The excitement over the robust growth of the Indian news media needs to be tempered with a hard look at some of its seamier aspects, N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu has said warning against “romanticising” the “buoyant growth story.”
Delivering the prestigious James Cameron Memorial Lecture 2012 at City London University on Wednesday, he acknowledged that this buoyancy was uplifting when viewed against the decline of newspapers in the west but pointed out that there was another, less flattering, side to the story which needed to be highlighted.
Exploring “the best and the worst” of the Indian media in a global context, Mr. Ram pointed out how crass commercialism was eroding basic media ethics and values with advertisements masquerading as news (the so-called “advertorials”) and “infotainment” pushing out serious news and analysis. There was a disproportionate emphasis on “feel-good” stories and unabashedly laudatory coverage of the “new neo-liberal economic policies.”
“Critics point out that Indian journalism is facing increasing pressure from advertisers, marketing personnel, corporate managers, and even senior journalists to present and prioritise ‘feel-good’ factors – rather than highlight the reality of mass deprivations and what to do about them,” he said.
Mr. Ram referred to an article by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker, where he recalled how in several frank conversations with the executives of India’s largest newspaper publishing company, he learnt why poverty was not a fit subject for news and editorial coverage, why this coverage had to cater to the “aspirational” among young readers (because poverty was ‘not a condition to which one aspires’), and why a newspaper’s editorial philosophy, derived from its business philosophy, had to be one of optimism.
There was a virtual censorship of news, analysis, and comment challenging the neo-liberal economic policies, Mr. Ram said.
“Mainstream press and broadcast media coverage has tended to adopt a laudatory tone, keep out or underplay the criticisms and objections, censor the negative political and socio-economic effects, especially among the poor, and provide little space to the voices of robust criticism and opposition, including those raised from the ranks of professional economists,” he said.
In a wide-ranging analysis, Mr. Ram made a distinction between the “state or fortunes of the news media” and the “state of journalism.”
“The point seems obvious enough but the two states often get conflated in public as well as media marketing discourse. High growth rates, with animal spirits rampant across the sector, may offer opportunities but they do not guarantee quality,” he said.
This did not mean that all was doom and gloom. The tradition of a “strong and assertive political press” was still very much alive with satellite television and newspapers “aggressively and often breathlessly” competing with each other to influence the political agenda.
“With their extended reach, these news media together serve as an effective antidote to any trend of depoliticisation in society. Further there is significant space for the expression of dissent and contrary political opinions,” he said.
He praised the pluralism of the Indian media and the inherent secular nature of much of the mainstream press, especially the English language press.
In a tribute to Cameron who lived and worked in India for many years, Mr. Ram said that in the foreword to his book, An Indian Summer: A Personal Experience of India Cameron wrote: “Only now, after twenty-five years of knowing India, can I make the presumption of claiming a small share of its rare joys and its frequent sorrows.”
“James Cameron, I think, would have got it right – I mean about the Indian news media as well,” he said.