All these years it has always been the media which has been critical of Bollywood as if it was duty bound to do so, while Bollywood meekly listened. After all, it must have thought, one took on the media at one'speril. In their heart of hearts, producers, directors and film stars might have entertained vile thoughts about newspaper editors and proprietors, hoping someone would throttle them, but, by and large they kept their thoughts to themselves.
Now Mahesh Bhatt has come out into the open. And with refreshing views. As he sees it, there are today, too many newspapers and too little news. Writing in The Indian Express (September 21) Bhatt voiced his agony, proclaiming that ?never before have we needed a good newspaper?. As he put it, ?the moment is here for newspapers to consider what these changing times are crying for.? The country, especially its urban centres, seems to be awash with newspapers, some running into over a hundred pages, but which one can skip through in five minutes flat. Says Bhatt, quite understandably: ?A heap of papers has suddenly invaded my home, slowly suffocating and killing my pleasure in reading them. Instead of the newspaper adding value to my day, it now leaves me feeling incomplete and guilt-ridden. My middle class sensibility cringes at the thought of so much wastage.?
How rightly said! Many of our newspapers are good for raddi. Bhatt is right when he says that there are two types of readers: One, a reading type, who sees the newspaper as a gourmet restaurant and another who sees it as a cafeteria. The reader type responds to ?depth and complexity?. The second, the user type, sees the newspaper merely as a daily compendium of data to help him cope with his immediate needs.
Alas, wails Bhatt, ?infotainment is overwhelming serious news??and that really is the problem with contemporary media. Nothing is taken seriously. Trivia holds centrestage. Pages are splashed with pictures of no relevance and of ?celebrities? one has never heard of and everywhere there is oppressive colour. The printed word is obviously not expected to be taken as worthy of attention. And, as Bhatt notes, alarmists are proclaiming ?that for newspapers and traditional journalism, the death watch is on?.
Editors don'tcount. Reporters take their orders from advertisement managers. News is of no value unless it is paid for. News has long ceased to be ?news? in the accepted sense of the term. It is now a commodity, on sale, to the highest bidder. The philosophy is: Take it or leave it. The reader has neither a say nor an option.
Produced as of now, a newspaper is already stale and obsolete even before it lands with a thud at one'sdoorstep, morning after early morning. The reason is not far to seek. The fact is that newspapers (read news proprietors) have no vision. Editors don'tcount. Reporters take their orders from advertisement managers. News is of no value unless it is paid for. News has long ceased to be ?news? in the accepted sense of the term. It is now a commodity, on sale, to the highest bidder. The philosophy is: Take it or leave it. The reader has neither a say nor an option. Strangely enough, newspapers have started to lose their uniqueness, their individual distinction. One newspaper looks like any other newspaper.
Says Bhatt: ?A newspaper should have the personality of our favourite teacher or an uncle or an aunt who'swarm, dependable, wise and helpful but always a bit unpredictable?. What newspapers need to do, adds Bhatt, ?is to perhaps personalise their individual brands? because then, one can pick up a certain paper ?for a strong reason?. He has a point there. When today, one newspaper looks no different from another, the joy of picking up a paper melts into thin air. Is there any way out? How does a newspaper get a distinct brand? Bhatt argues that first, a newspaper must secure a place as an information clearing house for the community it serves and second, it must dedicate itself to public interest, both by paying attention to what the audience is interested in and by serving the broader public interest in the long term. Why? ?Because? as Bhatt rightly says, ?in a symbolic way the newspaper belongs to the people?. The trouble with our newspaper proprietors is that they don'tthink a newspaper belongs to the people. To them, a newspaper belongs to the advertiser. What is important to the newspaper proprietor is not the larger vision but the bottomline. It is not that Bhatt is a conservative, which plainly he is not. He himself is a representative of the world of entertainment and as he puts it ?there is no denying that newspapers should be fun?.
Frivolity has its place. Being serious does not mean being dull. But there has to be a balance between principle and playfulness. To quote Bhatt again: ?There is no room for being sanctimonious and crabby. Newspaper headlines must sparkle and exude exuberance?. But why ? ?Because, at the end of the day, it'smuch more fun to read papers when it seems that the people putting them together are having fun, too!? Thus, when England won the Ashes, Hindustan Times carried the story under the headline: Hard-urned win. England get back Ashes after 18 years.
The temptation to use the term ?Urn??After all, ashes and urns go together, don'tthey?? was too strong even for The Times of India (September 13) which headed its story under the title: Ashes well Urned.
The DNA went one better confounding ?Asses? with ?Ashes? with the heading: Aussies get their Ashes kicked.
Giving headlines is an art by itself and it requires an extraordinarily well-read sub-editor to do the job. But, in the end, it is not the sub-editor who counts but the whim and will of the newspaper proprietor whose aim is to make money and not to encourage excellence. The proprietor must be shown his place which is at the Board Room and not the Editor'ssanctum sanctorum. Time has come for editors to be freed of proprietorial control.
If, that is, it is possible. It is to the credit of The Indian Express to let Mahesh Bhatt have his say. In many ways the paper has a clear brand existence. It is not afraid to provide texts of important speeches made by poets, prophets and kings. It has an editor who is proud to be a reporter and if Vir Sanghvi of Hindustan Times is also trying to capture attention, so much the better.
Editors need to come out of their purdah though prevalent wisdom is that editors should not be seen but read. Perhaps, in the days to come, we will have many more Mahesh Bhatts speaking out their minds without fear of being put down. And why shouldn'tthey?
One of the most media-maligned men in the past is Amitabh Bachchan. Today he can afford to take on the media?and he should. In the interests of the media as much in the larger interests of the reading public. It has had enough of nonsense and page three irrelevance.