While giving away the first Ramnath Goenka Awards for Excellence in journalism recently in Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a valid point. He said some ?unhealthy? trends have been seeping into media due to the ?pressures? of competition. As he put it in no uncertain terms, ? the pressures of competition have hobbled professionalism and encouraged unhealthy trends?. That was very delicately put. Dr Manmohan Singh is too much of a gentleman to name names. But he surely can identify the guilty press. The problem is not so much competition?though it exists?but sheer greed. Journalism has ceased to be a profession: it has become a vice and in some ways a disgrace. Dr Singh said that in the past he had expressed his ?concerns about the quantitative growth of our media outpacing qualitative development?. He couldn'thave described the scene more accurately. But a caveat needs to be entered.
We have some top class newspapers in the country like The Statesman and The Telegraph of Kolkata, The Pioneer of Delhi, The Hitavada of Nagpur, Deccan Herald of Bangalore and the one-and -only The Hindu of Chennai, not to mention The Free Press Journal of Mumbai. Nor can one ignore The Indian Express. Besides we have regional paper like The Tribune of Chandigarh and The Sentinel of Guwahati which are in a class by themselves and do not cater to vulgar tastes. The ?unhealthy media trends? in the circumstances are confined to a small but highly influential segment of the English media which hogs the headlines. This segment is giving the media in general a bad name. One has to be careful before making any generalisations about the media. There is a newspaper which sells news. One can purchase news space in the columns of the paper and the reader would not know whether he or she is reading authentic news or a paid advertisement, posing as news. And that is the tragedy. The Press Council apparently can do nothing in the matter. All the more reason why its powers should be broadened. And if Dr Manmohan Singh means business, he must persuade his UPA Government to pass some meaningful legislation to control our wayward media instead of lamenting ?unhealthy? trends that have come about due to pressures of ?competition?. What is the government afraid of? In this matter one can be sure that the UPA government will get the full support of both the NDA Opposition and even the Leftist parties. Media competition is not just confined to Delhi and Mumbai. Isn't there competitions Kolkata, or, for that matter, in Chennai? Is The Hindu stooping to vulgarity? Is The Statesman or The Telegraph? Or, for that matter, The Free Press Journal in Mumbai? Yes, they are all facing stiff competition.
But Mumbai'sThe Free Press Journal continues to retain its sense of values and propriety though, in keeping with the times, it has given itself a new?and very attractive?page layout that has made it visual very attractive without lowering its dignity. Incidentally, so has the Kolkata-based The Statesman under its new editor Ravindra Kumar. The Statesman is presently published from four centres, Kolkata, Delhi, Siliguri and Bhubaneshwar. When it hits, it hits hard as it always has, daring even to take on the left Government in Kolkata, which is what gives it its credibility. It gives a full quarter page to letters to the editor which means it is listening to the voice of the people. The Hindu goes a step further. It is the only newspaper in India which has a Readers? Editor and which admits its mistakes openly and right in its Op-Ed page.
The paper is not ashamed to admit to its mistakes in its pages. Most of the mistakes pointed out are ?minor? though purists may differs in this regard. On March 30, for instance, in its column ?Corrections and Clarifications? the paper said: ?We got it wrong in the headline and the report in ?Sonia tried to make a virtue out of a compelling necessity? (March 25). The idiom is: ?make a virtue of necessity?, derived from line 3, 042 of Chaucer's?Canterbury Tales?the Knight'stale? and Shakespeare's?Two Gentlemen of Verona?. There is no ?out? here.? So, one believes, the line should read: ?Sonia tried to make a virtue of a compelling necessity?. It is not uncommon for even the most knowledgeable of editors, columnists and reporters to err, sometimes because of poor memory or because of confused thinking.
But The Hindu has no hesitation in admitting mistakes. Some of them could be factual errors, as for example, when The Hindu wrote to say that Swami Vedarthi Maharishi was born in Gummidpoondi. A reader was quick to point out that the Swami was born not in Gummidpoondi but in Guduvancheri; Both places, incidentally are near Chennai. Is it that important to correct the error? The Hindu thinks it is. Referring to the report ?Amend Hindu Marriage Act? (March 23, 2006) a reader expressed doubts about the amount of compensation the Court had ordered the appellant to pay (in the Naveen Kohli vs Neelu Kohli case). The Hindu had said that the trial court had directed Naveen Kohli to pay Rs 5 lakh to his wife, but, on hearing from a reader it corrected itself by saying that ?the key detail left out after editing was that a bench of the Supreme Court has desposed of the appeal after directing him to pay Rs 25 lakh as permanent maintenance?. Of course, there is a difference between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 25 lakh but it could well have been a printing error.
But The Hindu was not going to make excuses. And that is where its credibility lies. Another excellent daily is The Pioneer which, again, is published from Delhi, Lucknow, Bhopal, Kochi and Bhubhaneshwar. Now in its 142nd year of publication, it has a great tradition to follow. Recently, it took on the Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh (April 11) on the issue of raising the SC/ST Reservation quota from 27 to 49 per cent in institutes of higher learning. It said bluntly that ?whatever his motives, the fact is Arjun Singh is now widely perceived as politician whose idea and political instincts… are way past their sell-by date?. That is putting it mildly.
But what The Pioneer did was to publish a front page report which said that each year, in Delhi University, 1,000 SC/ST seats lie vacant! Delhi University is one of the most sought-after universities and unfilled seats shatter the dreams of many young men and women who deserve admission but are refused because seats have to be kept for SC/ST students. And therein lies the tragedy of our politics. But who can tell that to our ?secular? politicians?