So Justice Markandey Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India, has been in the news for his scathing criticism of the Indian media. While the media is free to disagree with him, the vehement response has to be questioned.
Clearly the media hates to have a mirror shown to it. They are protesting too much methinks.
We do live in a healthy democracy and have a vibrant media which has exposed many issues and scams, making sure they don't leave public limelight.
But there is no denying that the media is far from perfect and has its flaws. A look at some of the issues that plague it…
1. It's easier to be sensational than to be deep
The first one is pretty obvious. If you have a lazy day at the office, then maybe not many people will notice. That's not the case in the media world. Being sensational and shallow can be a much easier way out than to present a great analysis.
I'll give an example. A small news item said that the shooting of Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, would take place in India. A news channel carried that as its main story. But the only problem was that they had absolutely no new information or images.
They had made a collage of old James Bond movie clips and kept repeating the same three statements and the same collage. I wondered how long it would last and they managed to keep it up for 7-8 minutes!
There's no shortage of archival news, snippets, clips related to populist stuff like film stars and cricketers. But say they had wanted to do a ten-minute special on farmer suicides, then they would have required much more leg work, depth and exclusive content.
2. General incompetence and ignorance
A journalist is a generalist: He has to have a general idea about everything. However, there are many who have a general idea about nothing.
Reporters are shifted from beat to beat throughout their careers. Some become subject matter experts, but most simply go through the motions. TV anchors and News Deskies have to be know-alls or the presentation may fall flat.
Media houses don't believe much in knowledge-based training programmes and workshops. Everything has to be learned on the job. Not everyone copes, leading to such simple errors that any basic expert of a particular field could point out.
Again, ignorance and incompetence can be covered up in many other professions, but gets brutally exposed in the media.
3. Competition and Money
Liberalisation has led to many problems like the 2G scam. It has also led to an absolute explosion of media companies. Profits and the sheer necessity of staying afloat dictate editorial policy and populist news.
"Serious" and "developmental" journalism gets pushed to the backseat. "Paid news" is also used to pad up the bottom line.
4. Freedom of the Proprietor, not Press
Traditionally Indian newspapers have been one-man organizations. There was no freedom of the press, but the freedom of the proprietor of the press. The owner usually unilaterally decided what the editorial policy or political slant would be.
With the advent of TV not much has changed and a sole TV anchor becomes the face of the channel and it is his personality that dictates what the channel should be like.
5. Proximity and Behind the Scenes
If you've watched the film All the President's Men, then you'll notice the reporters struggling to make sense of all the murky events that ultimately became the Watergate scandal. Closed doors greeted them everywhere and finally an unknown source called Deep Throat bailed them out.
Such a thing would be impossible in India for the simple reason that in India, the journos are too close to VVIPs. Reporters hobnob with ministers. Editors wine and dine with the high and mighty of the land. Some even play unofficial power brokers!
It's difficult to maintain objectivity if you're that close to the subject you are covering.
You have absolutely no idea of the behind the scenes dealings between the media and politicians.
6. Confrontation is the New Mantra
In the pre-liberalization era, newspapers used to be termed pro-establishment or anti-establishment. Nowadays there seems to be a single mantra called "Confrontationist". So if it's not Bollywood or cricket, then it's confrontation in politics.
News coverage automatically veers around that and TV channels find discussion panellists shouting at each other quite attractive.
That's one reason why the whole Anna Hazare show was covered like a mega-event.
7. PC Hospitality and Junket Journalism
This one I haven't been able to figure out. Journos attend press conferences, accept gifts, eat lunches and even drink there. Some get flown to foreign countries and are put up at five-star hotels. (Those are called junkets, for the uninitiated)
So if you have enjoyed the hospitality of a corporate house, wouldn't it be bad manners to speak against it? But if you were praising it for your readers or viewers, wouldn't you be doing it just because of the hospitality?
It's a lose-lose situation.
When I entered journalism, the Hindustan Times had put a blanket ban on junkets. But at that time in the industry usually only middle to senior level journalists used to go on junkets. Now the number of top Editors doing the same is quite alarming.
8. Pale Imitations of Hard Talk
Every Indian anchor sees himself or herself as a suave and sophisticated version of BBC's Hard Talk. But to do that properly, you need incisive, deep and intelligent questions. Very few can manage that and simply cover it up by being loud and rude!
9. Hidden Agenda and Obvious Bias
Most of the above things I've mentioned happen inadvertently. But there are some journos who either have an agenda which they follow vigorously or are plain biased. That's when objectivity is the first thing to be thrown out of the window.
10. The journalistic breed…
Every profession is filled with people who had their parents in the same profession. They sometimes come with a bias and set ideas and it's difficult to bring about a change. While the number of second and third generation journalists is high, there's another factor.
A lot of journalists come from families of politicians and bureaucrats. Some mange to remain neutral and objective, others come with their agendas and pre-conceived notions. It's not always easy to report about your family friends and acquaintances in an impartial tone!
Is there a solution?
While I'm not sure of a separate Bill or Act to control the media, which may end up being draconian or creating more problems than solutions, the Indian media definitely needs a bit of more self-regulation.
But every country chooses its own path.
In England, most of the traditional media houses simply decided to stay away from sting operations, racist overtones and being uncivil on television. It was a self-imposed code. But that space was soon taken over by the tabloids.
Or in America there's the irrepressible Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. Loud, expressive and opinionated, his The O'Reilly Factor is amongst the most popular shows in America.
In a discussion he screamed "You have got blood on your hands" to a participant who seemed to be supporting an abortion clinic and "You're a lunatic" to another over the Iraq war. He advocated the boycott of Pepsi over a sensitive issue and Whoopi Goldberg walked off the sets over his comment, "Muslims killed us on 9/11" after vehemently disagreeing with him.
He's also liberal with words like f***, butt, suck, scum…
In a videoconference with US Congressman Barney Frank, pointing fingers menacingly, O'Reilly shouted "Stop the B.S.", "Stop the crap" and "Come on you coward!" among many other things.
Some of the retorts that Frank managed were, "Your stupidity gets in the way of rational discussion." and "You are too dumb to understand."
Sometimes I think that many journalists in India hold O'Reilley as their role model!
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