What makes Indian media more prone to corruption?

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This article is a part of the ongoing Citizen-Politician debate series Mandate 2014 on LILA Inter-actions, the online debate platform of LILA Foundation for Translocal Initiatives.

The Indian media landscape today presents a curiously variegated picture. Television, which is now the primary source of information on local, national and international developments, seems very vibrant but a close look reveals it to be a more flamboyant and flippant medium than factual. Newspapers, which have built up a fair reputation for professionalism over two and a half centuries – thanks to the early editors’ commitment to certain values and concerns for issues that matter – are fighting hard to avert the disaster that has overtaken their Western counterparts. The new media, which are still in their infancy, have opened up a world for those who earlier did not have access to any kind of mass media – they can now communicate with anyone who cares to listen.

Are the recommendations of The Press Council up to date with today’s media practices?

The regulatory scene is multi-centred, too. The Press Council, established by law, decades ago, to deal with complaints against the print media, is still there, but newspapers do not take it seriously any longer. They know it is toothless and do not accord it the respect which they once gave it. Its inability to tackle the pernicious issue of paid news testifies to its ineffectiveness. The electronic media is without a statutory regulatory mechanism. When there was talk of creating one, broadcasters hurriedly devised something in the name of self-regulation, which is no regulation at all. They unwittingly revealed their warped concept of media freedom when they held out a threat to black out Arvind Kejriwal, who had enraged them by talking of links between some news channels, a corporate leviathan and partisanship in the ongoing electoral battle. The social media, arguably the freest elsewhere in the world, is potentially subject to the most anti-democratic control in India, under a law which vests lower ranking cops with the authority to nab unwary users on flimsy grounds. The entire system cries for healthy self-regulation under a statutory framework.

The media is afflicted with problems that stem from the state of the society as well as its own structural weaknesses. The Press Commission, which studied the relationship between owners and editors in the 1950s in the light of industrialists’ acquisition of control over newspapers, recognized the owner’s right to lay down the newspaper’s policy but sought to immunize the editor against interference in his day-to-day functioning. If the state could not find a way to rein in the owners even when its proclaimed goal was a socialistic pattern of society, how can it do so in the era of globalisation, which has made everything purchasable, the only thing to be negotiated being the price?

In some countries, ownership is not a contentious issue, since managerial control vests in professional publishers just as editorial control vests in professional journalists. Most Indian newspapers have combined editorial and managerial functions in the owner, an arrangement that helps avert conflict between the two. The snag is that the owner-editor invariably takes decisions on managerial rather than editorial considerations. While many newspapers have corporate structures, within their walls, feudal values and ways of functioning prevail. Ironically, the pattern is no different even in the electronic media sector, with its share of journalists-turned-entrepreneurs.

With the denigration, devaluation and even disappearance of the editor, professionalism is under severe strain in the print media. The commercial success of the Murdoch formula, which holds that the newspaper is just another product made to earn profit – a view the intelligent reader cannot accept as he knows the newspaper influences him in a way no other product does – has put practitioners of professional values under pressure. Talk of journalistic ethics has little relevance when newspaper owners put the seller above the producer and enter into private treaties with corporate entities. Since the media is an institution of Western origin, the tendency to ape Western models is understandable. However, the imitators need to remember that the Murdoch formula has not been able to prevent the demise of newspapers, which have outlived their utility. The newspapers that have managed to survive so far are those who, instead of trying to keep up with the channels, chose to concentrate on analysis and interpretation, tasks which the print media can do far more effectively than the electronic media. The ultimate folly the newspapers can commit is to compete with the television on its terms.

At one end of the electronic spectrum are channels which, under journalists who honed their skills in the print media, are seeking to maintain professional values amid the ceaseless flow of Breaking News, which inevitably requires continuous lowering of standards to sustain viewer interest. At the other end are channels dominated by narcissist anchors suffering from delusions of grandeur and constantly haranguing their guests, studio audiences and the viewers in the name of the Nation or the People. While enterprising media persons venture into sting operations, the professionally weak fake them.

Hartosh Singh Bal recently left his position as political editor in Open Magazine,
highlighting the tensions between editorial and managerial voices

As the state’s monopoly over radio and television collapsed in the face of technological advances and economic liberalization, the last quarter century witnessed an unprecedented media explosion with private channels leading the proliferation drive. Journalism training facilities also grew but not to the extent needed to meet the demand of the fast-growing job market. To make matters worse, the quality of training leaves much to be desired. Exposure to a wide range of subjects over a few months may be sufficient to prepare one for a journalistic career but does not really equip one for it. Few institutions have adequate facilities for practical training. The time has come to develop full-fledged journalism schools on the lines of the National Law School but the matter is yet to engage the attention of the state as well as newspaper owners and editors.

All media is habit-forming. Those used to sensationalism cannot be weaned away from it easily. So the recovery process must necessarily be slow. The first step is for all concerned to realize that the solution to the problem lies in the strengthening of professionalism. Establishment of quality training facilities where prospective journalists can be provided good professional grounding can be a starting point. Collaboration between training institutions in India and those in other countries, including African and Latin American countries, to develop alternatives to the doomed Western model can be explored. The media needs to take note of not just the events but also the processes that lead to events, not just personalities but the broad contours of the society in which they operate. Reforms must not lead to a new kind of uniformity. The media must provide the public with real choices.

Written by BRP Bhaskar >>

BRP Bhaskar is a journalist and social activist. Starting his journalistic career more than six decades ago with The Hindu, BRP Bhaskar reported in and outside of India for various publications of the country: Statesman, Patriot, UNI, and Deccan Herald. He has covered the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir and other destinations during heated eras. BRP Bhaskar later turned to the visual media: he was one of the major forces behind the creation of Asianet TV, the first privately owned television channel in Malayalam.
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Indian Exponent: What makes Indian media more prone to corruption?
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