Challenging The Media
The Editor’s Guild of India held a seminar on the Challenges before the Indian Media on Friday, July 6, 2012 at the Indian International Centre in Delhi. The seminar saw prominent media personalities hold forth on the obstacles and trials the media faces.
The session on media regulation began, while some journalists could still be overheard in the audience grumbling to each other about having to wake up for a session at 10 in the morning. The Media Regulation session panel included BJP MP Ravi Shankar Prasad and Law Minister, Salman Khurshid while CNN-IBN Managing Editor Rajdeep Sardesai was the moderator. Prasad said that while today every politician knows they can’t fiddle with the press, the TRP system has led to the“creations of good journalists being denied in the typical Bollywood manner - ye bikega nahin, vigyapan nahin milega (this won’t sell, we won’t get ads)”.
For his part, Khurshid said that paid news has become the new “whipping boy” and while a defamation law must be introduced soon, there should be room for “honest mistakes”. There were also some accidental laughs when Sardesai accidentally referred to Prasad and Khurshid as “both former law ministers”.
The next session was on Threats to Media Freedom. The panelists were The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, N Ravi – former Editor of The Hindu, Raghav Bahl – Controlling Shareholder and Managing Director of Network 18, and Ajay Upadhyay – Consulting Editor of Amar Ujala. The session was moderated by T N Ninan, Chairman - Business Standard.
N Ravi said that the media faces both external and internal threats. While the external threat is the growing intolerance of public office holders, the internal threat is “plain bad journalism”. Given what he was going to say, Gupta would have agreed.
Shekhar Gupta, in full form, did not mince words and informed the journalists present that they were an incompetent, arrogant lot. He went on to say that journalists today have no intellect and their general knowledge wouldn’t enable them to pass even a basic competitive exam.
On the subject of regulation for the media, he ridiculed both the government and the media fraternity saying that the media is afraid of its own freedom and that’s why it is inviting regulation from outside. But, he added, that is not going to happen because the present government is the “weakest and the most non-functional government we have ever had”.
Later he also criticised media persons who went on to take a Rajya Sabha seat or found a place on a government committee.
“The problem is with senior journalists and editors embracing government all the time… accepting Rajya Sabha nominations, government committees, it’s criminal!”, he said.
Raghav Bahl, who spoke before Gupta, felt that the nature of TV news is such that it is a “First Information Report” and the ability of journalists to become experts is still a work in progress. But he too had certain objections with the media approach to information provided by the government.
“While in the Nineties we used to approach government handouts with skepticism it is not so anymore. We seem to be purveying a government-is-god kind of stance, even when the government line is flawed… the CAG report falls squarely in this category”, he said. While Bahl said that most of the mistakes in the media stem from “inexperience and youthful energy”, Gupta disagreed with him and said it is due to “senior and famous editors and anchors”.
On the topic of private treaties, Bahl said,“from our own experience we can tell you that it is extremely bad tax planning. You end up paying 45% of non-cash receipts to the government so when we looked at it we decided not to do it. Someone who is doing it either has too much cash or is a very bad tax planner”.
Although he heads a number of TV channels, Bahl made it clear that he is not a huge fan of TRPs, saying that they are relevant only for entertainment channels. “I couldn’t be a bigger supporter of the fact that the whole TRP system is rotten. TV channels’ finances today are wrecked only because of the completely flawed TRP system… All TV news owners would be squarely in favour of a more broad-based, far more scientific system that we have today”, Bahl said.
The third and final session was on Paid News and was introduced by Mrinal Pande. She recounted an incident which she saw on TV where a CEO of a big publishing house in Delhi said that his Hindi business had performed better than the English one in revenue and he attributed it to the windfall in the form of the UP elections.
The only other speaker was SY Quraishi, former CEC of India, who said that while the media had been the eyes and ears of the Election Commission during elections they had also found many instances of paid news. On the positive role of the media, he recalled an incident when he had got a call from Rajdeep Sardesai at 12:30a.m. one morning, “about a young leader who was making a very venomous hate speech against a community. He asked me whether I had seen the speech. I said that I had not and he said please wait I will repeat it on the channel and sure enough it was very objectionable and we asked for a CD the next morning”.
He revealed that the Election Commission had caught 121 cases of paid news in Bihar elections, and 250 cases when polls were held in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry. They had also found that in TN & WB, the news channels owned by political parties disturbed the level playing field. In the last batch of elections in UP and other states, 766 complaints were received in which notices were issued to 581 because a prima-facie case was established. He also said that there were admissions in 253 of the cases. And went on to say, “We have proposed that paid news be made a cognisable, punishable offence… I have often wondered if the fourth pillar of democracy will become the fifth column of democracy”.
We leave you with an Urdu couplet Quraishi quoted which we agree sums up the situation quite well –
“Baghban ne aag di jab aashiyane ko mere,
jin pe takiya tha wohi patte hawa dene lage”
(When the gardener began burning my abode,
The very leaves on which I rested began to fan the fire.)
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