What the Indian Information and Broadcasting Minister must be doing?

There are some exciting things happening in the India media: print and TV. There is also much contradiction in the minds of media owners as to what constitutes news for the Indian audience. Even some of the well-established English newspapers are filling up the pages with downloads of foreign columns, so there are more US and UK news and views than Indian news and Indian opinion. So, the question, what constitutes news and what constitutes Indian opinion and Indian points of view assumes a new priority.
The Indian and global context seems right to ask such a question. There was this seminar in Hyderabad the other day. The Indian Information and Broadcasting Minister Mr.Jaipal Reddy was the main speaker. The other media stars, moghuls were Mr.Ramoji Rao, the owner of the Enadu group of newspapers and media products and M.J.Akbar, the star editor cum innovator in the Indian print media and also part owner in the Asian Age newspaper. Also were present the newest of the new media star, the NDTV breakaway rebel, Rajeev Sardesai who had floated a new news channel, a highly risky venture in the already crowded Indian news media and news channels market.

There were one or two media watchers, one Magsaysay award winner.

What they all spoke about? There was the Minister’s cry that the Indian media had left out the coverage of the poor and the downtrodden. A topic fit for a self-professing Socialist!
Now, there are other, more fundamental issues in the media business and also the media questions. There was recently a visit by an American prof. Ms.Margaret Levi, who is a professor of political science as well as the president of the American political science association. What she said in India? There is much sense of insecurity in the American society and politics. That is why there is lot of restriction on foreign students, their visas are also restrictive and generally, in the American campus there is much disquiet but it is not the same like the 60’s students protests. She also traced the sources of insecurity because of terrorism and more to the point that America, “our government is supporting, even encouraging inequality internationally. The present Republican Government encourages those insecurities”. So, we see and what the visiting American academic doesn’t say that the American media is dumped down to a sort of toeing the line of the present government in highly dangerous foreign policy areas. Two successive wars that had created much instability in world affairs and there is no clear path of where all this will lead to and when the wars could be rationally brought to an end.
So, the point is that the American society and the American media are much more beten into silence or collaboration with the government’s perceived misdeeds.

So too the UK media. After the first Iraqi war we saw the emergence of a new media, the CNN made instant news fashionable and the people sought after such news from the very spots, the war zones. The second Iraqi war saw the opposite. “Embedded” journalists, those who enrolled to serve the army interests became a fashion. So, the CNN and the BBC lost their credibility and in their place the world lapped it up with the Emirate” Al Zazeera TV. For the first time the Western media lost their credibility when it concerned the larger world, the Middle East became a war zone and the rest of the world wanted to find out what was happening and the source of news was no more the Western media as we have been led to believe.
So, in the media history the second Iraqi war is a watershed.

I was a long time admirer of the BBC. No more. So, I was not surprised when a strike crippled the BBC. There is a disenchantment within and without!

Now, in India we see also a sort of media revolution. Foreign direct investment is allowed. Yet, there are restrictions. So, in a way this defines Indian sensitivity to what constitutes news, in a way.
What constitutes news? So many media pundits had held forth. What is disclosed, what is uncovered is news. What is sought after by people ,everyday, in print or on the TV is news. I think this is a more straightforward definition.
Is this all to news? No, I don’t think so.

News is what a country allows the people to know about what the government is doing .Yes, it is the governments that decide what should go in print or on the air as news that constitutes news!

There are now any number of restrictions to the press and the media. If America can restrict media, if UK under Blair can play dirty with the BBC, then you can imagine the state of affairs in other countries.
A country’s standing in the world can be judged by the sort of press and media operate and also what freedoms for dissent are allowed. In this sense there is not many countries that have a standing or respect in the freedom loving peoples of the world.

In India there are many positive and negative currents. Positive: there are now many new media ventures. In Mumbai and New Delhi there are new newspapers, new news channels. In conservative Chennai there is a virtual storm. The Hyderabad-based Deccan Chronicle had done the most audacious thing. It had launched a newspaper, with 20 pages for Rs.1! In a city which was considered the be the monopoly of the Hindu! So, what is the future? One cant say. As for the Indian language press too there is a virtual revolution. In TN, a local language chauvinism had given rise to a rash of weeklies! There are newspapers exclusively for lottery sales! There are any number of weeklies and monthlies for astrology etc. The Tamil newspapers and weeklies reflect the deterioration of the society and social values, there are even in the DMK driven SUN TV News much that is deplorable, much false news ,politically biased news. It is only matched by the rival ADMK channel which doesn’t lag behind news distortions. As for the politically driven newspapers and weeklies they are not just newspapers ,it is all just dirtied newsprint to be thrown into the dust bins!

He tabloid type media news is only driving the regional language newspapers and glossy magazines. As for the English language media, here again, except for the Hindu, all newspapers are resorting tabloidisation. The Indian newspaper readers don’t have a choice. They have to take the Birla’s Hindustan Times, or the Jains’ Times of India. They are the worst newspapers in the English language. But no choice. Others like the old Statesman or the Tribune are weak.

So, now what is the future?

I have a feeling that Indian newspapers would gain any new credibility only if there is some change of attitudes in the minds of the educated classes. Any nation gets its newspaper values it deserves. Indian newspaper readers are yet to mature. Our freedoms, our individual freedoms are yet to flower to full beauties. As yet, we are also fearful of the government and we are also dependent upon the governments for jobs ,for petty small favours. Thus, we see the “re-election” of Sonia Gandhi as the Congress President preceded by an edit-page big write-up, enumerating the non-existent virtues of her leadership. 100 nominations were filed on her behalf and the newspapers competed with each other to go over into the silly details of who stood in the queue before 10, Janpath and also before 22, Akbar Road. Who led the line-up? Our very own Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh only! A good bad setting a bad example, now almost everyday!

After her “re-election” a special editorial in the Hindu lauding Sonia Gandhi’s “sterling qualities “of leadership and sacrifice”. I wondered. Why this sycophancy? Then I reasoned with myself : after all the large newspaper is very much dependent upon the incumbent government for many favours. A licence or some permission to operate inside and outside the country. Also the newspapers and the glossies today have opted to play the role of unofficial PROs. One Delhi-based popular glossy took upon the job of promoting Vajpayee by putting the former PM on its cover so many times. Also giving pages and pages of coverage. So, now Sonia Gandhi has her last laughs!

So much for Indians ‘love of freedom! We don’t have freedoms! We, as people, are too willing to surrender our freedoms and go the way with the incumbent governments. In TN, we saw the most extreme things. The Hindu had to run for cover when the Assembly issued arrest warrant to the top men in the newspaper! So, there are so many vicious ways in which even the most open and the most benign Indian democracy can suffocate our freedoms.

So, news is what the government allows us in India. But news for the public is what excites them every day! Unless news is interesting no one would read it. So, news has to be a mix of good and bad, sublime and the ridiculous. Rajeev Sardesai said in Hyderabad: “TV channels are trivilising the news”. Yes, true! Why not? Otherwise, who will view the channels. Already, I had lost interest in the NDTV news, as I had lost interest in the BBC or CNN news. So, news has to be new and fresh. Also ultimately, news must be truth, truthful and it must concern our deeply-felt life’s questions. So, what the Sunday Times editor famously said that even great newspapers like the London Times can be good Times and bad Times. There is no universal law about what constitutes good or bad news. You have to first define the owner’s moral stature. His or her courage. One Kathleen Graham of the Washington Post brought a name for herself and she served her nation well and she became a legend when she dared to expose the Watergate. Great media is one that does great public good!

Indian media industry, the seminar suggested ,must have self-regulation. Others called for an official regulatory body. Whatever it is, the Information Minister can do some pro-active job. Mr.Somnath Chatterjee, the veteran Parliamentarian and Speaker of the Lok Sabha said the other day that newspapers and media must give more coverage of the Parliamentary proceedings. In the London Times once a whole page used to be devoted. In India, now we can make a rule that at least half a page can be devoted for verbatim reporting. Let the people read what their representatives talk! More media exposure only can improve matters, be it the Council of Ministers or MPs or the party functionaries.

So, this must be the moral : if you do really some public good, ultimately you stand out! Media stars are born out of such acts, exposing corruption in high places. In this sense Tehelka did a signal service in the Indian media industry. Let the debate is on. There should be more exposes, more key-hole journalism etc.! Media legends are made out of sterner stuff. Only weak hearts go for sensations and cheap news or media products.

Who makes news?
Pop stars and other notorious characters only!
Pop icon Michael Jackson makes front page news! Not in the six British newspapers announcing his clearing off his alleged offences that consumed newspaper space for over a decade. The newspapers are: The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Independent, Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. Then, what about the Indian newspapers? Yes, the first to display this not so good looking Jackson on the front page, a four column display is none other than the venerable Hindu newspaper! Yes, this is news, front page news for you!


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