It is very rare for our media to have an Obituary Page. Distinguished citizens pass away and their death is scarcely taken note of. Or the events are dismissed in a couple of paras. Of late, however, there seems a major change has come over in media circles. It started with the death of MF Hussein, an artist of international repute. Since then there have been more deaths like those of Jehangir Sabavala, a fellow and probably much better artist, Shammi Kapoor, Jag Mundhra, Gautam Rajashyaksha and very recently of Jagjit Singh, the ghazal maestro all of them in some way or other, closely associated with entertainment. The deaths of distinguished scholars hardly get any mention in our standard newspapers. Their contribution in the field of education apparently is of no great significance. Perhaps, in this regard, The Hindu is an exception.
In recent times there has been a total cultural upheaval in the media where not talent, but money alone makes news. The upheaval has to be seen to be believed. Take journals like Filmfare (196 pages, Rs 50) for example, or Society (pages 222, Rs 75) and its 68-page free supplement Society Mandate. It is as if India is populated not by the poor but by the upper middle and richer classes whose daily spending could accede, at the very least, say, Rs 1000. Montek Ahluwalia has defined ‘poverty level’ in rural and urban areas in terms of income earned. It is obvious that poor Montek Singh has never visited a slum or discussed poverty with slum dwellers. Looking at some of the pictures in our newspapers and magazines one feels like throwing up. what is happening to our cultural values? Are our publishers even dimly aware of human suffering? Are we to believe that our middle class is only interested to know who are the “Best Dressed” in the country?
A recent article in Time (October 10) had some significant comments to make that are worth quoting. Said Time: “America was once the great middle class society. Now it is divided between the rich and the poor with the greatest degree of inequality among high-income democracies. The top one per cent of households take almost a quarter of all household income – a share not since 1929. An economy this lop-sided cannot prosper. The poor and the working class are squeezed. The rich are increasingly absenting themselves from the country’s troubles. Their businesses sell goods and outsource jobs to China. Their homes are behind gated walls…”
Concern for the poor is totally absent in our media. There are pages after pages in even our national newspaper supplements dealing with the rich. In what way are they relevant to the average reader? Were those pictures published paid for? One understands that a Mumbai English tabloid has published the ‘rates’ for purchasing editorial features in The Times of India. The paper apparently has not issued a denial, leading one to believe that the rogue rate card is merely an indicator of rotting media ethics and tolerance in India for corruption. How can one trust any newspaper which features a paid-for story?
I am reminded here of the late S Sadanand, founder editor of The Free Press Journal. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, it consisted of a bare four pages and it sold for half anna (six pies). But it published news of Congress activities and the national freedom movement and its editorials were relentlessly critical of British rule. Not infrequently, the British Government would come down heavily on the editor. His press would be forced to close down; heavy fines would be laid on him, but Sadanand was a born fighter for freedom. He paid the fines, invited a jail sentence, but there was no way to stop him. Then came independence. Soon after, the Chief Minister of Bombay invited him for a quiet get-together. Sadanand did not know why he was invited. But halfway through the conversation, the Chief Minister told him: “Mr Sadanand, you have been a consistent fighter for freedom. And you have paid a high price for it. We have found out how much fines you have paid.
The government wants to honour you by repaying all the fines that you have paid to the last penny. Kindly accept this cheque” – or words to that effect. Sadanand refused to accept it saying that he did not fight for freedom in the hope that when freedom is won, he would be recompensed for all the losses he suffered. It so happens that I served him and The Free Press Journal for nine long years and even if sometimes he hauled me over the coals for what I wrote – he had named me as editor – to the last I held him in the highest respect. In his own way he represented the media of another day and age when values were held sacrosanct, and there were many like him who went through hard times – men like Syed Abdullah Brelvi of The Bombay Caronicle, BG Horniman of Bombay Sentinel, M Chalapathi Rao of National Herald and a host of others, who were members of the All India Newspaper Editors Conference (AINEC), a body held by the government in awe. Today money-making seems to be the name of the game. Values are for the birds. There is no point in blaming anybody. Sadanand fought for freedom. Today what are editors fighting for? Circulation, obviously. Sell scandals, gossip, sex, vulgarity. Sell news space, in addition. What is wrong with it? We are living today in a different world. some columnists had understood that a long time ago to attain name and fame, and cashed in on it. One can hardly blame them.