The Delhi stranglehold

Vanita Kohli-KhandekarThe déjà vu was strong. While recording a discussion on Rajya Sabha TV there was the same old talk of commercialisation of media, poor editors, need for regulation and so on. The topic — Why Indian media is not able to do investigative stories. I looked around and wondered why the discussion was not moving forward.

That is when it hit me — it was because of Delhi’s stranglehold.

In almost all TV discussions or the ones at events, editors from Delhi, bureaucrats, former or current journalists are part of the panel. There will be the odd editor from The Hindu in Chennai. But otherwise just like the edit pages of newspapers were at one time completely dominated by Delhi writers, the discussion on the current and future of journalism is completely dominated by people from Delhi.

Money matters: Journalists and bureaucrats with no idea of the shape of the Indian media business debate its problems and future. Can we take the mike away from them? 

Why that is so is not entirely clear. Someone could argue that the head of almost every major news brand is in Delhi. That is incorrect. The head offices of major English newspapers and news channels are in Delhi.

Whatever the reasons the fact remains that most discussions on media have been warped in time at least over the 12 odd years that I have been covering the sector. This is, arguably, because the people doing the talking come from the same space. They carry the same biases and prejudices. Take two of them.

Most of the editors and ‘media experts’ based in Delhi have an allergy to the words ‘business’ and ‘profit.’ They think that any company that works for a profit is bad and any news company that does that is necessarily selling its soul to the devil. The coming of investment — from institutions, venture funds, private equity or even corporate houses — into media has actually freed it, hugely. Note that the frequency with which it reports scams and brings the truth to light has increased. This is irrespective of who has broken the scam. Sure there have been excesses and oversights. But largely more good has come from the rising noise from private media whether in the Priyadarshini Matto case or the Jessica Lal one. So we need more private capital into media, not less.

Secondly, many of the Delhi
editors and ‘experts’ actually advocate more government intervention into media, not less. This comes from a ‘license raj’ mindset. News media and journalism need better, stronger editors, loads of money and time on training, and media owners with a backbone. Some of the best investigative stories, like Watergate in the US, needed months of effort and resources. Such stories also need strong media owners who back their editors in the face of pressure to pull the plug on the stories. It is not clear how more regulation will support any of this.

Here is my guess about why this happens. Delhi is the political capital of the country. Editors have traditionally been based there with significant branches in Mumbai or Chennai. But largely their concerns were national, at times regional but rarely local. As media spreads — there are 133 news channels and at least four competing newspapers in every major city and town in India — the competition is intense. Unlike say in the seventies, readers are exposed not just to one state-sponsored TV channel and one odd newspaper but to thousands of options across the print, TV, internet, radio, mobile spectrum. This is a competitive and robust market.

This kind of competition raises business and professional issues that are far beyond the call of an old fogey sitting in Delhi. Most of the people on the committees and panels have no idea of the business of media. They frequently mix up the numbers for entertainment business with news, mix up print with TV and so on.

Without a thorough understanding of the business underpinning it is impossible to discuss anything because everything then is a matter of opinion. I use the word business in a positive sense, of someone running a profitable, healthy, credible news organisation. Many companies around the world and in India still do it. And that is what we need to foster, not a ‘business is bad, profit is bad and anyone running a news channel as business is bad’ attitude.

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at 

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