Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Indian Media must Review its Priorities

K G Suresh, Senior Fellow, VIF

In February 2013, one of Delhi’s leading newspapers published a news item which claimed that Indians don’t believe in ghosts anymore and superstitions have reduced in the country.

The report was based on a research conducted during the Kumbh Mela by scientists from Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who claimed to have spoken to all sections of the society.

“In fact, Kumbh was chosen since nowhere else in the country can one find such variety of people,” said Gauhar Raza, chief scientist of National Institute of Scientific Communication and Information — a part of CSIR — who led the team.

What is good news for the country at large must have been bad news not only for the Tantriks and black magic practitioners from all communities, who thrive on the superstition of the masses but also many a television channel, which over the years has been providing a staple diet of superstition such as ghosts and revenge of the snake women to up their TRPs.

Having exhausted all such material in Indian folklore, the innovative producers did not hesitate to predict the world’s end based on the Mayan calendar or to turn a God Damned Particle into God’s Particle. It could not have been more outrageous and ridiculous.

Not that there is a dearth of news including positive stories in a nation of a billion plus, but then mediocrity has come to rule the roost, hard work has become a forgotten virtue and trivia the in thing.

It would also be unjust to dismiss these trends as an issue of convenience or lethargy. There are far deeper designs to it with profits being the only motive.
As the country’s Vice-President Hamid Ansari put across couple of years back, "Indian media is facing a crisis of content. The phenomenon of convergence between news media, entertainment and telecom has meant that the demarcation between professional journalistic output, public relations, advertisement and entertainment is fast blurring”.

Apparently disturbed over the deteriorating trends in the media, Ansari was of the view that the "public perception today is that the ethical underpinning of professional journalism has weakened."

However, it is in the electronic media bogged down by TRP ratings that crisis of content is manifested more prominently, Ansari said while referring to programmes devoted to astrology, superstition, crime and sleaze.

Of late, another extremely worrying trend has been noticed. From the days of yellow journalism, ‘lifafa journalism’ and sting for blackmail to ‘Paid News’ and Radia Tapes, the disturbing trend now is even big media houses turning extortionist. Sensational cases of corruption are offered to be suppressed for a price. There cannot be a more blacker period for Indian journalism.

Today, increasingly questions are being raised as to why a journalist has written a particular piece as against the earlier curiosity about what has been written by the scribe.

Referring to the "progressive transformation" of the Indian citizen into a significant consumer of media content and products, Vice-President Ansari had said, today questions were being raised whether journalists understand those demarcations and respect them or are willing to sacrifice them for commercial gains.

Questions are also being asked in academic and policy quarters whether Indian journalism is aping the West blindly and not realising its role as a catalyst for inclusive development in a developing country.

Whose priorities are they batting for? P Sainath of The Hindu had once famously said that the Indian farmer would have loved to be born as the heavily subsidised American cow. The recent race among English channels in favour of fuel price hike, deregulation, end to subsidies and FDI was absolutely out of sync with the needs and aspirations of the Áam Admi’. Comparisons were being made to western countries where spending on social security and farm subsidies is heavy.

While one may disagree with Press Council Chairman Justice Markandey Katju on several issues, he had a point when he asked, “What do we see on television these days? Some channels show film stars, pop music, disco and fashion parades (often with scantily clad young women), astrology or cricket. Is it not a cruel irony and an affront to our poor people that so much time and money are being spent on showing cricket, film stars, disco-dancing, and pop music? What have the Indian masses to do with cricket, film stars, fashion parades, disco and pop? The Indian media today are largely acting irresponsibly and not serving the people in their struggle against poverty, unemployment, and other social evils, as they ought to be doing.

Addressing the Speaker’s Lecture Series in Parliament House in September 2007, Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor with The Hindu, sought to put the startling statistics in perspective thus,:

“We have the second richest billionaire in the world in dollars and we have the fourth largest number of billionaires in the planet. But we are 126th in human development. The same nation that ranks fourth (in terms of number of ) billionaires ranks 126th in human development. What does it mean to be 126th? It means that it is better to be a poor person in Bolivia (the poorest nation in South America) or Guatemala or Gabon. They are ahead of us in the UN’s Human Development Index.”

We are the emerging ‘tiger economy.’ But life expectancy in our nation is lower than it is in Bolivia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. We have 100,000 dollar millionaires, out of whom 25,000 reside in my city of Mumbai, I am proud to say. Yet, 836 million people in our nation exist on less than Rs. 20/- a day according to the Government of India. There is no such thing as Indian reality. There are Indian realities. There is a multiplicity of realities.”

A report of the Food and Agriculture Organisation shows that between the period from 1995-97 to 1999-2001, India added more newly hungry millions than the rest of the world taken together. The average rural family now consumes significantly less than what it was consuming earlier. Indebtedness has doubled over the past decade. Cultivation costs have increased exorbitantly and farming incomes have collapsed, leading to suicides by farmers.

In the words of Sainath, while there were 512 accredited journalists covering the Lakme India Fashion Week, there were only six journalists to cover the suicides in Vidharbha. In that Fashion Week programme, the models were displaying cotton garments while the men and women who grew the cotton were killing themselves an hour away by flight from Nagpur, in the Vidharbha region. Nobody told that story except one or two journalists locally.

At a seminar on “Changing Face of Indian Media: What needs to be done?” organised by the Centre for Economic and Social Studies in Hyderabad, Bella Mody of the University of Colorado argued that India needs a journalism curriculum and professional norms suited to its unique power context and the need for research to arrive at what needs to be done locally and that domestic authors need to step up to the plate and write textbooks for ourselves.

It was argued and rightly so that 1960s American textbooks are being used to teach journalism in India. The publishers of these outdated books are happy to have developing countries print these on the cheap and sell them. Cut-copy-paste culture sadly exists in this area too.

During the course of deliberations, it was also mentioned that journalists were trained on the job in India in the old days by sitting on the bench at a newspaper while getting hands on training. Now, this training has been converted into a business. Most media houses have now set up their own media schools. This kind of profit driven training is along the lines of the “grab money and push them out” model that is the trend with most training programs today. With no uniform curriculum, this method too fails the Indian journalism student.

The stark contrast between English and regional language media also figured prominently in the debate. Among the issues that came up was that more masala in news is encouraged in the local language media. Infotainmentitus plagues the regional press more than the English media, very few working journalists in regional media had formal university-type training as against their English counterparts. Most significantly, severe salary disparities existed between the English and regional media and advertising revenue was higher for English papers as opposed to language papers despite larger readership.
The double standards practised by the media is another major challenge. Ever since the ghastly Delhi bus gang rape incident, television channels have been working overtime espousing the case of women but they have absolutely no qualms allowing advertisements which commodify women and use them as mere sex symbols. All the advocacy on women’s rights and vehement opposition to their projection as sex symbols gets diluted during the commercial break when the viewer is shown semi clad women selling cars and men’s undergarments and swooning over men using a particular brand of deodorant.

If the media is so committed to the cause of women, why don’t they say a no to advertisements portraying women in such a demeaning manner as they do in the case of liquor and cigarette advertisements.

One can go on and on but what is required is a serious introspection, even as the Indian media raises its fingers at politicians, bureaucrats and others. The need of the hour is a serious re-look and review of media’s priorities. To rephrase a cliché phrase, this Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion, superstition, superficiality and sycophancy.

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