Recently I had occasion to address more than 500 post-graduate students from different institutions. When they were asked how many trusted the media — print and electronic — less than 10 hands went up. Similar questions in the eighties had evoked a much larger positive response. At that time, some newspapers used to proclaim readership figures that were six times as much as circulation. Today, one would not be surprised if circulation exceeded sales in some cases. Many people buy newspapers but do not always read them.
Two major reasons are private contracts with advertisers and paid news. The former is linked to business news and the latter to political news. A leading national daily brought in this “innovation” of private treaties. The idea is simple. The media house acquires stakes in companies which are listed or planning a listing. In return, the media house provides the company with favourable coverage. Negative coverage is avoided.
Private contracts distort the idea of an independent media since the separation between editorial and advertising is gone. News space is for sale. The Securities and Exchange Board of India had, as early as July 15, 2009, warned in a letter to the Press Council about this pernicious practice. But the Press Council is a toothless old cat and cannot even purr, leave alone roar.
Hundreds of companies with billings running into crores have become media-friendly and the latter is significantly compromised. About the electronic media, the less said the better. The term “anchor investor” is more applicable to this media. Advisers and experts are a dime a dozen, and they give advice to viewers on what to “buy” or “sell”. There are apparently no conflicts, only interests.
At the ground level, the situation is obnoxious. Press conferences are nowadays called “envelope” conferences. Many companies give cash in envelopes to mediapersons for “positive” coverage.
While this is not true for all mediapersons, coverage will not happen without these “envelopes”. When I expressed surprise to a senior executive in a company during one of these press meets, he said: “You are ivory tower academics and do not know the ground reality.”
On the political side, it is called paid news. The recent Maharashtra elections revealed a sordid state of affairs. Due to sustained efforts by some reporters, the Press Council set up a two-man committee to study the issue and the draft report correctly observes that paid news undermines democracy.
At the regional language level, it is embedded journalism, where every political leader worth his sugar has at least one media house under his control. Due to the actions of the supposed leader of the newspaper pack, independent media has become an oxymoron.
To be sure, it has been clear for some time that the media is often supine and subservient, but matters seem to be getting worse. Let us take some examples. The president of the oldest and largest party in the country, the Congress, has seldom given an interview to any media house. Nor has she addressed any open house. It can happen in Liberia or Somalia but should not happen in India. The media seems to have simply accepted the situation.
On the Bhopal tragedy, the media has rightly focused on the Anderson tales, namely his arrival, arrest and departure without any political leaders being involved! But what about Keshub Mahindra and the other executives? Mahindra has occupied important positions after the accident. No interviews with them. No talk about them. What about the factory inspectors of Bhopal?
What about the minister in charge and the secretary in charge of industry at that time? It seems Anderson single-handedly ran that factory from the US! The corrupt local bureaucracy and politicians should have been exposed, but the media has been silent.
Another extreme distortion is the recent floods and storms in West Bengal and Bihar which killed more than a hundred people. The electronic media was silent on the catastrophe since they were focused only on the IPL scandal. Some newspapers allotted little space for such a major calamity.
In the UK and the US, some print media companies did go upmarket in the last few years. It means covering more of art/theatre/opera/ music. In India, going upmarket means more of page 3 — skin and spin. The media do not consider India as a civilisation, but as a market. If so many million cars are sold in India and the figure is one car more than China then we have arrived.
A good number of media (print and TV) persons are actually not citizens of India. Probity requires that foreign citizens with Indian names should make a disclaimer in that regard, particularly when they write/speak on India’s security. But they don’t do that. So much for transparency.