For a generation that grew up watching Doordarshan (on a tiny black and white TV), ‘journalism’ meant (well, once upon a time!!) stony-faced news-reporters reading out scripts on a DD channel.
In stark contrast today, the media has an overpowering and undeniable presence in our life. Private players like NDTV have revolutionised the concept of journalism and India has started looking at journalists in awe.
With India emerging as a powerhouse, and the media playing a crucial role in shaping thoughts (both social and political), ‘Journalism in India’ is indeed an interesting area of study. And that exactly was the subject of discussion at a conference hosted by The India Media Centre at the University of Westminster
The conference got off to a great start with an introduction by Professor Daya Thussu, who gave us a jolt with ‘..there are more TV channels in India, than there are in the whole of Europe’. India’s incredible market expansion naturally brought with it, both opportunities and challenges - professionalism, for example. What with the tremendous potential of 2G and 3G in online journalism, we are looking at very interesting trends over the next few years.
Remember when ‘Prime Time’ meant the 9 o clock News? Well, not true any more. Prime Time today is quite customer-centric (not citizen-centric), showcasing many non-news programmes catering to mass appeal. Apart from the fact that this proves how market-driven our media is, it also depicts an uneven boom in the market (information by Vibodh Parthasarathy).
The conference took me down memory lane, when a couple of decades ago, our cable operator was the guy who lived (and worked) in a tiny shack down the street. Again, not true at all in today’s scenario. Like Andrew Whitehead (BBC editor and veteran journalist) mentioned, his local cable operator in Delhi (then a duopoly market) used to be the ‘Happy Cakes and Pastries’ owner!
Well, haven’t we come a really long way - in media, journalism, broadcasting and distribution.
However, this boom has come at a price - increasing ‘Paid-for editorial content’, sensationalism, and a slow but steady exodus from print to broadcast media. We see it all around us. The media tends to focus on issues that are pertinent to the ‘vote bank’ rather than issues that truly merit attention! (Andrew Whitehead)
Not just that, but most channels these days follow a familiar pattern of programming (patterns with proven success), leading to sameness across channels, and a lot of clutter. If you asked me, today I find myself wanting to go back in time, and tune into good old All India Radio. Apparently, the BBC has about 10 million listeners. In contrast, Indian radio has boomed in terms of non-news programmes, like music and talk shows.
Coming to a very pertinent issue, as an average middle-class Indian, I perceive media to be my instrument of change. Movements like the Anna Hazare campaign, the controversial Slut Walk, or even the Pink Chaddi Campaign, fully utilised the potential of the media in gathering tremendous support and actually making ‘change’ happen.
Andrew offered a very interesting viewpoint, that the Indian middle class should stop using the media, and rather, should work on finding its own political muscle. Personally, I do think it is more practical and simpler to resort to the media. However, Andrew’s explanation got me thinking. Many people only want to use the media, without actually getting their hands dirty. For example, Indian citizens who have never ever cast a vote. There is perhaps a sense of hypocrisy, in people not performing their basic duties as a citizen and taking the easy way out of making use of media.
The conference was an eye-opener in many ways. Bits and pieces of the conference that I found intriguing were:
1. The representation of Dalits in the Indian newsrooms – the informal glass ceiling, preferred invisibility, and the very interesting question of whether the Dalit Elite (i.e., dalits with access to better opportunities) tend to turn into activists instead of journalists.
2. The lack of synergy between academia (media education) and the actual industry
3. A presentation on the politically-controlled media in Tamil Nadu, by Professor Savyasaachi Jain, where popular news channels were openly used as political vehicles by the owning party.
Hailing from the land of M.G.Ramachandran and Ms.Jayalalitha myself, I agree there is strong basis for this case study. However, I also believe that the average educated middle-class citizen tends to look beyond politically-controlled newspapers/channels, and has the capacity to judge for themselves.
4. A lively discussion by Professor Uma Shankar, who hit the nail on the head, with his line ‘India is no longer a nation of introverts’. While a news bulletin would be reported quite soberly by say, the BBC, it would be highly sensationalised by popular Indian channels. Indian journalists and media as a whole, is far more confident today.
5. We don’t quite seem to attract foreign correspondents in India, for various reasons like logistics, language barrier, cultural differences, and a general perception that India lacks the appeal of ‘elite’ countries. Well, I do hope that the future brings not only foreign correspondents, but also wide coverage of global news bulletins in local Indian newspapers.
6. A very candid presentation by Arvind Kumar from ITV (New Delhi) deserves mention here, for his emphasis on the ‘market-orientation of newspapers’. With Brand Managers taking on a huge role in deciding editorial content, it is no surprise that we tend to showcase the 4Cs – Cricket, Crime, Cinema and Celebrities. In contrast to decades ago (when Gandhiji insisted that advertising revenues affected the missionary goal of newspapers), ad revenues seem to become increasingly important.
7. As Abhik Sen (The Economist) rightly mentioned in the closing presentation, 70% of India lives in villages. However, the rampant issue of farmer suicides, malnutrition, exodus to cities, etc are hardly ever highlighted by media.
8. I loved Zareer Masani’s mention of ‘The Indian press, with all its imperfections, still remains a check on the abusive Raj’.
To end this post, here is a very relevant point made by Dr.William Crawley on the ‘accountability of Indian media’.
We have been bombarded with ‘scams’ not only involving politicians but also the media (take the Nira Radia tapes, for example). How accountable is the media to the country? We are in a fledgling stage of accountability today.
I do hope however, that as the media becomes increasingly powerful, it also shows a corresponding sense of responsibility and accountability. The conference itself was a tremendous effort by the Conference team: Professor Daya Thussu, Dr Daisy Hasan, Svayasaachi Jain and Helen Cohen. While the subject itself was enough to evoke strong interest, the content of many papers was striking and thought-provoking. We, at The NRI magazine, congratulate the India Media Centre on organizing the conference, and bringing the changing face of Indian journalism under the spotlight.