Is a newspaper a product and its reader just a consumer? Is the news media in the business of news or in the business of advertising? Would you define the media by the interventions it made in ensuring justice in the Jessica Lal murder case, the 2G scam and the mining scam or define it by its apathy toward Dalits, women, sexuality minorities and the working class?
The Sixth Union Debate of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Has the Indian Media breached the Trust of the Citizens?, held here Wednesday sure did not set an easy task for the panel which included some of the country’s senior-most journalists and media commentators.
Opening the debate, N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, argued that the Indian media had surely breached the trust of the Indian citizen but not completely forfeited it. However, he said that corrupt practices such as paid news have become a “structural feature of the Indian media”. He said paid news is no longer just a phenomenon during elections but continues all year long. Expressing concern over the “dangerous dependence on advertising”, he said the media has fallen behind in covering issues of mass deprivation and acts of brazen injustice.
Countering him, the Vinod Sharma, Political Editor of The Hindustan Times, said: “Just like you get the government you deserve, in a democracy, you also only get the media you deserve.”
Defending a popular news anchor, who was slammed by human rights activist and academic G. Hargopal for being jingoistic and reactionary in a previous panel, Mr. Sharma said: “He spent the first year trying to run a serious news channel. But it failed. To survive, he turned it into the Fox News of India.” He said it is because of the media that justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat are still part of the public discourse.
Countering him, Geeta Seshu, Consulting Editor of The Hoot, said: “The Indian media became a lost cause from the moment it started viewing itself as product.” Stressing that there is an absence of plurality in the media, she raised questions about media ownership patterns and cartelisation in the industry. “We have to find an alternative to the advertisement driven model,” she said.
Veteran journalist Nupur Basu countered her and said that it is fashionable to trash the media. “If there were no television channels, 10,000 people would have died in Gujarat not 2,000,” she said, lauding channels for the manner in which they have forced the hand of the government and the Board of Control for Cricket in India in the spot fixing scandal. Calling for greater sensitivity toward the constraints within which the media functions, she said more than advertising and circulation pressures, the media is facing greater pressure from the system to remain silent.
‘Where’s the choice?’
Senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta pointed out that three newspapers hold 85 per cent of the market share in Delhi and questioned the premise that the Indian citizen is free to choose the media he or she wants. In a telling comment, he said: “In the Indian media, there are too many lapdogs, too few watchdogs and hardly any guide dogs.” He also said that the reason Dalits are a blind spot is because there are hardly any of them in the media.
Veeraraghavan, Senior Editor, CNN-IBN, said that TV is not a platform that can build national opinion beyond a particular point and it is unfair to have such expectations of the medium. “You talk of breached trust; I say it is misplaced trust that expects a complex issue like naxalism to be resolved on air in 30 minutes. But can such a discussion bring issues to focus? Yes, of course.”