By dumbing down news, converting ‘debates’ into circuses, and using loaded hashtags, the media has allowed the social contract guaranteeing its freedoms to fray. Rather than become complacent with the reprieve that comes with the PM’s intervention, we should reflect on where we’ve gone wrong.

In a piece as far back as 2010, I had said nobody could understand changing public opinion faster than two very diverse, distant sets of Indians: Mumbai film-makers, and the political class.

And when both believe that there is a growing disapproval of the news media, you better take serious notice.

Ram Gopal Verma’s Rann, as a mainstream Hindi film built around the theme of condemning the news media, represented a turning point in Indian popular culture. It was preceded by Paa, where Junior Bachchan also draws applause in small-town cinemas when he tells his progeria-stricken son that he no longer need worry about predatory media, interested “only in their TRPs”, because he has secured a ban from the high court. And, subsequently, we had Peepli Live.

Then, in Aamir Khan’s PK, Anushka Sharma and Boman Irani are caricatures from a snake-marrying-tree kind of channel willing to do anything for TRPs. I have been saying since 2010 that this is a significant shift because, until now, journalists were generally seen as decent folk in our popular culture, along with judges and soldiers. Is Bollywood, therefore, raising a red flag for us, I had asked.

If Bollywood spotted the trend, others have followed on cue. A famous Fevicol campaign, for example, is titled ‘Breaking News’, and is a brilliantly funny lampoon of what is often derided as TV news channels’ unfettered and ridiculous definition of just about anything as ‘breaking news’ or ‘exclusive’.

From one laughter show to another, stand-up comedians make fun of TV journalism. In a particularly funny one, the funny man, actually a very funny man, does an entire act in which a TV reporter’s first response, from birth to death, is the question “Aapko kaisa lag raha hai?” — the most-used stereotype to describe dumbed-down journalism, so popular that even a broadsheet daily used the same metaphor, of a dumb TV reporter asking the widow of a hooch victim the same question, to underline the distinction between lousy journalism and theirs. Even in 2010, therefore, it was clear that news media, especially TV, had dumbed itself down, deep into a corner.

The fact, however, is that a lot of TV journalism is neither lousy, nor dumb. In fact, the growth of live news TV over the past two decades has brought in an entirely new, marvellously energetic, enterprising and brave dimension to Indian media.

For the old world of print media, it’s been a great force multiplier. The larger profession of news media, whether TV or print, is not dishonourable, compromised, filled with paid news, or entertainment passed off as news. Nor is it all about snakes marrying trees; “wisdom” on how Shani (good old Saturn) can wreck your life if you do not propitiate him every Saturday (I better be careful, actually, ‘National Interest’ appears on Saturday, and Shani may just be reading); hour-long shows on how the world may come to an end “next week”, and other such delightful rubbish. My favourite, as an animal-lover, is “tenduye ka root canal”. Now I am blessed with a wonderful dentist, but maybe there are others who might want to see a leopard chew up the hand of their dentist as he probes deep into its mouth with the killer drill.

All these examples are real, but they still do not characterise TV journalism, and journalism overall. Yet, why is this muck sticking? Why is it that, whichever audience you may have spoken to in recent times, the questions you face are all about the same thing, on the “media dumbing down”, mostly on news TV?

Usually, this happens when public revulsion at a phenomenon reaches a critical mass. People then tend to accept any generalisation, and paint everybody in the business or the profession they do not like with the same brush. It is as they do with the political class.

Also, once such a view gets entrenched in the popular mind, it is tough to dislodge it. The problem now is that the political class is too sharp a reader of the popular pulse to miss this growing anti-media clamour. It is, therefore, sharpening its knives. At least three standing committees of the two houses of Parliament have produced reports damning the news channels for sensationalism and inaccurate reporting, and demanding laws to “regulate” them. Several high court judgments have already reflected a similar view. All this is adding up in the thickening files of the I&B ministry.

The political class cannot be faulted for feeling that this is their moment to get even with the media. Normally, they would never have dared to even suggest this. But now they feel a change in the public mood, and, therefore, an opportunity. What can be better than a legislatively mandated regulatory or supervisory body to keep the media within the “norms of decency and accuracy”? In other words, in control?

The politician is smart, and knows that the freedom of the press in India is not specifically mandated or guaranteed, either by the Constitution or any specific laws. There is the overall freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Constitution and then a wide range of court judgments from the past decades protecting and expanding press freedom. In fact, it was precisely when these freedoms were denied, during the Emergency, that the people of India overwhelmingly embraced the great notion of total press freedom. This, in fact, became one of the greatest social contracts to arise in the course of India’s democratic evolution.

It is this social contract that has been under threat, and all because of the greed and the cynicism of a few who allow the wall between news and rumour, entertainment or superstition to vanish, or sell news time, or space (in the print media), for money. This social contract was backstopped by the judiciary. Some of that is being questioned now.

In 2008, the Supreme Court set up a high-level committee under Fali Nariman, including jurists, top information & broadcasting ministry officials and media seniors (including this writer), to debate the regulatory issues arising out of the media’s “sensationalist” and “provocative” coverage of the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan, and suggest correctives.

Like many other committees, this too happily lost its way. But it is worth noting that in the six-decade history of the republic, it was perhaps the first time that the Supreme Court had felt constrained to take an initiative to regulate, if not control or curtail, press freedoms, rather than enhancing or strengthening them. For all of us in the business of journalism, in all media, warning bells can’t ring louder than this.

An earlier version of this article was published as National Interest in 2010. 

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  1. The business model of media is under serious strain. That must be contributing to some of the distortions that are creeping in. As for the eternal tension between government and media, some would agree with Donald Trump that we have a ” nice ” media. Ultimately, that harms the incumbent more than anyone else.

  2. There is no two opinions about this. Press freedom should be absolute.It cannot be truncated,controlled.The subscribers or end users will decide which is serious journalism and which is spurious or Fake.The sad part is those practicing it do not put a value to their profession.so we have compromised journalists and electronic newscasters who are not objective in their reporting but are subjective to the interests they espouse. just because we claim that we have a free press does not mean that the freedom is absolute.To their eternal discredit and shame THERE ARE JOURNALISTS AND CABLE NEWS CHANELS WHO HAVE SOLD THEIR SOULS AND PARROT THE RULING PARTY LINE AND WILL EVEN SUPPORT TRUNCATION OR DIMUNATION OF THEIR OWN FREEDOM TO OBLIGE THE BIG BROTHER

  3. […] April 3, 2018April 3, 2018 admin 0 Comment This post was originally published on this site The proposed order would have given the government the authority to strip individuals and media organizations of their accreditation — which is needed to go to government functions and makes access to government offices easier — if they received a complaint of reporting so-called fake news, a term that was not specifically defined. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government said the measure was meant to help stop the spread of misinformation throughout the country, but critics swiftly condemned it as an attack on free speech in the world’s most populous democracy. “Make no mistake: (T)his is a breathtaking assault on mainstream media,” Shekhar Gupta, one of India’s most prominent journalists, tweeted to his nearly 2 million followers. He is the editor-in-chief of ThePrint, an Indian website focusing on politics and policy. A spokesman for Modi’s office confirmed the Indian leader ordered the rule be pulled. Smriti Irani, India’s minister of information and broadcasting, said Tuesday the now-removed order had generated debate and that media organizations could work with the government to fight what she called “the menace of ‘fake news.’ “ The measure’s introduction was troubling to some who saw it as the latest effort among powerful leaders of Asian democracies to target the free press under the guise of combating so-called fake news, a term popularized by President Donald Trump in his effort to fight negative press coverage. Malaysia is expected to pass a bill criminalizing the spread of fake news next week. Singapore is also planning legislation to tackle online misinformation. Journalists in Myanmar and Cambodia — two countries the West has invested heavily in to ensure successful transitions to democracy — have been arrested in recent months. And Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has railed against the media by employing the term on a regular basis. His government has come under fire for reportedly targeting the online news site Rappler over its negative coverage of the Duterte administration’s bloody war on drugs. A presidential spokesman denied the allegations. India appears to be following a similar path, said Prem Panicker, a prominent journalist who used to be Yahoo India’s managing editor “There is a worldwide leaning toward hard-right governing style and hard-right leaders, and the corollary to that is that there’s increasing stresses on the press,” Panicker told CNN. “The single biggest problem is that this is when you want a very free, very vibrant press.” Despite the fierce criticism of New Delhi’s proposed rule, some of its opponents do believe there’s a need for either more regulation or greater responsibility on the part of publishers. India has one of the world’s most saturated and fastest-growing media markets, boasting thousands of options in print, television and online journalism. With that freedom and booming market has come a thriving tabloid culture, which has frustrated mainstream journalists who get lumped in with those peddling misinformation and flouting common standards. Ahmed Patel, a senior leader of the opposition Indian National Congress political party, said that he appreciated the effort to combat “fake news” but voiced concerns that the proposed measure could be misused. Others, such as Gupta at ThePrint, said India’s respected outlets have not done enough to stymie the growth of increasingly sensationalist tendencies in the press. “By dumbing down news, converting ‘debates’ into circuses, and using loaded hashtags, the media has allowed the social contract guaranteeing its freedoms to fray,” Gupta wrote in an opinion piece. […]

  4. Hello Shekhar Gupta. I think you have reflcted precisely the mood of many Indians about media. Infact I have stopped watching English News Channels quite some time back, including the supposed to be reputed ones for trustworthiness. Because what they are pedling as news are loaded, biased, driving their own agenda instead of plain, simple news with their own neutral observations. That’s the reason I spend more time on websites like yours and few others for pure news unbiased views. I am not sure about others, but one regional channel which does a good job of old style, only news, is ETV Telugu. Their 9.00pm news everyday is to a large extent neutral and well balanced program. Also I feel 24 x 7 uninterrupted news has become a curse and is also probably one of the main reasons for MSM becoming sensational and going astray.

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