Riddles of media governance: Multiple stakeholders, multiple objectives, multiple perspectives

By: Prof. Monroe E. Price and Stefaan Verhulst 

This keynote address was delivered by Prof. Monroe E. Price in the inaugural session of the first international conference on Contours of Media Governance: Technology, Institutions, Practice organized by Centre for Culture, Media & Governance in 2008 in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Dr. Stefaan Verhulst is co-author of the address. Prof. Monroe E. Price (Director, Center for Global Communication Studies, Annenberg School for communication, University of Pennsylvania) and Dr. Stefaan Verhulst (Department of Media, Culture and Communications, NYU) may be reached at Mprice@asc.upenn.edu and sv39@nyu.edu respectively.

Our intention in preparing this keynote was to honor what Biswajit Das and his team have been doing at the Center for Culture, Media &Governance, Jamia Milia Islamia University. He and his team have created a path-breaking course on Culture, Media and Governance.  We continue to honor their efforts, but in a different way.  The terror attacks on Mumbai took place while we were preparing these remarks.  What the impact of these attacks will be on national and international consciousness remains uncertain, but overall it is being compared, in magnitude, to the terror attacks of  9/11,  the bombing of the London Underground and the Madrid commuter train assault It would be difficult, we realized,  not to address, in some way, the consequences of the Mumbai attacks (and events like it around the world) on issues of governance in general and media governance in particular.

Our method for doing so is to discuss what we call “narratives of governance” and to place these narratives in a much larger context.  For what happened on that day (and at moments like these elsewhere) effected a tectonic shift in the way we understand  narratives, and as a result the burden of making sense of those events fell on those concerned with the operation of the press and the flow of images in society.

What do we mean by “narratives of governance”?  We can list some such narratives and from their naming, one can understand their role. Of course, there is the narrative of freedom, self-actualization and creativity that has been central to thinking about media and governance in terms of advocacy of media systems and in terms of  media and the state. But the power of that narrative is affected by its competitor, the rising and turbulent narrative of security and fear. The first narrative is predominantly concerned with the welfare of the individual, the latter with the well-being of the collective, usually embodied by the nation state.

The, sometimes subtle, conflict between these two narratives and the consequences of shifts in importance between them is evident in India as we speak. These are not the only narratives whose meaning and distinctive features are changing.  In the last several months, the narrative of the market has been affected, and especially the narrative embodied by the widespread advocacy of the idea that an unregulated or lightly regulated market would inevitably bring prosperity.  It is yet unclear how this changed narrative will affect media governance and governance generally, but surely it will, and signs of that are already apparent in Washington, London, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere.  And there are other shifts: a move from a world of a few superpowers to one that is more multi-polar, and, in many places, from one set of narratives of identity, ethnicity and religion to another. For us, narratives of governance are dominant themes that influence, almost control, expectations by various publics and the range of actions taken by the governments. Changed narratives yield paradigm shifts in how governments behave.

How do these narratives impact issues of “media governance,”?  More broadly, what is the relationship between the social, political and cultural structures and these narratives? To explore these questions, we first explore several meanings of the term “media governance” which is a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional notion. We then discuss some narratives and their evolution over time within the Indian context. We follow that with an exploration of the dynamics (or “principles” as we call them) that prioritize certain narratives over others and gives legitimacy to particular media narratives. Finally, we talk a little bit about how these various aspects of the media—governance, narrative and principle—are related.

I. Media Governance

Let me begin by exploring three different aspects of “media governance.”  These include: a) governance of the media, b) governance through the media, and c) governance as affected by the media. Take the first one, “governance of the media,” by which we mean the traditional area of evolving questions in law and policy.  In India, the field of governance of the media is enormously rich and rewarding. It throws up many interesting and complex questions. What is the relationship between the enormous growth of regional or state satellite and cable based language channels and the structure of federalism in India? What are the presuppositions underlying the relationship between restraints on content and the prevention of crisis and violence and how can one test their validity? The areas of focus are multiple, but the significance of their relationship to narratives is that each change in the combination of narratives as we have set them out and each change in emphasis and balance, affects law and policy outcomes.   “Governance of Media” in India has always been a consequence of a combination of narratives but at the same time we can see, at the moment, the consequence of a shift towards narratives of security.

In the days since the attack, questions have been raised over the power of the police to order closure of news channels.  A debate has begun on what procedures should be adopted in extreme emergencies to seek government guidance or direction concerning material too sensitive to broadcast. Is it ethical for broadcasters to continue airing their programs on the premise that they can aid the government in understanding the c auses of the attacks?  The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has issued an “advisory” on frequent visual replaying of the atrocities but the comprehensive question of the liberalization of the delivery of news (on newly available radio frequencies), it seems, has been postponed.

The second aspect, “governance by the media”, is more subtle, and is related to cultivation theory and the idea that pervasive exposure to broadcasting has long-term effects which are small, gradual, indirect but cumulative and significant. Do shifts in narrative alter regulation and as a consequence alter content?  And does altering content change attitudes of the public and patterns of social conduct? Changing patterns of media governance, in this sense, would contribute to the feeling that one group has for another, one religion for another, and one set of loyalties for another.  Narratives of governance can affect media, in this sense, to the extent that the stories the media tell reflect the larger passions of the time.  Overarching themes like nationalism, patriotism, consumerism and idealism are reflections of the superior themes of governance and are reflected in trajectories of news and entertainment. We could ask how the extraordinary energy, ubiquity and complexity of media in India affect everyday life, occupational ambitions, dedication and the balance between consumerism and citizenship. What are the narratives of identity that inform and underwrite this set of programs? The preoccupation of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting with the impact of coverage on communal or sectarian violence is an example.

The third aspect of ‘media governance’ is the impact of media on government. This is a subject of debate at the World Bank and elsewhere, and it consists of asking, for example, whether a well-functioning media improves the operations of power, largely by providing a check on its excesses. We can see this idea mirrored in the work of Sina Odugbemi and his group called CommGap, at the World Bank, which tries to bring public sphere analysis to an understanding of what makes political bodies more responsive and accountable.  This idea encapsulates its own narratives about the way governments work and the role of the press in improving transparency. For example we can ask, did the turning of Doordarshan into a more autonomous public service broadcasting body make the government more transparent?   The World Bank is interested in increasing what it calls “voice,” It is an idea based on the assumption that most sections of society feel that their views are put forward effectively to the government, through the press.  Do the media in India meet this standard?

II. Legitimacy

 Narratives are not all that there is to a model of media governance.  We also need to consider how certain narratives come to dominate over others—how they come to appear more legitimate than others. In this transaction—the elevation of certain themes or narratives or models over others—the role of what we call principles are crucial. Principles root certain narratives in larger social or cultural contexts and give narratives an element of authority, legitimacy, even nobility.

The role of principles becomes especially important during moments of crisis, such as we now have unfolding in India. The tension between narrative and principles emerges during moments of crisis.   The drama of the narrative, and its sense of urgency, demands particular governmental interventions (where the government is deemed capable of acting, and the government is criticized when it does not).  But principles provide a basis for criticizing the dominance of emerging or existing world-views.   Principles then become significant, but patience with principles can run out if they do not fully cover the lived experience.  And it is in this tension that a search for legitimacy begins. By legitimacy we mean both an internal public as well as an external, more idealized, assessment of the evolved system of media governance.

Think of the work of Article 19, Reporters Sans Frontiers, and many of the NGOs that are involved in the Internet Governance Forum.  These are organizations that are committed aggressively to invoking principles as an antidote against the power of narrative. Article 19, for example, issued a statement last week, protesting the use of narratives of repression in Swaziland as justification for introducing anti-terrorism laws and other such similar measures. The NGO invoked the Johannesburg Principles in support of its stand. In another instance the Crimean Parliament invoked principles of language rights, in the Ukrainian Supreme Court, to challenge an approach to national identity formation that suppressed the use of Russian in films and other broadcasting entities.

We need to discuss another important set of principles. As the state becomes less and less the arbiter, as issues and threats become more and more globally intertwined, as arrangements become more and more  complex, and as new conventions and international bodies fill a perceived void, the struggle within media governance entities for what might be called procedural legitimacy, a legitimacy that provides authority, becomes more and more intense. There are many criteria one could apply while assessing or evaluating international norms and arrangements and can come to a conclusion about their legitimacy.

My co-author, Stefaan Verhulst, has studied modes of adjudging legitimacy with regard to institutions of internet governance and he has identified four “deficits” in them, namely: a) democracy deficit, b) expertise deficit, c) agility deficit, and d) sovereignty deficit. Ultimately, if these deficits are not addressed, the governance institutions lose their legitimacy to govern. This model, which was developed specifically for internet governance, can be applied to media governance in general, especially where governance occurs in an expanding transnational space.

1. The democracy deficit: One of the major concerns with many governance institutions is that they are not perceived to be democratically accountable. Accountability in this sense may even be a problem for international organizations in which states themselves are the only members (the controversy over the composition of the Security Council is a distinct example).  The democracy deficit points to the public’s inability to place democratic checks on such institutions.[i]

2. The expertise deficit:  The second problem is the inability of many existing institutions, especially public sector bodies and not-for-profit organizations, to keep pace with the private sector in developing new technologies.  Many see the private sector as having a competitive advantage, being able to afford more engineers, programmers, and other specialists so that it stays ahead of the relevant governance institutions. The expertise deficit is also apparent in the divide between expertise available to the governments of developed countries and the less-developed ones.

3. The agility deficit:  A related problem is the difficulty that governments, in particular, have in acting fast enough to keep pace with the speed of technological changes or to respond to crises such as the 11/26 Mumbai attacks.  The problem here is partly one of expertise. But it also stems from the very institutions of democracy that give government’s democratic legitimacy – checks and balances and requirements for public comment and other procedural aspects. The agility deficit points to the difficulty of finding a balance between policy efficiency and political effectiveness.

4. The sovereignty deficit:  Finally, current institutions often fall short because they lack the same global scope that the issues presenting themselves involve.  For example, by its very nature, the internet forces us to think internationally, inclusively, across sectors, and to be increasingly respectful of different values and cultures. There is a crisis in conceptualizing governance bodies and structures that can accommodate these unique characteristics.

If these deficits exist—and Verhulst believes that they do—then the question is how to respond to them keeping in mind the complexity of the environment in which governance institutions have to operate. Broadly speaking, Verhulst has identified a set of principles that establish legitimacy.   These—procedural, not substantive, principles –might be called the four horsemen of legitimacy: a) Participation b) Representation c) Accountability and d) Transparency. It is these principles that confer upon a narrative a greater or a lesser degree of legitimacy. Ultimately, they substantially help define what notions (or narratives) of the media and media governance dominate in a society or country.


The principle of participation is an overriding one, for without it the other proposals for strengthening legitimacy would do little more than provide an alibi for the maintenance and extension of a system of technocratic or elite decision-making. But participation is an aggregation of other complexities.  We could say that participation assures the public an opportunity for involvement in the decision-making processes that affect them and their community. Participation allows dissent and encourages reasoned debate while striving for consensus and public good.  It recognizes that the community is comprised of many voices, and it provides an opportunity for these voices to be heard.  Participation implies consent to be governed, and consent confers legitimacy on those in authority. Active participation, even in opposition to a particular decision, indicates confidence in the strength and legitimacy of the larger governance framework.

But often participation is an illusion and can itself be a form of deception.  To achieve meaningful participation, a participatory enabling environment needs to be in place which would comprise of communication, responsibility and influence. It requires a definition of the “public” that is supposed to participate, and also an environment in which there is equal distribution of the knowledge, interest and time for the “public” to make an effective contribution.


Representation is the principle that makes participation operative and gives it meaning.  When governance arrangements are representative, then the mode and degree of participation can be balanced and tuned, keeping in mind the heterogeneity and size of the community and the need for stability and efficiency, to the goals and mission of the governing body.  Given the plurality of interests and constituencies behind the new challenges to governance, institutionalizing public representation becomes a key principle in achieving legitimacy. The scope of representation enables the public and stakeholders to achieve efficiency while maintaining legitimacy. Representation seeks to overcome the impracticalities of direct general participation, while keeping participation general.  Representation often includes the process of constituencies choosing the representatives themselves and the continuing opportunity for the public and stakeholders to be heard.

Representation also addresses questions of polarization and schisms in the society.   Representation of a particular constituency as a part of a larger body helps to maintain social cohesion and prevents splinter groups from fracturing the larger community.  Representatives serve a diplomatic as well as a legislative function.  They have the potential to coalesce the will of the relevant public.  But representation can be crippling as well.

Representation also runs against the shoals of special interests, inadequate knowledge of the technical issues, as well as the hidden agendas behind current hot topics.  Navigating these underlying difficulties requires some working familiarity with the institutional structure in question on the part of the representatives. They must know the structure of the industry and the policy landscape and be able to ensure that any regulations that affect them are logical and appropriate to both long and short term objectives.

In the interest of balancing stability and efficiency, the representative’s term must be long enough to allow familiarity with the workings of the larger governance structures and to ascertain how to, most effectively, represent the needs of the community, as part of the larger body.  However, the term must be short enough to prevent complacency and inertia.

Decision making power must be balanced between a small decisive executive group with authority to act quickly, and a larger legislative group that can ensure that all relevant views have been considered.  A broad based system of representation acts as a check on abuses of executive power and authority. Representation will not always give everyone exactly what they think they want at the moment, but when it is combined with participation of and accountability to the governed, as well as general transparency throughout the system, it will ensure that decisions are taken in the interest of the people at large.

Accountability Principle

In most governance systems, accountability tempers gross opportunism and prevents usurpation of power and authority by allowing voters to reclaim and reassign authority. Accountability ensures that governance is developed in a responsible and accountable manner; and that governance structures provide for guidance and monitoring of the responsibility and accountability of those who manage and supervise.  Accountability systems are in place for each of the actors exercising power with regard to the Internet.

Transparency Principle

Transparency relates to the openness, legitimacy, and credibility of the decision-making process.  This principle of the public’s “right” to know how authority is exercised on its behalf, has led to creation of mechanisms that ensures the accountability of the representatives. Being the people’s voice, it is incumbent upon the representatives to keep the people informed about the actions and policies of the government.  Accurate information is a prerequisite to effective participation and genuine accountability.

References to transparency have become increasingly common in democratic discussions, but it is not a new concept.  Calls for transparency can be found in Article X of the 1947 GATT and in Article 63 of the TRIPs agreement.  The transparency principle arises in the WTO as an obligation of nation states in domestic governance to prevent regulatory measures in one nation from interfering with market access by other nations.  A call for transparency is included in the 1992 Final Act of the Treaty on the European Union (Maastricht Treaty) because transparency in the decision-making process strengthens the democratic nature of the institutions and the public’s confidence in the administration.  More recently, Article 255 of the consolidated treaty, that established the European Community, gives all EU citizens or residents the right to access documents of the Council, Commission and Parliament, subject to some limits.

Despite the many mandates for transparency, it has been difficult to change attitudes that favor closed-door negotiations and high levels of secrecy. In practice, there has been significantly less agreement about the role of transparency in the international arena, especially where technical issues are involved. International negotiations generally stress the importance of confidentiality while talks are underway and positions are still in flux.  Technical discussions may involve trade secrets.  In promoting a high standard for accurate disclosure of information, the transparency principle demands a standard of visibility that may be difficult for international governance bodies to comply with. When insulation from outside interference or pressures is genuinely necessary, it becomes even more important to publish decisions and the reasons behind them fully, clearly and promptly.

Acting together, though not always harmoniously or congruently, these four principles determine the level of legitimacy that is conferred upon a particular narrative of governance, at a particular point in time. Of course the appropriate levels necessary for legitimacy will fluctuate.  The confidence conferred on a government that is perceived as legitimate depends largely upon the decisions taken and the overall mission of the governance body. It will also depend on the heterogeneity and character of those affected by the decisions and the public or private nature of the governance body. In addition, the required level and type of implementation of each principle depends largely upon the phase of governance and the cycle of policy.  Beside the work of some economic historians and technological forecasters, relatively little scholarship exists regarding how the diffusion of technology, and the evolutionary nature of business cycles affect cycles of governance and policymaking. This can be a fascinating topic for discussion on another occasion.

There are some shortcomings in this principles based approach.  We listed four major principles as if they were exclusive and given. But they are not.  We need to know far more about who has a stake in each of these principles—the importance of participation of civil society, for example, and the importance of representation in states.  We need to be clearer about the institutions of accountability and what limits there are to being accountable (or transparent, or representative).  We need to know more about alternate paths to authority.  Process is itself the product of a way of thinking about governance and a constructed form of legitimacy.  Authority may come from religion, or from the point of a gun.  And we have to know more about the relationship between what might be called procedural principles (of the kind we have discussed) and substantive principles like Article 19 or the First Amendment.

III. Conclusion

About a decade ago, the two of us, Stefaan Verhulst and I, were in New Delhi at a time when a major broadcast reform bill was being considered.  We were witnesses to the dawn of a new technology of media distribution, ubiquitous cable and the rising possibility of satellite to home broadcasting. Our primary interest at that time was studying the way in which competing interests—private companies, new entrants, government officials—were invoking different narratives and models for governance.  Legislators, journalists and the public were all swamped with these invocations which were designed to encourage the adoption of one plan of governance or another.

What we were witnessing, in effect, was how different perceptions of society, embodied in competing narratives, have an impact on media policy as well as the media. We could see how narratives of governance in India evolved, helped to define the contours of policy, and also see the larger socio-cultural and political tensions and conflicts those narratives embodied.

Our collaboration at that time resulted in a small edited book, Broadcasting Reform in India. Media Law from a Global Perspective, which explored the question of competing models for media systems (the BBC model, or the American narrative for example) and how narratives were translated from one society to another.  We could also see how various players had a stake not only in the rules that developed, but also in the forms of governance themselves. Those forms would be influenced as much by competing interests as by what might be called a scientific and objective approach to a regulatory regime.

Our book was a study on how narratives are discreetly exploited to argue for different models of media governance.  Public and private interests were engaged in, what has become a popular global pastime, invoking foreign media systems (which were, often, idealized) to influence legislation, and translating those systems in a way that served their interests. Put differently, the history of media governance in India, as elsewhere, has been the history of overlapping and competing narratives (even when those narratives are not always made evident in discussions of governance).

What occurs in many law and policy efforts is a jockeying among groups to shape narratives of governance and influence their acceptance in a society.  This question, how narratives rise and fall in their distinctiveness?, can be answered by a discussion on what I have called the working of a “Market for Loyalties”. This is an arena in which large-scale competitors for power, in a shuffle for allegiances, use the regulation of communications to organize, what I call, “a cartel of narratives”. And here I quote:  [ii]

The “sellers” in this market are all those for whom myths and dreams and history can somehow be converted into power and wealth—classically states, governments, interest groups, businesses, and others. The “buyers” are the citizens, subjects, nationals, consumers—recipients of the packages of information, propaganda, advertisements, drama, and news propounded by the media. The consumer “pays” for one set of identities or another in several ways that, together, we call “loyalty” or “citizenship.” Payment, however, is not expressed in the ordinary coin of the realm: It includes not only compliance with tax obligations, but also obedience to laws, readiness to fight in the armed services, or even continued residence within the country.


When the state and those in power are efficiently managing this market the result yields a collection of ideas and narratives employed by a dominant group or coalition to maintain power. For that reason alone, control over participation in the market has been, for many countries, a condition of political stability. Many broadcast regulations (encased in moral, public interest or similar terms) are designed to maintain or adjust the distribution of power in a society among those who are dominant, with due recognition for subsidiary groups.[iii]  Such legislations are sometimes justified as a means of underwriting important national or cultural institutions.  Media governance can be reinterpreted as the mechanism by which competitors for allegiance legitimately or even violently seek to increase market share, enter into the competition or limit the capacity of other competitors to function. One could argue that the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai signaled a new battle for allegiances. Violence was employed to enter the market for loyalties and shatter an existing status quo.

Patterns emerge in which the historic media approach, with each state governing its own media space, confronts a world of power interactions.    India and Pakistan have been classic examples of this shift between unilateral and sometimes multilateral approaches to addressing the narratives of identity. In the 1948 Agreement between India and Pakistan, the parties promised that their respective publicity agents (including radio and film) would “refrain from and control: (a) propaganda against the other Dominion, and (b) publication of exaggerated versions of news of a character likely to inflame, or cause fear or alarm to, the population, or any section of the population in either Dominion.”.[iv]  Over the last decade or so we have seen many areas of  cooperation as well as  friction have influenced media governance regarding what films could be shown, what websites need to be blocked, etc… in each country.

Now again, in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, a struggle over representing the relationship between India and Pakistan is taking place. Huge disruptions in narratives are happening which are examples of challenges, often dangerous, to existing patterns of media governance.. New participants and aggressive entrants destroy status-quo thereby impacting pacts and understandings.   These shocks to the system, as we have seen, alter the power of various players in the market for loyalties.   They intensify allegiances, expand the share of one group over another and allows for the increased play of additional interveners.

A participant in the market for loyalties may be a solitary figure in a cave in Waziristan speaking through audio tapes. Participants can also be unknown entities who deploy violence strategically to throw a society off balance and challenge its faith in the status quo of governance.  They can be state sponsored international broadcasters casting a signal far across boundaries to alter allegiances. They can be religious groups battling among themselves for the effective conversion of individuals to their creed.  How do we think of governments in relationship to the challenges presented by these entrants (recognizing that there are a range of competitors involved)?  How governments act and how governance takes place becomes vital in determining legitimacy and authority.   Society has as much stake in the governance system as it does in the rules and practices that emanate from this system. Our proposition is that the designs and the assumptions that underpin governance actions are tools for those entities that have an interest in the outcome.  Most governance arrangements in the space of media and expression emanate from the major entities involved. These entities develop a narrative that defines the agenda and decision making process of media governance. And in those cases, the horsemen of legitimacy are often hijacked to serve the narratives of the interest groups involved.

And this brings us back to CCM&G and the importance of this new course on Media Governance. This course can be used to bring home the importance of the principles of governance. Scholars at this center and in the University can explore the narratives of governance and the consequences of societal shifts from one set of narratives to another.   In May this year, the International Communications Association will have a two day conference in Chicago on theme of further development of graduate studies in communications in India and the growing interest in scholarship concerning South Asia in general and India in particular.  What sparked this conference was the   timely and creative work of the CCM&G team in developing the academic enterprise that was launched this fall.  They are occupied with the radical and intense transformations in the dynamics of information and media over the last two decades, and secondly, the varying ability of an interdisciplinary Media Studies to systematically engage with this transformation.

I have had the chance to talk and meet with several members of this team, and their dedication and enthusiasm bodes well for the project.  There have been and will be other initiatives.  But in terms of timing, scale and comprehensiveness, JMI is a first mover and it is defining the field in India and it will serve as a pointer in the future to everyone who engages with the field of media and governance. The intertwining of the concepts of culture, media and governance is dramatized daily before our very eyes. How that process should and does evolve will remain a subject for engaged scholarship and insightful teaching for years to come.


[i] See Majone, Giandomenico. 1998. Europe’s ‘Democracy Deficit’: The Question of Standards. European Law Journal 4: 5-28.

[ii]. Monroe E. Price, “The Market for Loyalties: Electronic Media and the Global Competition for Allegiances”, Yale Law Journal 104 (1994): 667, 669–70.

[iii]   ibid

[iv]. Quoted in Radio Propaganda—A Modest Proposal (John B. Whitton 52 ASIL, issue 4 Oct. 1958) 739-745 p. 741; also U. N. Doc. E/CN.4.Sub. 1/105 p. 29.

This entry was published on February 6, 2013 at 7:35 am. It’s filed under Media Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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