Professor Nick Couldry in conversation with Ashish Sen
After virtually a decade since the guidelines enabling grassroots community radio became a reality in India, the sector would appear to still have a long way to go. A tally of 188 community radio stations in India (the majority of them being campus community radio) against a projected capacity of at least 4000, does not merit a gold star by any yardstick. The continued prohibition on news broadcast in the Indian policy despite persistent protestations and appeals to revoke the ban, fly in the face of international principles and practices. Amidst this bleak scenario, the government’s recent endorsement to enable emergency radio post the destruction wrought by the Chennai floods appears as a silver lining.
In many ways, the community radio scene in India mirrors the challenges of sustainability and growth that the sector confronts in other parts of the world. While some media analysts and commentators have remarked that the sector’s challenges are part of the larger challenge and current crisis in the media, the question is: where do we go from here?
If these challenges compel advocates and practitioners to revisit and realign relationships and networks between community media, academic research, and social movements, they also raise a more fundamental and larger question linked to perceptions and practices of ‘voice’.
It is in this context that the efforts and work of media scholars and commentators like Nick Couldry assume relevance. Currently, Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics, Couldry’s works on ‘voice’ have consistently been at the cutting edge of community media research and advocacy. But their relevance has perhaps never been more palpable than today – when the crisis in the media is not just restricted to blurred boundaries between public, private and community but also transcends geographical borders and impinges the independence and sustainability of each sector. No longer is it just a question of “Whose voice do we hear in the media or whose voice do we need to hear?”, but a need to demonstrate just: Why voice matters?*
Significantly, the community radio scene in India underscores the importance of this question. On the one hand, the gaps between demand and supply appear to be indicative of a restrictive and reactive legal and policy climate. At the same time, the gaps underline the need to investigate the challenges confronted by the sector in the context of media ethics, economics and the growth of neo-liberalism.
These may be relatively new territories for the community radio sector in the country, but as the excerpts from the interview with Nick Couldry demonstrate, they merit deeper analysis and investigation.
On why VOICE matters and the distinction between VOICE as process and VOICE as value:
In a sense, Voice as process is the act of speaking… what has to change to ensure that everyone does speak… The disconnect in democracies as well as closed regimes is where voice as process is taken for granted. Voice as value refers to the act of listening. Who listens and who is listened to? Voice as value is about the possibility of being listened to… The social applications that are available today… where people come together [may provoke] multiple conversations… [and be] useful for campaigns and slogans. But do they add value? If alternative media is just about making media without regard as to who is listening, such media would be irresponsible. No one is served where everybody is speaking and nobody is listening. Voice as a value assumes particular importance when there is an entire way of thinking that operates on the basis that for certain crucial purposes voice does not matter. Valuing voice involves particular attention to the conditions under which voice as a process can be effective. The examination of voice as value is what drives community media research… It is not just about the platforms that exist, but… about people and process…
For example, [look at] community media in the context of extreme violence. Well-known community media scholar Clemencia Rodriguez’s latest book, ‘Citizens’ Media Against Armed Conflict: Disrupting Violence in Colombia’ demonstrates how community media transforms individuals into citizens. The need is deep when people live under extreme violence – community media act as loud speakers for those realities that still exist out of the reach of armed violence – situations not yet permeated by logics of war and aggression.
On the importance of re-examining how Community Media is valued: Why Community Media practitioners and academia need to realign their work with economists like Amartya Sen and others:
When I talk about Amartya Sen who is an enormously important theorist in this area – I am really fusing two parts of his writings… He wrote a book on Ethics and Economics which was a radical and path breaking attempt to resituate the discipline of economics back into the wider domain of philosophy and normative discussions – about the good life – which he argued was where economics originally came from… [For instance] you find both moral philosophy and technical economics in Adam Smith’s writings side by side…
[Amartya Sen] tried to reposition economics in terms of wider debate of what would be a good life so that the notion of economics would stop being just how to increase the Gross National Product, GNP [an abstract measure] and start to be [about] how to perhaps increase the GNP and other economic measures in the context of a broader attempt for us collectively to secure through our use of our resources… a better life for all of us. [This is] a much broader question and one that gets often forgotten in economics…
In another part of his work… he pointed out, having a democracy that involves some form of free media – is essential for development, because unless the reality of starvation, of poor distribution of food can be spoken about, can be recognized so that governments are forced to react to it, famines happen – because governments are able to hide the consequences of their poor choices.
This was quite a radical link to make within development economics and theories of development… [where] media was not just an optional add on or a desirable supplement… but was core to the possibility of good economic development itself…
Amartya Sen has been neglected as a resource within Media and Communication studies… [At] a time particularly when there are debates within community media, it is useful to make strong links to Amartya Sen because he points in the direction, where we can see community media is not just an optional add on that enables people to feel a little bit better and a little bit more empowered , but is actually at the core of better development…
If people not only feel that they can speak and speak about the problematic realities around them, but feel that they are valued and that their contribution to society as a whole is taken into account and treated as important, then they may act differently as economic agents, as political and civic agents, [resulting in] a deeper quality of development.
On restrictive legislation and curbs like the ban on news:
[We need] to make sure that somewhere in the regulation, the potential of media to change the quality of communication in communities, to change the quality how citizens can communicate with government and government can communicate with citizens, is worth stressing. So that media is not just a delivery mechanism, not just [about] getting the message, but about sustainin communities in space and time.
Some people will of course deny that second role to communication. But they can be challenged on that ground. It is a level where we can have the debate. Especially in the era of social media, few would hold to the position that communication is only about getting a message out from the centre. There must be more to it than that. So the question is: What is that more, how do we think about it, and how do we recognize that within the regulatory structures?
But there is also the question of challenging the narrowness of how development and communication projects are defined. They are defined already in advance in ways that give very little weight to participation and including a range of voices in a sustained way. Forms of arbitrary restrictions such as restrictions on the communicating of news messages in community media need to be unpacked and interrogated.
“So, one has to talk about what is the consequence of preventing a group of people talking about the news. This means saying to a group of people: You can speak, but you must speak on condition that you don’t represent your account of the world around you.”
If you put it in those terms it becomes very clear that that is a very limited form of voice – that is not a body with a full set of limbs. [It] is a very restricted idea of what communication is about because one of the most important things we do through communicating is to say: This is the world I live in; This is my account of my world, and what I think is right and what I think is bad about it – so not to allow community media to talk about news – really that restriction needs to be interrogated and its longer term consequences in terms of disempowering the voice of people need to raised with the regulators.
* Taken from the title of the book by Nick Couldry (Sage Publications): Why Voice Matters – Culture and Politics after Neo Liberalism.