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Two hoots for the news media

Many of you may not like Rahul Gandhi’s impetuousness. He broke every established norm to force his own ruling party to drop an ordinance that would have protected crooked politicians. He did not follow the right path to achieve what seems like a good objective. For much of its liberalised life, the news media, in India has been like the junior Gandhi — full of good intentions and virtue but arguably not up to the job of being a pillar of democracy in a maddeningly complex country like India.


Follow the leader: The Indian news media needs its Rahul Gandhi moment if it has to break out of the funk it is in. Pic/AFP

The analogy is possibly a bad one. But it sprung to my mind because the Gandhi-ordinance drama was playing out the same week I was reading The Hoot Reader. It is a compilation of the best pieces from thehoot.org. If you have been a part of the news media, Sevanti Ninan’s thehoot.org is essential reading.

It was set up under the aegis of The Media Foundation in 2001. And it does media stories that you are unlikely to read elsewhere. So The Hoot Reader has an excellent compilation on topics such as Caste in Media, Debating Media Ethics, Gendered Media and Shackling the Press among 11 groups. Much of the material the website gathers and the issues it covers, are either ignored by mainstream media or get peripheral coverage. The Hoot’s job as the media watchdog is not enviable. But the website, funded through individual and other grants does a good job of being one.

As you read the compilation that covers the last decade, the picture that emerges, is of a materially, morally and intellectually derelict media that has been given the task of informing and enlightening us on: the upper-caste biases in newspaper offices in Bihar that have made the media irrelevant to a political process which targets the lower castes, on the business press that fawned over Dhirubhai Ambani and accepts with alacrity the curious mix of business, politics and media that the Radia tapes represented, on the general press that is always more interested in the bad and good things that happen to ‘people like us’ but if the same things — rape, plunder, terrorism — happened in poorer, backward caste areas — the press is not as interested. You may not agree with the picture this paints of India and of Indian media, but it nevertheless gets you thinking.

There are several reasons why we are inadequate — professionally and as an industry. The industry has grown too fast with the kind of capital coming in, the utter lack of training and a ministry of information and broadcasting that hampers and does not facilitate the growth of media. The Hoot Reader in fact points out to something that most people analysing the business do not appreciate fully; that the regulator and policymaker for the media business is the same body, the ministry of information and broadcasting.

To this I would add two more factors. One, the government of which the ministry is a part, is one of the biggest advertisers on media through the DAVP or the Department of Audio-Visual Publicity. Two, it also competes actively with the private media through Prasar Bharati’s All India Radio and Doordarshan. All of this creates conflict of interest making regulation and policy inadequate and ad hoc.

But ignore the regulatory part for now. The fact is that this profession has come to a sorry pass. Most popular films now make fun of journalists and media.

This is largely our own fault. Our ability to get together and lobby, train, fight or correct the wrongs in the profession is pathetic. We just don’t want to discuss what’s wrong with us.

Spend a week in markets such as London or Hong Kong to know how much work goes into investing in research, debate or in training the professionals in these markets. There are dozens of independently run funding programmes, think-tanks and bodies that work with academia, government and industry to create a base for debate around the media. This in turn feeds the thinking on policy and the actual policymaking. For instance, POLIS, a think tank under the aegis of the London School of Economics creates research and debates and funds training and conferences for journalists. The idea is to improve the quality of journalism. And it is just one such body. It is appalling that paid news has not generated the kind of debate that the phone-hacking scandal did in the UK.

So however imperfect Rahul Gandhi maybe, at least he fixed something that would have caused long-term harm to the democratic fabric of India. Can one media owner or editor do what Gandhi has done and get cracking on the tattered mess that Indian news media is?

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik  

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