Saturday, 31 December 2011

Indian Media: A Reality Check



We in India often look upon media as some kind of a valiant mission, as an instrument of change, rather than a profession, a value neutral mechanism. Thanks to the stalwarts of the freedom movement like Tilak, Gokhale, Gandhi, Nehru et al, who published and used newspapers as a powerful weapon to fight with the mighty Raj. As a matter of fact, the very first paper to be published from India in 1780- The Calcutta Gazette of James Augustus Hickey- was so fiercely opposed to the viceroy Warren Hastings that Hickey was incarcerated and later deported home. Given this history, it is quite natural that people expect the media to follow the tradition established by such worthy predecessors and feel aggrieved when expectations are belied.

In the early years of independence the scene looked not that bad. The proprietors and editors were mostly product of the freedom movement, they cherished certain values and there was also a sense of commitment and pride in being a partner in the nation building process. The things started changing gradually after the death of Pandit Nehru on 27th May 1964. Though Smt Indira Gandhi is rightly blamed for press censorship and other excesses towards the press during emergency years, I would like to submit that overall hers was a mixed record. She freely interacted with the press; was suspicious of the so-called Jute Pres, but sensitive to the needs of the small and medium papers; SITE programme as a public service vehicle was launched during her period, large scale expansion of All India Radio took place; and importantly, the press generally remained alive to the needs of the common masses.

Thereafter, three different developments, which took place at three different times, altered the character of Indian press beyond recognition. Firstly, in the post-emergency period many influential newspapers raveling in their newfound freedom very quickly abandoned their social responsibility and became scandal sheets. Secondly, the arrival of TV in the mid-eighties lead the press in believing and deciding that it would not survive without resorting to changes, both in editorial priorities and production techniques. Lastly, the new economic policies introduced in the nineties that opened the gates for corporate houses and foreign players to buy stakes in media ventures resulting in complete transformation of media policy, priority and ethics.

This is the historical background of Indian media against which we may now attempt to examine the current scenario. Though the mass media or simply put the media encompasses a whole range of activities such as press, radio, TV, theatre, cinema, posters, wall-writings, internet etc, but for the purpose of the present discussion, I propose primarily to focus upon the first three that construct the very basis of media in public imagination, namely- press, radio and TV and refer to other forms only wherever necessary.   

Let me start by saying what we expect from media. There are four traditionally accepted and broadly defined functions of mass media- 1) dissemination of information, 2) interpretation of events, 3) education- meaning political education in the broadest sense of the term and 4) entertainment. The third function becomes most important in a diverse, plural, developing society like India. But we note that over the last two decades or so the scene has changed so fast that all instruments of mass media together have pushed the first three functions to the fringe and the last one namely entertainment with a capital E has come to occupy the core. As a result, mass media has not only lost its inherent capability to influence public opinion and play its role as a strong pillar of democracy, but also become the talk of much public debate and target of criticism, even ridicule. Witness some recent happenings- Radia Tapes, pronouncements of Justice Katju, defamation case against “Times Now” channel and so on. The question is who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs- media owners, journalists, readers, government or some other forces?

Who Is Responsible?

One too often finds it convenient to put the blame on “media”, without going into the specifics, as if media is some autonomous agency that has some inbuilt mechanism to correct itself. This thought leads to nowhere and on the contrary, rather absolves those responsible for the present state of affairs.The fact has to be recognised that media is what is made by the collective inputs of all of the above and therefore, every one of them has to accept its share of responsibility in bringing about the present state of affairs. Therefore, it would be better to first get a clear picture of how the media operates in the present times and only then talk about the remedial measures

At the outset, we will do well to remember that the modern technology as needed for media operations calls for huge capital investment. The days are over when an enterprising journalist could take the risk with whatever meager resources he had, for launching his own newspaper. A whole battery of media-moguls has eased that quintessential editor-publisher out. Whosoever is capable of investing tons of money in machinery, establishment and start-up losses can only launch a newspaper, a TV channel or a FM radio station. We know that a selected few like business houses, politicians, mafia gangs and foreign investors can alone arrange this kind of money. This as a corollary has resulted, on the one hand, in concentration of media power in a few hands; on the other side has fast eroded the institution of editor and free press has become an outdated notion.

The typical media owner of the day does occasionally play charade about meeting up his social responsibility, but the fact is that he has absolutely no confusion or compunction about what he really wants from his media enterprise. It will be too simplistic to suggest that he is concerned about profits generated by advertising revenue. It’s but only a small part of the scheme. His eyes are really set upon much higher targets- use media to influence and mould policies that concerns his other activities, plough back a part of business profits in media with a view to consolidate his position and to create monopoly in a given market, gain social and political clout; and most importantly, roll out a product that serves his class interests and make others crave to reach that exalted station in life. If religion continues to be the opiate for the masses, media is the new wonder drug concocted in this age.

A newspaper, in the earlier days, generally used to build its identity on the basis of its content- news stories, features, articles, editorial commentaries etc. It enjoyed a loyal readership cultivated through its wee defined editorial policy. Not any longer. The press is now following the example of TV where total stress is on looks and appearance and content has been rendered purposeless. One can’t distinguish one paper from the other and reader’s loyalty has become ever shifting. As regards TV, the question of loyalty hardly arises as the viewers are prone to keep on surfing the channels.  I need not cite any examples in this regard as it will be wasting your time on the items that are all too well known. But we need to ask an uncomfortable question at this point that as to how the media owner was able to carry out this transformation. Here the journalist enters the picture.

It is obvious that content is the soul of the media, be it paper, radio or TV. The editorial team under the leadership of an editor is supposed to fulfill this essential requirement. For sure, like the good old days, even today a media house looks out for and hires competent journalists. As a matter of fact, they are a lot better from their predecessors being better educated and better trained. Just take a look at the number of journalism institutes in the country and the graduates passing out from them. Moreover, the working conditions are much better in comparison to the past. Then, what has happened that the output by these brilliant journalists does not pass on the anvil of public opinion?

It might be said without mincing words that a large number of journalists has rather voluntarily been co-opted in the grand design crafted by media owners and their elitist circle. I seek your permission to narrate a scene from a film titled “Naya Daur” made in 1957. In the film, actor Johnny Walker playing the role of a press reporter comes all the way from Bombay to a small place in Madhya Pradesh to report about a road being built by the collective efforts or Shramdan of the village folks. The reporter is inspired by what he sees, keeps his pen and camera aside and joins hands with the villagers in their dream project. Now, this was somewhat idealistic even for those days, but at least press-people were thought worthy of such respect then. Fast forward to 2011 and see a number of journalists enjoying junkets, seven star treats, freebies and in return doubling as lobbyists and middlemen. While, TV journalists shine in glamour and betray arrogance, their counterparts in print media hanker to emulate them.

As a journalist who has spent fifty plus years in print media, I am rather dismayed by the attitude of the readers, too. An average newspaper subscriber is a person who can easily afford the cover price of a paper. Yet, it is pathetic to see him getting influenced by the marketing gimmicks of moneyed media houses. So much so that he makes a choice on the basis of gift schemes introduced by them and keeps on changing the paper accordingly, even month by month. He has come to think that newspapers are flush with advertising revenue and don’t need subscription money any more. The result is that a paper with serious content has no hope to thrive or survive in this atmosphere. 

Let us now briefly discuss the role being played by the government. I have always held that a robust democracy and healthy press (media) are complimentary to each other. In a welfare state like India, press was supposed to act as the bridge between the people and the state, between aspirations and actions, between desires and deliveries. It seems that the state, gradually shifting from Nehruvian model of nation building to neo-capitalist philosophy has no need for a healthy press. The leaders have lost touch with the masses and they don’t want their sleep to be disturbed by the travails of the aam admi. There are schemes galore in the name of welfare, but nobody seems to be interested in getting reliable and independent feedback about the implementation of these programmes. The state has turned a blind eye to the growing monopolistic trend in media, spokespersons of various political formations deem it better to debate issues of national importance on TV channels rather then on the floor of the house, and the prime minister has no appetite in meeting with the press. 

A word may also be added about various media bodies. Once upon a time there was Press Institute of India (PII) that regularly conducted training courses for journalists. It is almost dead now. IFWJ was a powerful trade union of working journalists; it’s now split in three entities, none of which has the power to influence the course of events. INS and ILNA have also lost their respective relevance and clout with the government. Many newspapers are running their own media training institutes, but their syllabi have nothing to do with democratic values, as we understand them.


This is a dismal picture that I have tried to present based upon my own experience and study of the subject. The million-dollar question is what is the remedy for these ills. For quite sometime now, I have been advocating that it’s futile to depend upon the media controlled by vested interest, and we must rather develop some kind of a parallel press that answers to our needs. Call it guerilla press, if you please. When we want to build a democratic, socialist, secular society, we also need adequate instruments for mass contacts, mass awareness and public education. I envisaged that workers, students, peasants etc would publish their own newspapers, composed on a computer, printed in a small facility and circulated on micro level. It could be a single broadsheet weekly wallpaper pasted on the walls of Gram Panchayat, college notice board, office canteen and so on. The expenditure would not be much and surely there would be some journalist friend around to help in the cause.

Obviously this proposal has its limitations. But I think that we have an alternative available in the form of a people’s initiative. That can be a joint stock company, a cooperative society or a public trust for setting up newspapers and TV channels. In the past some efforts were made in this direction, though they failed primarily due to lack of professional management. There are two different examples from other fields that may be studied in this regard. The first is Amul and the second is Indian Coffee House. You may want to give a cool thought to these ideas! The point is that the media should be in the hands of the people and be not aligned to business interests.

Whatever be my suggestions about alternate media, we can’t and shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that in a democracy polity it is primarily the government that is under obligation to create an atmosphere that is conducive to a vibrant media in order to ensure the cherished right of freedom of expression. We know that the government has faltered on this account, not only because it is under pressure from the capitalist class, but also due to its own political philosophy. This is not acceptable. While we would like to remind the government on this, we may also put forth some practical suggestions for its consideration and appropriate action.

Print Media:

One immediate step that central government must take is to set up the third press commission, which will look at the larger issues like price-page schedule, ownership pattern, devolution of ownership, FDI, ombudsman etc.

A complete revision in the advertising policy of DAVP is also called for in promoting socially oriented journalism. Some suggestions in this respect are as follows-

1.      Display Advertisements related to social justice and welfare programmes should be released only to Indian language newspapers. Main beneficiaries of these schemes i.e. general masses read only language papers. Therefore, for example, why should an advertisement about scholarships for ST students be given to ‘Times of India’ or any other English daily published from metro cities?

2.      The weeklies and tabloids published from district places and remote towns are often dubbed as Yellow Press, but this perception can be changed through a strategy. These papers circulate in rural areas and thus, have a potential for becoming useful tools to disseminate public information. DAVP may consider giving them display advertisement on a fixed rate- long-term basis and ask for fixed space for publicity of welfare schemes. All newspapers routinely publish publicity material provided by advertisers. DAVP can also demand the same. This will help to curb the rising monopolistic trend and ensure decentralization of print media in the country.

3.      Those newspapers, which as a matter of policy run regular pages on developmental issues and Panchayati Raj, be given preferential treatment for DAVP ads. This will ensure greater public participation in designing and implementing public policies in the true democratic spirit, and will also involve the print media in such formulations. It may be made clear that the stories/ articles need not be pro-govt. and that the press will be entitled to its views on the subject.

4.      Those newspapers, which as a matter of policy promote small regional languages, (such as Bhojpuri, Chhattisgarhi etc.), and have regular space dedicated to editorial content in a regional language also be given preferential treatment. This will be particularly helpful in the vast Hindi speaking countryside in disseminating information on welfare policy initiatives.

5.      Those newspapers, which are published from tribal areas/ schedule V areas, need to be given some kind of special treatment, like extra rate over and above normal tariff etc. They might be treated as pioneering industry in a backward area.

6.      Similarly those newspapers, which are published from small towns, district headquarters, having population below 1,00,000 should be given some additional advantage by way of special rate etc.

7.      Display advertisements and small tenders etc. should be reserved for regional newspapers. At present English newspapers published from metro cities corner the lion’s share of all govt. advertising (mainly released through private advertising agencies). There is no justification in it. The metro newspapers cater to the elite, don’t reach villages and even otherwise have hardly any social concern.


It is an anomaly that while TV has been opened for private players; a cost-effective and people-friendly medium like Radio is still firmly in the hands of the central government. It is hard to understand as to why community radio remains a distant dream, while private operators have been given permission to run FM stations like Radio Mirchee. This selective approach has turned Radio into a vehicle of popular entertainment rather than an instrument of mass education. There might be genuine apprehensions about the abuse of this powerful medium that reaches to far-flung villages and surpasses any other medium, but surely measures can be put in the place to prevent untoward, undesirable and unwarranted happenings on the community radio system. It might be useful to recall that in 1975, SITE programme was launched for mass education through TV. It was taken up as a pilot project in six states. This example can be followed in respect of community radio, too.


The total number of privately held TV channels in the country runs into hundreds. Quite a few of them have foreign collaboration. Similarly, politicians control many.   This glamorous medium is a perfect vehicle to implement the neo-capitalist agenda and has proved to be so in India. While a TV channel should be able to retain its independence, it should not be allowed to shirk its responsibility to the public. At this stage, I suggest that a TV commission on the pattern of the press commission be set up to examine all aspects of TV operations.

 The government owned Door Darshan goes on to receive flaks for its performance. Yet, it is the only agency to provide public service telecasting. Earlier it had no rivals; now it has to survive in the face of stiff competition. This calls for a thorough scrutiny of the programme mix being offered by its various channels. It must be ensured that DD doesn’t deviate from the primary purpose for which it was set up in 1959 and takes due care to promote the basic values enshrined in the Indian constitution. . It is a matter of satisfaction that we now have two more channels respectively owned and operated by Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha that complement the role of DD.

Even catering to the need of entertainment for the masses, some simple steps might be taken. Like showing award winning regional films on DD National in the Prime Time slot rather than during late night hours as is the practice now. There may be many more ideas but the point is that DD should not be run on the dictates of marketing managers/advertising agencies.

New Media:

At the end of the paper, I propose to return once again to what we, as concerned citizens could and should do to use media in furtherance of democratic value system. We have been hearing a lot about the decisive role played by Internet and various social media sites during political upheavals in Egypt, Libya and even in India in Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption. The self-laudatory claims made by the new media instruments are no doubt exaggerated, but what prevents us from taking advantage of the opportunity presented by these technological tools? I suggest that all progressive organisations, think tanks, even political parties should optimally use them by joining these sites and start posting material on them.

The simple point is that we have to adopt a two-pronged strategy. One is to continue to put pressure on the elected governments for implementation of a media policy that is in sync with the basic fabric of our society. The second is to keep on exploring possibilities of people’s initiatives in this direction.

Lalit Surjan

Raipur 04-11-2011

Note: This paper was presented in a National Workshop on “India’s Path To Socialism” organised in Hyderabad on 27-30 December 2011.