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The Indian Media Whirlpool
by Ramesh Menon Bookmark and Share

The media scene in India is in the throes of a revolution. Whether it is a good one or bad one is difficult to say-depends on perception. We today have over 515 TV Channels which is more than what many countries in the world put together have. Many more will come. 

Similarly, new newspapers, magazines, websites, radio stations and a host of new media are zooming into the Indian media scenario. It is no more just news, but news packaged as entertainment-so much so that some news channels do not quality to be called news channels. 

What is going to now dramatize the scenario are niche offerings in the future where every category will have specific media that is designed to meet the needs of customers.  You will also have newspapers as e-papers delivered in your inbox that is customized to your needs and tastes. It is just a matter of time. With the mobile revolution coming in, it is destined to change many lives in rural India to the better as information will be at their fingertips. 

Community radio will emerge in a huge way creating a new audience and a new awareness as it spreads to the remotest of areas. I was glad to see how Dalit women in a village in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh were actually running a community radio station and how it had brought a sense of empowerment to the community. Truly, we are standing on the threshold of a media revolution.

The spectacular growth is of course the rapidly growing computer and internet connectivity. I grew up in a house in Pune that did not have either a telephone or television. Many youngsters might find that difficult to believe. But today, mobile telephony has changed our lives giving us real time access to news, views and entertainment from across the globe.  No wonder for many of us media professionals, businessmen, investors, stock market buffs, traders, farmers and others this seems to be a time for celebration. 

The media market has been further stimulated with the government permitting Foreign Direct Investment in print and broadcasting. Indian media companies are now operating abroad and are looking beyond Indian audiences. As there is more money to play with now, a new environment has been created to compete aggressively. Using technology, bold management practices, better trained journalists, there is a new energy in the air. No wonder the media is today attracting a lot of good talent who is hungry for success and are willing to work hard to make things happen. 

But as FDI has been allowed, there are ghosts that the Indian media houses are creating whipping up a fear that all is being lost as the foreigners are going to come in and ruin our ancient culture, how our sovereignty is being sacrificed and how national interests are being sidelined. They are talking of how it is going to create a consumerist society and threaten our very existence. This is being done by those who do not want competition from abroad so that they can go about their mediocrity and makes profits as well. If Indian culture is so strong, how can the media destroy it?  

Anyway, look at what the Indian media is anyway doing. There are more cheesecake pictures in Indian newspapers than you will have with a publication that has a foreign tie up. We have to internationally compete to produce the best products and also have a global influence and not let such ridiculous fears help local media moguls run away laughing to the bank after dishing out a mediocre product.  In a promising sunrise industry, such anachronisms cannot be allowed to flourish. 

But we need to have the courage to look into the mirror. The media today has a lot of searching to do; its credibility is an all time low since independence. Readers and viewers are suspicious of the intents of media and how they are being used as pawns being silent customers. 

The Indian media cannot even have the moral authority to talk against FDI coming in as left to themselves they end up with a poorly done job which can also be questioned in terms of ethics, credibility and accuracy. In a dynamic country like India which is heading to a new growth paradigm, we need an equally dynamic media that will help create better governance and better framed policy. Is that happening, is a question that every one needs to answer.

We are already seeing a rapid erosion of the editor as owners take over the management, appoint themselves as editors and ensure that everything is commercially run.  That is why community owned media or media networks that are founded and financed by people is the way out. But how many years will it take for that to happen in India? Only a journalist can bring in an independent character as he or she is wedded to the news and to the truth and not to the commerce of making the cash registers ring. This is not to say t hat media outlets do not need to make profits, but the point is that journalism is a vocation, not commerce. Our job is to find out the truth. It has been aptly said that, truth is what someone somewhere wants to hide; the rest is all advertising. 

As the media driven by market forces is today out to just make money, there are a lot of questions that need to worry us. Whatever happened to the old fashioned and proud values of telling the truth, guiding policy with intelligent discourse, raising the banner to fight for justice and rights and portraying the human angle that will make people get up and act? Was not the media given special constitutional protection as it was seen as an agent for social transformation? Was it not this that made our constitution writers give so much of freedom to the press?  Have we lived up to it? Or have we let down the country? This is a question that all of us need to ask.

With freedom comes responsibility. But have the media showed that maturity in trying times like the Mumbai terror attack? Why is it always trying to play to the gallery and not emerge as a responsible organ in a vibrant democracy? None of us want a media that is shackled by the government, but that is only because we all want it to be independent so t hat it could tell us the truth and help us navigate our roles in a democracy. 

Also, is it telling us what we need to know about what is happening in the rural hinterland of India? We have all these “sexy” stories about India’s rise as an economic power, which is all very good, but why does not the media also send its reporters to the interiors to tell us about the gnawing hunger, malnutrition, debt ridden farmers, lack of basic healthcare, collapsing agriculture due to high costs of fertilizers and pesticides, poor education and so on. There are villages in Uttar Pradesh where women eat tobacco to kill hunger before going to bed and there are places in Gujarat where people have been waiting for justice for years. There are areas where Muslims are discriminated and areas where Brahmins are maltreated. There are villagers in Bihar who actually burrow rat holes in the fields to pick out grains that rodents had stored for a rainy day as they are starving. There are schools in north India where there is hardly any education as the teachers are busy cooking mid-day meals. There are rapists who roam free and criminals who are a law unto themselves. India is full of stories. But we do not read them as they are not being written about as much as it happens.

The media has tremendous responsibility. It can be a great catalyst for good governance. A headline like: “No one killed Jessica” that came after a court judgment that did not punish anyone for the killing of Jessica Lal in a bar in New Delhi, forced people out of the comfort of their homes on to the streets and so the case was reopened and the guilty were brought to book who were very powerful in the political arena. The Silent Valley which is the only rain forest in India was saved because the media ran a campaign in Kerala. Kottayam became the first 100 per cent literate city in India because the local press ran a campaign everyday till it happened. People in Rajasthan came out with shovels and cleaned up ponds all over the state so as to aid rain water harvesting and the water table rose all because of a campaign by a newspaper asking them to do so. Even the politicians joined as they did not want to be seen as not doing something that their voters were doing.

We need to see more such examples in India.

There is so much promise around. India has one of the largest audiences in the world. As many as 134 million houses have TV sets with at least 103 of them have access to cable television. No where can IPL flourish the way it does in India. It has more mobile phones than toilets. Cable television has even captured rural India and that is why it is silly for t he government not to give up control of news on radio and allow radio to broadcast news just the way private news channels do. Look at what Zee was like in the mid nineties? It did not seem like a channel at that time that would go anywhere. Look at it now with a host of channels both in India and abroad. Sun TV was the first private channel in south India in 1992. Today, it has 20 channels. Look at the new players in the marketplace, CNN-IBN, TV 18, UTV, Star, Sony, Dainik Bhaskar, DNA, magazines like Open, Forbes, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Prevention,-all of them with distinct Indian content, well produced and flourishing.

TV programmes are well produced, some of them can compare with the best in the world. Even in print there are specialist editors now for its various sections like gender, economics, arts, fashion, Page 3, health and so on. It will have to be this way as it has to become more sophisticated if it has to survive. 

Content is king and no media owner can afford to ignore that. Those who did fell by the wayside making way for younger players. The young newcomers have a better sense of what sells just like the management leaders do and so cater to a wider interest and that is why today we have newspapers and television channels that have special sections and programmes that cater to all sections of a household with a huge basket of variety. 

The editor may have lost his or her sheen in the commercial whirlpool that the media has got into, but the section editors who cater for fashion, page 3, health, beauty, lifestyle, sports, and business and so on are much in demand as they cater to the niche demands. In short, editorial quality is what matters today, not editorial independence. Many young journalists even do not know the difference and so it is pointless to blame the reader or viewer.

In the last parliamentary elections, India saw the “Paid News” phenomena out in the open as candidates paid newspaper and TV channels to get coverage. Was this the beginning of the end for a free independent media in India? While it might take a while for the answer to emerge, it is now quite clear that the major publications had absolutely no qualms of doing it. In many ways, this is a watermark. Or one could say a black mark that smudged the credibility of the media and has triggered off an endless debate. It is very difficult for other struggling publications to maintain the high ground and say no to “paid News”. 

What is the kind of media we are creating? Can anyone buy coverage? It sounds so wrong but the debate rages. As of now the top players decide on what the content will be as they undercut the other players by subsidizing the sale of a newspaper for instance making it unviable for smaller players to exist. 

It is a cut throat media world. So you have an invitation price of one rupee for a newspaper and the others are screaming their guts out to sell. So we have this heady cocktail of paid news, advertisers dictating content, advertisers pressurizing the media not to tell what it should, highly paid journalists looking the other way and media houses being owned by those who have absolutely no interest in the freedom of speech or in laying bricks to build a new society. The media has to reclaim its space and not be held to ransom by advertisers.

But one hope on the horizon is how the internet will rescue us in terms of getting us the right information and allow its free flow. The Indian media may have tried to bury the Nira Radia tapes story as a lot of their fellow beings were in it doing what they never should have in the first place, but it is the internet that brought everything out into the public space. If any revolutions are going to happen, be sure that Facebook and Twitter will be used. Actually, there will be many more such social networking sites that will double up to provide news and views. 

It is the new media which will force the traditional media to spruce up, brush up its ethics, produce better products and compete for attention. That is why publications and television channels will now have to creatively rethink how content can be polished and made to leap out of its mediocrity and get eyeballs.  Those who do this will survive. Others will be history. 

Reportage is as important as revenue.  Media moguls need to decipher that if reportage is poor, revenues will fall in the long run and after that, it will not be easy to plough themselves back into happy positions as smarter players would have come in.

The media will have to improve its coverage to explain context as India is a difficult country with a complex history, geography and sociology. That is why enough background needs to be weaved into complex stories. TV does not do this and nor does print with a few exceptions. But print fares better as it at least tries. But that means more seasoned reporters who like to read research and analyse.  News stories can no more stand out by skimming on the surface; it has to go deeper and be made easily understandable as the span of attention is getting shorter-thanks to television. 

Our television anchors will need to know that shouting and screaming is not the way out, nor is generating contradictory points in a screaming match. They will need to come out with cold analysis to be respected and heard. They need to fear the remote. Viewers can and will easily move on to more sensible stuff.

We need to see that in the changing media scene one great casualty has been that the editorial environment has been polluted with money. We need to stem this intellectual corruption systematically and quickly before any more damage is done. Editors have to emerge from the shadows as editors and not as marketing agents or advertorial writers who will write anything they are asked to. If they are going to sell space, the media has no future. 

There has to be new ground rules. Those who were found cavorting with Radia and being her messenger and trying to play a political role in the formation of the government, should have been sacked. But that did not happen. If it did, it would have set a new trend of ethics that need to be practiced and respected. What is the message that you sent out when they still are allowed to be in positions of power where they decide what goes into the news of the day. We have not heard enough of the Radia tapes. There are hundreds of other journalists whom we will only know about when the tapes are put in the public domain.

There are promises of great change in the media scenario on the horizon but for that to happen, the media will need to change too. It has to reclaim its space as a respectable institution that is one of the unquestionable pillars of a good democracy. 

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