Tectonic changes are under way beneath the Indian media space. The challenges need to be met up front.

The memory most of us associate with the media of the last decade is that of unfettered growth, when the lists of India's most-read dailies and most-watched television programmes comprised only vernacular-based products. MPs began waving copies of Hindi dailies in Parliament, demanding action on issues raised in them. The mighty Microsoft was working furiously to attain compatibility with India's vernaculars, and Google was urging major Hindi dailies to allow it to put their content online. It all seemed to point to the dawn of a more democratic and more reader-centric era in the Indian media.

But almost 10 years into it, enlightenment remains elusive. Many of the increasingly market-driven dailies are diluting editorial authority and their marketing teams are seeking to carve out newer and cleverer ways of inserting paid-for advertising disguised as news. What has happened? How did patterns of political and corporate corruption that India's free press exposed and attacked for over half-a-century, suddenly become a shared future?

By now it is clear that the media and the socio-economic setting in which they operate are two different things. A certain adversarial relationship between the media, on the one hand, and political parties and corporates, on the other, was once seen by media practitioners as a basic rule of their turf and one was expected to verify everything handed in by any source other than one's own. But as the media business proliferated, this rigour has lost its intensity. It would be too deterministic to say that Indians are programmed to initiate systemic corruption, but there is ample historical evidence to show that instances of secret deals between politicians and media owners to scratch each other's back have not been rare.

The violent revival of age-old caste, communal and, most recently, gender-based divides would surely qualify as the sociological equivalents of a tectonic upheaval in a supposedly modern socialist republic. Today, most of the major media houses are happily inviting outside capital. Some owners have become editors. Many editors have opted for partnerships. With this, relations between media practitioners and their erstwhile adversaries have begun to assume the character of a Great Game, enjoyable but non-life threatening. Even the language of reporting reflects this: editorials on coalition politics talk of falling dominoes, theorists frequently build Test cricket models of party politics, observers of caste-based coalitions talk almost admiringly of the intricate games of chess being played in State capitals. Implicit in all this, however, is an assumption that the playing field will always remain level, and that no matter how intense the mutual suspicion between the press and the ruling parties, neither side would ever think of hurling the chess pieces out of the window and walking off after ripping up the board.

It has taken the seismic jolts and the ugly eruption of the paid news phenomenon to make the media world realise how deep the rot has spread and how it can no longer take for granted the stability of time-tested journalistic systems. Like the earthquakes that hit Indonesia or, more recently, Haiti, the paid-news syndrome has a long subterranean past. It originated along an old and deep fault line that has run under the entire media system between the twin tectonic plates of economic globalisation and political fragmentation. The pressures generated by frequent friction between the two had been building up for decades: ultimately they threaten just about every branch of the media. The vernacular media being the least secured among them, their infrastructure is simply the first to crack up.

Restraining corruption, as unleashing it, requires both capabilities and resolve. This was hard during the days of one-party rule with a protected mixed economy. In the age of liberalisation, with so many groups competing for a fast-opening Indian market, regional media houses that have, or are about to, go public, will face their own Catch 22 situations. Should they stay small and risk being pushed out by the multi-edition T. Rex versions from the Hindi belt? Or should they also mutate and multiply and join the gang? If they survive as regional players, someday they may be in a position to counter the decline in journalistic morals that has been ushered in by the mega-media houses. But like the old Soviet Union, even then they will accomplish this only by ceasing to be what they are.

For the time being we will be better served by some sort of tectonic thinking. Since the simultaneous pursuit of both democracy and larger market shares results in straddling a fault line, it would be foolish not to prepare for frequent seismic jolts of varying intensity. For this we will need to go back to the legal system and demand a redefinition of the ownership of news in the print line. In all media outfits today, advertisement rate cards are being created, agencies are being solicited, and various kinds of group advertising are being handled entirely by the marketing managers. Under such circumstances, how can the editor alone be held responsible for the questionable advertisements appearing in the newspaper? Advertisements, as we all know by now, are now sent into the production system through an SAP (software) dummy without so much as a by-your-leave to the Editorial Department. At the time of assembling the day's newspaper, all that Editorial knows on any given day is how much space is marked out for advertisements on each page. To complicate matters further, multi-edition vernacular dailies have a different local versus national advertisement ratio for each up-country edition, which the area unit manager organises through the seasons. His or her promotions and annual bonus depend on the volumes that are delivered, never mind if he or she sometimes bullies the stringers and local correspondents into soliciting advertisements through their local ‘connections.' Given this situation, it is time the media reinforced the bleachers by demanding that the name of the Advertisement Manager and/or the area unit manager be included with that of the resident editor and the publisher in the print line for each of the regional editions.

No one denies the need for better advertisement revenues today. However, it should be conceded that this need is sharpened to a large extent by the artificially lowered cover prices of many newspapers and the hefty commissions paid to vendors who deliver them. Here the big publishing houses with deep pockets tilt the field easily in their favour and drive out the small local players. Since the consumers of the dailies in the vernacular are typically paying more money than the readers of English language papers, and still get fewer pages, media establishments must create and enforce inviolable advertisement-editorial ratios, ideally around the principle of 70 per cent editorial matter to 30 per cent advertisements. The keyline at the top of each advertisement, the fonts used for the text and the general layout must show clearly that it is a sponsored advertisement, not part of editorial matter.

Another under-reported fact is that the upcountry editions of most Hindi dailies are run largely by clusters of “stringers” and “super-stringers.” They are not accredited journalists and most of them receive a pittance as allowance or, in some cases, just an identity card establishing their bona fides as the representative of a particular daily. However, most of them are compensated by a hefty commission to solicit local advertising on behalf of the area manager. Since the regional pages are transmitted electronically at the last minute to the print location closest to the area concerned, so all local news could be mopped up, they arrive at the editorial desk with just minutes to go for the edition to be sent to press. This opens the floodgates to paid news in some of the least editorially policed editions, local or national, especially at election-time. The role and recruitment patterns of stringers, therefore, merits close scrutiny; clear guidelines need to be issued to media houses.

In order to ensure the health of the media, there is an urgent need to balance the priorities. The prerequisite for this is developing a perception of the whole, and a greater feel for the actual dynamics of the media industry: the essential relationship between the editorial and marketing teams, between the editor and the professional chief executive officer, between the lowly rural stringer and the modem operator, between the field reporters and the editorial desk.

Recent deliberations about censorship and a code of ethics for journalists reveal that political behaviour towards the media has been changing. There is a gradual but irreversible trend towards self-governance and away from authority by imposition. Given this fact, it is not altogether impossible that the tectonic force of democracy may begin to counter that of the globalised markets in the future.

(Mrinal Pande is a senior Hindi journalist and writer.)

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