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.