What the decline of opinion pages tells us about the media's role in India

Has the debate about separating opinion from straight news already been settled by TV news?

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
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If you put four Indian television news anchors in one jar and shake it vigorously, you will probably get at least 10 opinions. Maybe more. Television news in India today is dominated by opinion, of anchors and the talking heads invited on primetime shows. For the ordinary viewer, it’s virtually impossible to separate fact from opinion, even fiction.

Yet, journalism schools in this country continue to churn out women and men who enter the profession with the belief that the two should be separate.

It is this change brought about by TV news that makes the ongoing debate within the American media about the role of opinion pages seem a little distant from our reality.

There, a controversy erupted on June 3 when the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Republican Senator Tom Cotton headlined “Send in the Troops”. A virtual brawl broke out, including in the newspaper's newsroom, where African American reporters saw this as an assault on their personhood at a time when the country watched police brutally suppress peaceful protesters calling out entrenched racism. It also triggered a debate on whether the opinion pages of an important newspaper should be open to such extreme views. The debate has been covered in some detail in this piece in Newslaundry.

In India, is this debate relevant given the nature of opinion pages in our newspapers and the fact that the debate about separating opinion from straight news reporting has already been settled by dominant Indian TV news channels? The print media still largely sticks to this concept of separation but with TV being the major source of news, do readers of print really appreciate the difference?

In the days when print was king, the opinion pages of leading newspapers were considered important. Editors of major newspapers in the 1970s and 80s, all men, were names to be reckoned with and their regular columns were widely read. Names like Sham Lal, NJ Nanporia, Frank Moraes, Girilal Jain, G Kasturi, and many others were high-profile because they articulated opinions that people in power took seriously.

With the opening up of the economy in the 1990s and the profit element coming to dominate the content of newspapers, the opinion pages inevitably took a hit. In one newspaper where I worked during this transition period, not only was the position of editor-in-chief abolished, we were informed that as only three percent of our readers looked at the edit page, so its contents would have to be rethought. That change took a while to come about but today the edit page of this newspaper is unrecognisable from what it was in the 1980s.

Does any of this really matter? Indian edit pages vary greatly, from ones that carry a variety of views, including ghost-written pieces by leading members of the party in power, to those with strongly argued opinions on a range of subjects by academics and experts.

But would even those newspapers that permit such variety, even as their own unsigned editorials clearly indicate the views of the paper, permit a piece that wounds people already at the receiving end of state terror? It was argued that it was insensitive of the NYT to run Cotton's piece at a time when African Americans, including reporters, were at the receiving end of the police’s excesses.

In India, would any mainstream newspaper permit a blatantly Islamphobic comment or one that advocates for more force to suppress legitimate protests by people who are victimised? A broadsheet newspaper is still expected to convey a level of sobriety, unlike the nightly shouting matches on TV. Hence, giving space to views that hurt a segment of the population directly cannot be justified by arguing that opinion pages represent a range of views and do not reflect the editorial policy of a newspaper. Ultimately, the editor does make the choice.

While the US debated the role of opinion in the media, there was little to no debate in the Indian media on the new media policy introduced by the Jammu and Kashmir administration on June 2. It ought to have been debated, and opposed, because such a policy in one part of the country represents a danger to press freedom all over the country.

The policy is worrying for more than one reason. One, it has been imposed in a region where the absence of proper connectivity has restricted the ability of journalists to function for over 10 months now. Second, the continuing intimidation, arrests, and registration of cases against journalists, combined with the selective release of much-needed government ads to the newspapers that survive has already ensured that it’s risky and virtually impossible for journalists to report what is going on in their region.

On top of that you now have a policy where a bureaucrat, or a policeman, can decide what news is "fake" or "inaccurate", and take action against a journalist or a media house. The Indian Express was one of the few newspapers that came out with a strong comment against the move. In an editorial headlined "Ministry of Truth", the newspapers commented:


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“The New Media Policy of the Jammu & Kashmir administration resembles 1984 in its 53 pages of rules and regulations on what is news, the setting up of a mechanism for ‘monitoring’ of fake news, conditions newspapers need to meet in order to be empanelled and under what circumstances they will be ‘de-empanelled’. The J&K Directorate of Information and Public Relations may not have George Orwell’s vocabulary but the framers of this policy have managed to provide a remarkably clear picture of the media they want – journalists and news organisations answerable not to their readers, nor even to their editors, but to government bureaucrats and security officials, who will have the powers to decide which news item is fake or ‘anti-national’; and with these determinations, to further decide the economic viability of a newspaper through the carrots and sticks of government advertisements. Officials will sit in judgement on journalistic ethics and issues of plagiarism. All this for building ‘a genuinely positive image of the government based on performance’, and to ‘build public trust’ and ‘increase public understanding about the Government’s roles and responsibilities’.”

How can the rest of the Indian media sit back and accept this policy? If it is applied in J&K today, what stops the people in power trying to extend some parts of it to the rest of the country? Already we have seen how the central government has pushed a narrative that it wants the media to echo during the current pandemic. This is not the role of the media in a democracy.

The Indian media has already moved away from many fundamental tenets of the mission that the media ought to undertake in a democracy, even a troubled one like ours. And this has happened without direct censorship, or even a media policy like the one imposed in Jammu and Kashmir.

David Greenberg, writing in Politico, describes what he considers is the role of the press in America:

The reality is that advocacy and objectivity, which have both animated American journalism for ages, will always be in some tension. Men and women in every era have gone into journalism to make a difference in the world – to expose corruption, hold power to account, tell stories of the ignored or oppressed, shock the public into reforming business or government, or use the power of the press to right wrongs. But American newspapers and news networks have also since the early 20th century consistently prided themselves on truth and accuracy – striving as much as possible to prevent individual biases and prejudices from slanting the news coverage. Like poets who fashion beauty and meaning within the confines of a strict meter and rhyme scheme, the best journalists find a way to call attention to urgent social or political causes even as they preserve a reputation for fairness and open-mindedness.

"Fairness and open-mindedness". Under a regime that considers such values "anti-national", is that even possible in India?

Also see
article imageStop Press: What the furore over Tom Cotton’s NYT piece tells us about the media’s role in society


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