Justice Katju's criticism has triggered a welcome debate and introspection in the media but it is also expected of the Press Council chairman to take a more nuanced view of the complex terrain before him.

A Pakistani columnist once asked me: “What is it with you all? You claim to have a free media and yet, when I was in Delhi last year, it took me less than 15 minutes to run through some six or seven papers. They're full of trivia. There's nothing to read in them, not even on the front pages.”

His words came back to me after Justice Markandey Katju's outburst against Indian journalism. It is not just the two of them either.

Some months ago, a well-known Delhi-based Bharatanatyam dancer told me how “sad” she felt about the Indian media scene. She was an aggrieved party: “I cannot understand this,” she said, “no paper will review my performances. They have all done away with their review pages. Yet journalists call me all the time to find out what my favourite restaurant is, or what my favourite food is. There is an excessive focus on me, and none on my work.”

Let's face it: plenty of journalists too would agree that both Indian electronic and print media are obsessed with celebrity and trivia and are given to sensationalism. In fact, journalists have long been concerned — much before the Press Council chairman voiced his criticism — about the amount of journalistic energies and space/time devoted to the coverage of fluff, and the shallow treatment meted out to what Justice Katju described as the “real” issues.

The impulse to dumb down is only increasing under the pressure of 24x7 news cycles, and as the competition to snare young readers and viewers grows. On television, all news is spectacle, and even the irrelevant gains importance as ‘breaking news.' I remember switching on the television in my hotel room in Jaisalmer some years ago, to be greeted by this important Breaking News: “Jail mey karva chauth” — a report about women prisoners celebrating this north Indian festival of wifely piety.

Journalists get constantly told by those who claim to know better to ‘lighten up,' that Indian readers are getting younger, they have short attention spans, and they do not want to read gloom and doom stories about India not shining; if these stories have to be covered, they must be delivered to these attention-deficit readers/viewers in bite-sized pieces; coverage must be about personalities, even if about politicians; the coverage must cater to young, aspirational India's race for upwardly mobile lifestyles rather than the multiple crises in the country, even if these crises will ultimately work towards thwarting those very aspirations.

So bring in the beautiful people, go easy on farmers' suicides and rural employment generation. In this model, science journalism cannot get more cerebral than whether mobile phones give you cancer; international news would ideally feature breaking up — or breaking down — teenage pop stars, film stars, and supermodels, and the Jasmine Revolution would fare better as a new line of perfume, and Arab Spring a brand of sparkling mineral water that Angelina Jolie drinks on her UNHCR trips.

“This is what young people want today” is the market mantra. If that is correct, and we do not know that, the question is, as media — presuming that media are a substantially different entity from a fizzy drink — do we lead our ‘consumers,' or should we allow ourselves to be led by what sections of these consumers consider ‘boring' or ‘interesting'? Steve Jobs, whose market strategies are much admired by the pundits, is said to have nursed a healthy disrespect for market research, saying “customers don't know what they want until we've shown them.”

Dumbing down aside, in the past couple of years, the gory stories of media corruption, paid news, and the Radia tapes controversy have all taken the sheen off Indian journalism.

Yet I find myself disagreeing with Justice Katju's broad swipe. It is easy to tar the entire media with one broad brush of criticism. But not all journalists are the same, just as not all judges are the same. There are many journalists who are doing exactly what Justice Katju thinks journalists should be doing, and they are not necessarily all high-profile. It also needs to be said that the media have made a lot more positive contribution than they are given credit for. Much of the corruption that has come to light over the last one year, all the scams that are currently churning the Indian polity, would have gone unnoticed had it not been for exposés by news organisations. Just in the last year, the government has had to sack Cabinet Ministers and Chief Ministers in response to the great 2G heist, the CWG and the Adarsh scams, all of which were unearthed by the media.

We are living through a complex period of economic, social and demographic change. Even Justice Katju, in an article inThe Hinduon the media that was a forerunner to his interview with Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN's Devil's Advocate programme, quoted his favourite Firaq Gorkahpuri couplet to make this point:Har zarre par ek qaifiyat-e-neemshabi hai, Ai saaqi-e- dauraan yeh gunahon ki ghadi hai. Translating this literally as “every particle is in a condition of half-night; it's a time of sin,” Justice Katju spoke of the pains of living through an era of transition.

It is a nice thought that the media must separate themselves from the flux in which they exist, but the truth is that the media, and the people who work in them, are also a reflection — a snapshot — of society at any particular time. My Pakistani columnist friend who complained about the lightness of Indian newspapers is used to the steady high-fibre fare of strategic and political analyses offered up in the Pakistani papers. But that is a reflection of Pakistan's country situation.

India's situation is a bit more mixed than that. For that reason, any newspaper or television channel has the challenging job of accommodating a wide variety of interests, and there is no point being in denial about this. At one end is the need to cater to a mass of people who seem to be on an endless buying spree, from cars to clothes and everything in between; at the other, the need to remind them that there are people who cannot buy even one square meal a day. The challenge for media organisations is to get the mix right, without compromising on the essentials of journalism. The world's best newspapers (not necessarily the ones with the largest circulation) are the ones that have mastered this mix.

For instance, the visit of the Pakistan Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, excited much criticism that the coverage focussed more on her looks, clothes, Birken bag, and her glasses than on the substance of her discussions with her Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna. From a reporter's perspective, when a Minister of a country with a worse Human Development Index than yours lands at your airport with a $10,000 handbag, pricey shades, and “classy pearls,” it is bound to attract media comment. This is not trivialising news. It is news. The criticism that the coverage of her film star looks was excessive and breathless may not be misplaced. But there is nothing startlingly wrong if a newspaper's fashion reporter dissects the pearls, and a foreign affairs reporter covers the substance of the visit, as most mainline newspapers did.

Yes, it is true that journalists could be better informed about the subjects they cover, and could be possessed of more general knowledge. But that is more a commentary on our education system than on journalism itself. Some of the best journalists may not know their Shakespeare or Emile Zola, but that has not been known to affect the quality of their work.

It must also be said in defence of my tribe that journalism is far more open to criticism than some other professions. Who can criticise the judiciary this way and get away with it? Partly, this is in the nature of the work we do — the ‘product' of our labour and its authors are out there in the public realm, for everyone to evaluate. There is no hiding.

Journalism may lack a capacity for introspection, though that too is not entirely true. But there is absolutely no doubt that outside regulation, such as by using government advertisements as a weapon against media organisations as Justice Katju suggests, is dangerous. It is already used by the government to silence media criticism, and it is hardly a solution that one would expect someone of Justice Katju's calibre to come up with. To the extent his comments have triggered debate and introspection in the media and jolted us out of smug back-slapping complacency, he has made a positive contribution. But it is also expected of the chairman of the Press Council to separate himself from Everyman, and take a more nuanced view of the complex terrain before him.

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