FACT AS DEMOCRATIC VALUE
by Aijaz Ahmad
It is a pleasure and a privilege to be back at the Asian College for Journalism after an absence of some years. In this inaugural lecture my primary audience is the incoming class of 2015, although I am quite aware of the presence of others who might also be interested in some of what I have to say.
First of all, I want to congratulate you for the opportunity you now have to study at one of premier institutions of journalism training that we have in the country, and in deed in the Asian continent as such. The fact that you have been selected to study here testifies to your intelligence, diligence and achievement at earlier stages of your education. In most cases, this will be your first exposure to postgraduate work environment and a transition from general to professional education. This is not similar to going from second to third year of undergraduate education. This is much more of a break and a leap. The skills you learn and the values you imbibe here will have long-term consequences for you, as professionals but also as human beings. The kind of professionals you become is very closely connected with the kind of human beings you become.
When I was your age, there were only two paths for a journalist, newspaper and radio. Television was still something exotic and, for most journalists, still very remote as an aspiration. Radio meant All India Radio. That is to say, public ownership, no advertising, no pursuit of commercial profit, and the sense of a broad-based mission, which included transmission of uninterrupted, accurate, significant news; high quality informational programs for various sections of society, from schoolchildren to ordinary cultivators of the land; and, at the other, higher end of programming, preservation and propagation of High Culture, in such areas of language, literature, music and so on. The old All India Radio did more recordings of classical music than any other-- and possibly all other-- institutions in the country; not even a fraction of those recordings has been released to public. Considering that the recordings were done on highly perishable plastic on old-style big spools, much of that cultural treasure has already rotted and is still rotting in some obscure basement or warehouse of a government that has left behind that ethos of public responsibility for advancement of knowledge and culture through publicly owned media.
In years before Independence and after, it was common for the most important writers to work in newspapers and for the radio both for a modest but respectable income and for free public distribution of high culture. The 3-volume collection of the radio plays written for broadcast by AIR by Saadat Hasan Manto, the most famous Urdu fiction writer of his generation, runs into roughly 2,000 pages. Most of the eminent progressive writers of his generation worked for the radio at one time or another. And I don’t mean they were invited on some special occasion. They had salaried jobs. I might add that none of them went to a journalism schools. Things were simpler those days, people with technical skills collaborated with people of high cultural capacity, and writers did it with a sense of vocation and public purpose. Very little of that older world of broadcasting remains at the central level, even though there might be differences at regional levels.
All India Radio was originally modelled on the British Broadcasting Corporation—BBC—of those days. And I do mean “of those days.” It was a public institution with highest degree of autonomy, shunning all kinds of commerce and staffed frequently by highly educated, mostly leftwing people of considerable intellectual calibre. BBC could be full of patriotic fervour in times of war but never untruthful in its reporting. The legend of my youth was that if you heard it on BBC that must be true. That is no longer the case with even the BBC, and not the case with any news outlet in India that I am aware of. Various newspapers in India are distinguishable from each other by the degree of propaganda they carry, not by the presence or absence of propaganda in their news coverage and editorial commentary. And I know of no tv news channel which has any strict ethical standards against the practice of telling lies and concealing truths. Before I end my presentation today, I shall come to the rather complex question as to what constitutes a ‘fact’ and the to the ethics of what Western philosophy, from Socrates onwards, has called ‘the practice of telling the truth’. For now, I am using words like ‘fact’, ‘truth’ and ‘untruth’ with the most ordinary and obvious meanings of those words, the lowest denominator as it were.
As for the degradation that now permeates the media, let me share with you an anecdote about Raymond Williams, the great cultural critic and pretty much the father of communication studies in Britain. There is a thick, magnificent book comprised of interviews with him, entitled Politics & Letters. At one point in those lengthy interviews, he is asked what newspapers he reads and he names a number of local publications, small leftwing weeklies etc. He is then asked what national newspapers he reads. He pauses, then says well, I took the Times for x number of years, then the Guardian for so many years, and then one or two others, and I went on doing that sort of thing for a quarter century and then I stopped. He is asked, why, and he says: Well, I did not want those people in my house first thing in the morning.
Now, that might strike you as a bit extreme. Let me tell you, though, that I cannot yet give up reading newspapers but I have not had a tv set in my house for six or seven years, and I don’t believe I have missed much. Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean there is no good programming on tv at all. But on balance, trivia dominates. I have been a professor of political science. I have published books on contemporary politics. I frequently write long essays for Frontline on political crises that keep erupting in one part of the world or another. I often do analyses and commentaries on web-based news outlets. I did something on Iraq for Doordarshan just last week. Politics are much too important for us to just turn away. Quite the contrary. One must find the truth and find also the means to spread it as widely as possible. Not being able to turn to the major national and international new channels for serious, truthful coverage and analyses of news is a great advantage to me. I compensate for it by spending an average of about two hours every morning, rummaging through dozens of alternate websites and blogs from across the world that are run by highly dedicated individuals or groups of individuals who spend enormous time and energy in thinking about the world, discovering the truth and spreading that truth free of charge. You may wish to send them a donation, or you may not. We don’t have a widespread culture of that kind of independent generation of information and analysis. Our great reliance on corporate media means that we still depend for getting our news largely on sources that have a vested interest in suppressing much of the truth. Why should a media empire owned by the Ambanis or the Murdochs of this world tell you the truth about corporate crime? Governments are responsible for permitting a situation in which, year after year, for decades now, pauperised farmers are driven to commit suicide? Why should the same governments be interested in encouraging too sharp a focus on the property relations and state policies that are responsible for those suicides. Under democratic formality, they may issue a report here and there. But neither the agencies of state nor the media of the corporates could possibly allow reporting of such facts with the constancy, regularity and detail that may lead to serious public agitation on such issues.
And yet, the other side of the coin is that there are now new technologies, new networks for sharing of information and analysis, new possibilities opened up by the social media through which the suppression of facts can be challenged and truth be circulated among vast numbers of people. The existence of such possibility means that knowing the fascts is not only possible but, in our time, an ethical obligation. There was a time when Hitler could carry out a genocide and the “Good Germans” could claim that they did not know. That claim to ignorance is no longer possible. The essential truths are all there for you to know and use the new means for getting others to know. Ignorance about the cruelties that go on in the world that you inhabit can now only be the result of your own passivity, your own will not to know, your own decision to shut your eyes and turn the other way. Ignorance now is a deliberate passivity, and passive people cannot be democratic citizens.
There is a famous saying that the job of the intellectual is to speak truth to Power. I think Chomsky is right to reject that kind of formulation. He makes the point that you don’t have to speak Truth to Power because the powerful know all the ugly truths because their own power rests on those ugly truths. That is why they seek to monopolise the facts, hide them, distort them for public consumption, and they in deed have the means to do so. They manufacture popular consent to their policies and their propaganda through corporate control of major media outlets. We don’t have to speak Truth to Power. We must discover the truths that the powerful conceal, and then speak those truths to the people. With convictions of that kind, and in in view of what has happened to tv newscasting, and to television as a medium more generally, I see no reason to watch it. I must also say that very few of the facts I use in my own political writings, including my extensive analytic journalism, come now from the big newspapers. I get my most of my facts through alternate sources, mostly on the web or through direct communicaton on email and skype from others who are also involved in the act of gathering the real truths of our time. I will come to that too. Let me just say that in all our societies, truth is now the property of dissent. For you, my advice is: the task of a journalist is to doubt everything. If you don’t base your thinking on doubt, if you do not seek satisfaction for your doubts, you have no sound basis for believing anything. Public authorities have no stakes in telling the truth. You are going to have to unearth the truth by rubbing public discourse against the grain. Democracy is not majority rule. Democracy is the right of the minority to interrogate those who claim to represent the majority. No one in th contemporary forms of liberal democracy represents the majority. Mr. Modi won such a convincing majority of seats in the Lok Sabha with 31 per cent of the vote. Roughly the same was true of the outgoing government of Mr Manmohan Singh, not to speak of the two-term Presidency of Mr Obama. The most convincing Presidential victory in US history was achieved by Ronald Reagan who won 48 of the 50 states in the US—with only 27 per cent of the vote. All liberal democratic governments are minority governments claiming to represent the majority. You have to constitute yourself as the interrogating minority facing a ruling minority. As members of the media community, that will be your democratic right—and your democratic obligation.
The dominant media of our time is now so technologically driven, so capital- intensive, so overwhelmingly privatised and so profit-oriented that most of you who go into the profession of journalism will be entering the world made of these structural features. In short, those of you who achieve any real degree of success in this profession will likely work in the corporate media. That will bring temptations but also opportunities and obligations. Let me share with you an anecdote. I forget who but I think it was I. F. Stone, or perhaps another American journalist of that kind of impeccable reputation, who went to see Che Guevara in the Sierra Maestra during early days of the Cuban revolution. He found Che lying in a hammock and nursing a horrid asthma attack. The journalist said something highly complementary about Che’s great determination to do his duty to the revolution despite his miserable asthma at that high altitude. Che apparently said to this American journalist, breathlessly: “but you are inside the belly of the beast. You can kick harder.” If you do go to work in the corporate sector, for some big tv channel, you too will be in that situation—inside the belly of the beast. You could kick harder. Or not. That will be your choice.
Or, to put it more philosophically, I could quote from one of the last lectures of Michel Foucault who is himself quoting Socrates: the good life is the same as the beautiful life since both involve the practice of truth-telling-- to others and to oneself-- about oneself and about others. Journalism as a practice of truth can be a very punishing taskmaster but it can also give you what philosophers have called the beautiful life, as a relation to truth.
But I am not done with the chain of thought that began with my recalling what journalism, or rather public communication systems, chiefly newspaper and radio, were like when I was your age. What are the differences in the current situation. Let me recall a few. First, the multiplicity of media technologies and their social reach. You have not only television, not only corporate media bringing the most expensive and advanced hardware to the site of news virtually anywhere in the world, not only countless 24x7 news channels, all corporate owned, not only the cable on which you can watch all the national and most of the dominant global channels, supplemented by the web where you can find virtually any national channel from any country, depending on how powerful your computer is; but you also have very fine-resolution digital camera that any middle class person can realistically hope to own, cheap cellphones with video-recording facilities, fast upload platforms, and things like Youtube where tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of videographed images of real events can be found almost instantly.
This has created a very complex and contradictory reality. On the one hand, a mere handful of corporations control perhaps as much as ninety per cent of information flows that are publicly and easily available—and which constantly invade your living spaces. On the other hand, the cheapening of the digital media and uploading facilities implies, at least in principle, that far more democratic means of production and circulation are now at hand. We have the technical means, what we lack is powerful enough social organization to create a powerful enough alternative public sphere to challenge and undermine corporate control of information. Such an alternative public sphere is there, in embryonic form, but the discrepancy between corporate power and oppositional media is still so great as to be incalculable.
The second consequence is the social reach. When I was growing up, mine was the first, and until I was pack off to school, the only family in the village to own a radio set, on batteries and with spectacular long and highly placed aerial wires. Today, there is hardly any urban family that has no access to tv or cellphone, or both, while both these communication technologies have penetrated deep into the countryside. One could say that India has more widespread and certainly more effective electronic literacy than any meaningful level of the traditional abilities to communicate through reading and writing. Correspondingly, therefore, powers of the corporate media, in deed the converging powers of state propaganda and corporate media, are far more hegemonic today, directly penetrating the minds of many mre. More people now know more-- but they also know less accurately and more erroneously, while their control over their own interpretation of the world in which they live is less firm, more mediated by the barrage of expert mediatic knowledge. In other words, not only the consciousness but even the unconscious is getting colonized much more intensely, with images of packaged information but also with images of what you are now encouraged to desire.
Third, the fact that the main media of communication are so very technology driven, capital intensive and so very profitable, so tied up with the advertising industry and corporate commerce, while they also reach much larger audiences, also creates opportunities. We now have great proliferation of media streams, tv channels, specialised production units, which all generation of immense amounts of new materials every day. The field therefore needs increasingly more sophisticated professional training and area specialization, with a certain cult of expertise at the higher levels. It also creates an expanding job market for larger and larger numbers of people who are involved in what is now a massive industry. Thanks to the profit rates in much of the corporate visual media, this market can afford to pay rather high average salaries for the well trained, attracting some of the most talented and motivated youth. This structure has also seeped into the print media on only a slightly lower scale of profit. I must emphasize, though, that all of it rests substantially on advertising and commerce, summed up in the word “commercials” which typically take up roughly half of the time formally allotted to ‘news’ and which are the bulk of telecasting on any given day. All this is much more of a business for the investors and top managers, much more of a profession for the trained personnel directly involved in production, including packaging, in the strict sense, of news. If you are a news anchor on an even moderately successful tv channel your influence can be much more widespread than that of even the most famous of the editors of old times used to have, but you also have no control over what you are saying. You are basically reading off a text that has been prepared for you by people who themselves do not control what is permissible to say.
There are of course individuals, and there always will be individuals, who struggle for autonomy, for responsibility to report the real facts, for freedom to analyze things in a socially responsible perspective. I am not talking about individuals but about structures in which individuals now have to exercise whatever freedom they cling to and whatever moral imperative they wish to pursue. It is important to realize that no one is absolutely free. Life, and the broader history itself, is a dialectic of agency and structure. Freedom of individual agency is curtailed by the power of structures. Structures get transformed through intervention by human beings. Some succumb to pressure of the dominating structures altogether. For other, as the great poet Charles Olson said, “what does not change/is the Will to change.” Future is entirely open to you.
Let me continue, though, with my reflection on the structure as it now exists.
Precisely because anything may be photographed or even videographed and uploaded, the ability of government to conceal things from a truly investigative person has declined. During the Vietnam War, the US bombed 22,000 Laotian villages out of existence in the Plains of Jars before an independent investigator was able to collect enough evidence to force newspapers like The New York Times to publish it. That particular kind of secrecy is now impossible. Photos and videos of the massacres that Americans carried out in Iraq for roughly a decade may not have shown up much on nightly news but thousands of them were made available on the Net, for anyone to see. Does that necessarily add to our knowledge and understanding. Well, substantially-- but not necessarily. Corporate news is manufactured in the studios and telecast to millions upon millions of people; it is always very difficult to ascertain how true or false any part of that new, or what of the significant, inconvenient part of the facts have been left out. Your readiness to believe in its truth is part of the effect of the technologies that are designed to manufacture belief. Meanwhile, the kind of videoed information that circulates on the web is, for the most part, and by its very nature, unverified and unverifiable. The well-known journalist Saeed Naqvi tells me of a time just a couple of years ago when he returned to his hotel in Homs one evening, in central Syria, turned on the tv and saw a grim news anchor on al Jazeera telling the world that the Assad government’s air force was bombing that city and, as Saeed watched this bewildering news, the image changed in the background to show a tall building in flames while the news anchor identified that building as the very hotel in which he was sitting. How would anyone outside Homs know what a particular hotel there looks like? He, and other journalist friends, have told me numerous such stories. Major tv channels manufacture such disinformational images routinely; I personally know of instances when CNN or Fox News, and even BBC, collaborated in telecasting footage that they knew had falsified the true events. Al Jazeera became truly notorious in this practice since the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring, especially after the attacks on Libya and Syria. Extreme selectivity in what you show and what you do not show, what you report and what you don’t report creates its own kind of falsification.
If this can happen on major tv channels which could in principle be investigated and held accountable, one can imagine what goes on in the free-flowing traffic on the Youtube, where, for every one video that is authentic news there are others that pretend to be so but are fabrication and propaganda. Debord was in that sense right. In what he called Society of the Spectacle, the real, the hyperreal and the Un-Real are so intermeshed in the visual immediacy of cascading images that the virtual reality this mix creates overwhelms human comprehension of what actually exists. Gone are the days when Bernard Shaw could joke that photography can never become an art because photographs don’t know how to lie. The visual image, as it is manipulated in wars of deception and disinformation, may not have become an art in any higher sense but it has acquired all the powers of illusion that painting or the novel never could. You can no longer say, such and such event did occur because I have seen the video of it made on the spot, in real time. Well, you may have seen the video but there may have been neither the event nor real time. We are not talking of false interpretations of true facts, a matter to which I will turn shortly, but of false factities represented in images of such power that they need little verbal gloss to be believed.
I have spoken at such length about practises and possibilities of information media because that is the practical world you, or most of you will enter as professional. In the last part of my lecture today, let me now turn to these very questions on the more conceptual, even philosophical plain, and this I will do by reflecting on the three words in the title of this lecture: Value, Fact, and Democratic.
What is Value as such, whether democratic or not? What does Marx mean when he says that every commodity that is produced has both a use value as well as an exchange value. A simple example of this distinction is that when I cook a meal for my children who then sit down and eat it up, I am producing use values because my cooking for them is nothing but an expression of my love ad caring for them, a parental bond for which there is no material reward. But if were to cook as a chef in a restaurant, those same use values of a meal get transformed into exchange values in the sense that I get paid for my work and the restaurant sells the meal for a price—and a price very much higher than what I get paid for producing it, so that the owner of the restaurant can make a profit. The same thing has both a value and a price. Two facts emerge from this example. One is that Value is above all a social relation. Cooking for one’s own children and cooking as an employee in a restaurant are both expenditures of labour which involve other people, whether in relation of love or in relation of wage labour. Secondly, this tells you something about possibilities as well as ambihuities of professional work. When you enter your professional work as journalists you certainly will be looking for a salary—as good a salary as you can get—you may also be aspiring to practice journalism for the same of informing and enlightening others about real facts in the hope that an informed citizenry will be better equipped to act to improve social conditions. You can have your own material interests in view, and you may also have some sense of a duty whose value cannot be measured in terms of the monetary compensation you receive. You may then say that the price of a thing may not correspond to its value. This is what Oscar Wilde meant, for instance, when he said that we have reached a point where we know the price of every thing but the value of nothing. In this reckoning, values cannot be reduced to prices. Snd if value is in essence a social relation, then real value lies in how you live your life in society—how you connect your labour with the needs of those among whom you live.—in relation to the needs of that society. Marketing, by contrast, knows everything about prices but nothing about values.
Or, take the simple statement by Albert Einstein, the great scientist, that “the real value of an achievement lies in the pleasure of achieving.” I think this an extraordinary statement coming from a scientist whose mathematical work transformed the very nature of physics and had immeasurable impact on the allied sciences. For him, the value of his achievement lies not in all that it meant for the world of science but in the pleasure of doing what he did, in seeing that he started with a hypothesis that initially seemed implausible to others but then, through sheer persistence of his effort and the brilliance of his intellect he proved to himself and to the world that his hypothesis was correct. The pleasure of his own creative labours was, for him, the real value of his work. Because of his success he also earned a lot of money, but to money he seems to have been indifferent. After he died and his personal library at his home in Princeton was to be packed and moved, packers found numerous uncashed cheques stacked away in many of the books. The cumulative worth of those cheques came to about $30,000. That was half a century ago. Today, those thirty thousand may well be equal to a million. But to that sort of thing he was largely indifferent. For him, the real value of the work was not in the money he got paid but the pleasure he got out of the sense of doing the right thing, the good thing. Earlier, I quoted Socrates and Foucault, to the effect that the good life and the beautiful life were the same because both involved the practice of truth-telling. What is important here is not just truth but the telling of truths. Again, a social relation—something you do with, and for others You could say that truth is connected with beauty and goodness because it is a relation of use values with the world, a practice to which no price can be attached. Einstein then adds the element of pleasure. You maintain a relation of truth-telling with the world because it gives a pleasure, and it gives you pleasure because it gives you a sense of your own self-worth, your relevance in the world. You conquer your own mortality by becoming a fond memory for others. In that sense, you could say that Einstein lived philosophers call the Good life, the Beautiful life.
I might add that values must never be confused with norms. Norms refer to something of a social contract, a consensus whereby a society at a given place and a given times defines the nature of social practices it considers desirable. Norms are culturally relative and bound by historical time. In traditional Indian society, arranged marriages have been the norm. In some other society, arranged marriage may be considered a very oppressive social practice. With the passage of time, a lot of Indians may come to the same conclusion, may start choosing their own partners in marriage, thus breaking the norm. Is sufficient numbers of people ignore that norm or rebel against it, a point may come when the norm disappears entirely. Norms in that sense are arbitrary, no matter how normal they seem to be at a particular time, for particular sets of people. Norms thus have no relation to what philosophers call Truth. The practice of Truth is more likely to lead you to challenge the norms.
I would have liked to say much more on the question of Value but by time is running out. So, let me turn to the question of Facts. We could begin with Althusser’s comment that history presents us with millions of facts but only a handful of those facts are of lasting historical value. By this maxim, the point is not to keep narrating one god damned fact after another, as if all facts had equal value, but to look for that significant fact that may reveal the meaning of other facts. Facts exist in relation to other facts, because, as Hegel puts it, “Truth is the whole. By this maxim, no fact is true except as an element in the whole truth. Elections are a fact and a crucial element in the liberal democratic order. India is a liberal democratic country and the proof is that we punctually hold elections under the supervision of an Election Commission whose efficiency and integrity is, by and large, impeccable. We live by laws passed by the elected parliament and they are therefore democratic laws. And yet you have to ask what kind of democracy is it in which a significant members of the Lok Sabha have serious criminal charges—including charges of multiple murders, rape, robberies etc—pending against them; some have been in and out of jails due to these charges; and a couple have actually won elections while serving prison sentences. Add to this the fact that great majority of them have declared assets that run into scores and hundreds of crores, in a country where the Planning Commission claims that earning 30 or forty rupees a day are enough for one to meet daily needs, such as nutrition, health and education. Let me repeat the Hegelian maxim which numerous philosophers would accept: “Truth is the whole.” By this maxim, then, the truth of the liberal democratic order must also be understood in relation to the totality of this order, not this or that procedural feature of it; not just that we have an elected parliament but the actual people who sit in that parliament. You could say that facts of the kind that journalism talks about are meaningful only when the particular, transitional reality that each of these facts contains is understood and analyzed in relation to the social order as whole. Surface facts can potentially conceal much more than they reveal. Some facts can be used to suppress other more important facts. To say “the job of a journalist is to report the facts” is to spell out the most basic of the responsibility but it is also to evade the reality that a fact per se means nothing. It is the job of ministers to make fine-sounding speeches. It is the job of governments to create the illusion that they are acting in the interest of the poorest of the poor in this country. We know that these are fraudulent practices. Simply to report what a minister says or what the government promises amounts to dealing in appearances and refusing to deal with realities. And yet, the amount of newsprint that is wasted on merely reporting the pieties uttered by ministers and government departments gives one the impression that a principle task of newspapers is to represent the interests of government to the people, not the public interest to—and against—government. Facts become democratic values only when they rub the government against its grain. I have spoken earlier of all the impediments today’s journalist faces in the form of corporate interest and government pressure. And yet, it is from kicking from inside this structure, best as you can, that you can live a socially valuable existence as a democratic citizen.