Hardly a month ago Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari took the opportunity presented to him by the International Press Institute in New Delhi for giving away the ISI Award for Excellence in Journalism, to caution the media against commercialisation which has been slowly creeping into its vitals. ?The days of the great editors who had a decisive say in newspaper policy on public issues are a matter of the past; instead we have a basket of considerations in which the demands of professional journalism are carefully balanced with the interests of owners and stakeholders of media companies and their cross media interests,? Shri Ansari lamented. He further made the point that the phenomenal growth in the media industry, and intense competition in it, induces editors and journalists to look as much at the top line and bottom line growth as at headlines and editorial comment?.
Shri Ansari referred to a recently published study on the state of Indian democracy in Indian which carried an observation by an eminent journalist that even editors who supported the liberalisation of the Indian economy had become increasingly concerned over the growing control that advertisers wield over news content. Added Shri Ansari: ?Today'smedia organisations are large business entities with thousands of employees and huge financial and other assets. The commercial logic brings in a new set of stakeholders, I refer to the shareholders of these companies. These developments have brought into play a new set of considerations that guide the professional decisions of the press. The interplay of these conflicting demands is evident and subject to public debate.?
Every word spoken by Shri Ansari in this regard holds true. The emphasis is not so much on news as on advertisements in many of our dailies. What is worse, news is trivialised. Shri Ansari felt it was high time to ponder who sets the terms of public debate and whether there was enough media space for the marginalised, the dispossessed and the vulnerable and whether sections of the media had developed stereotypes. The trouble is that newspaper readers have no time to attend public meetings specifically called to discuss the deterioration in newspaper standards. Call it intellectual laziness or just plain indifference or total lack of self-confidence, our newspapers get away with whatever they think sells. They impose newspaper standards on readers and not the other way round. Readers have no say in the matter at all.
The 2007 IPI Award for Excellence in Journalism was given to Shri Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of Outlook. One is shocked by his reaction to Shri Ansari'sremarks. He said: If some readers or viewers wish to see or read about paedophilia, should we oblige? If some readers or viewers wish to see or read about wife-beating, should we oblige?? They are questions that one does not expect from so senior and accomplished an editor as Shri Vinod Mehta, considering their irrelevance.
The answers to Shri Ansari's questions were actually answered as far ago as July 16, 2007 during the first Ramnath Goenka Memorial Debate held in New Delhi. Journalists presented their point of view. Thus, the editor-in-chief of The Hindu, Shri N. Ram pointed out?though not convincingly?that perceptions on what is important for the nation differed from person to person. According to him the Indian media should learn from the international experience where audience for all forms of media was dwindling. Ravi Dhariwal of The Times of India said that people would always want news, but it should be packaged well. Shekhar Gupta of The Indian Express found no fault in popular journalism, provided it was fit to print show and credible! A remarkable excuse. Lamenting the state of affairs, Pankaja Pachauri of NDTV said cricket and television journalism were two areas where quality was on the decline, despite increased investments. Referring to the criticism of Page 3 stuff getting on to the front page, Shobhana Bharatiya of Hindustan Times said that newspapers had to address all sections of the readership to stay in business, an amazing thing to say. Who cares for Page 3 characters? Is some rich society lady giving a party and inviting ?celebrities?, news? In the first place wasting space on much trivialities even on Page 3 is insulting to readers. To put in it on page 1 is adding injury to insult.
If Hindustan Times wants to publicise society news it can well bring out a special magazine devoted exclusively to the subject. There have been such magazines in past and there is no doubt there is much demand for it at the present. Our current newspapers can spare page 3 for more constructive purposes. Shri L.K. Advani who was present at the meeting questioned the manner in which the print media was allowing the agenda to be set by television. And, predictably Shri Sitaram Yechury of the CPM stressed on the need to get peoples? agenda back on the front page. What is interesting is that the report on that debate hardly appeared in the English media, with the exception of The Hindu.
The tragedy is that the media takes it on itself to decide what is reader-worthy and what is not. The reader has no say in the matter. The presumption is that the average reader?not the intellectual?wants vulgarity, petty possip, sex, scandal, for daily consumption and the further assumption is made that the young, especially, have no interest in serious matters. To the best of one'sknowledge, no serious study has been made of reader views whether based on class, creed, community, age, social rating, educational standards or whatever. Does it matter what Sharukh Khan (who pays over a crore of rupees as income tax) or Aishwarya Ray or Amitabh Bachchan have to say on any given subject? Or who some socialite has invited home for dinner? The trouble is that our newspapers take their readers for granted. But if all newspapers follow the same pattern, what choice is left for the reader for this breakfast reading? The publisher?and NOT the editor it is, who has the last word. Time was when editors were held in the highest regards. Today hardly anyone is aware of the existence of editors. If they exist they are not expected to publicise their existence. They come and go unseen and unsung.