm of no other news. This—punctuated by establishment-tilted panel shriekfests and declamations in Parliament—is what the TV news viewer from border to border gets to watch. 24/7. Change channels, and you’ll segue through the same footage without losing a second.

Towards the end of the war, many Germans, tired of Hitlerian overkill on the airwaves, had begun turning away from Nazi radio programmes and, despite the Gestapo threat to life, doctored their Volksempfänger to tune in to Allied broadcasts.
There is always blowback.

Kajal Basu

Veteran journalist


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