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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: The ugly face of Indian news media

India has long prided itself on a free press, but some media houses are showing utter lack of training and judgement

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar  |  New Delhi 

Is Indian media ill-equipped, both morally and materially to deal with competition? Do we need to control the number of news outlets to control the quality of news?

For a hardcore libertarian, that is a difficult thought to deal with. Yet it has been building up for a year now. The last straw was the latest issue of Open magazine. Aarushi Talwar’s murder is the subject of an essay by author Patrick French. It is an intestine-curdling read.

In 2008, Aarushi, the daughter of a doctor couple, was murdered. The couple has been hounded — by both the authorities and the media — ever since. The essay is the stuff of middle class nightmares. It tells you the story of bad policing. It also shows the truly ugly face of Indian media.

In a country that has long prided itself on a free press and high journalistic standards, the complete lack of training and judgement from some of the top newspapers and television stations is startling. So, while media freedom has brought justice for Jessica Lall or Priyadarshini Mattoo, it has also ensured that the Talwars’ personal and professional life is more or less over.

Disclaimer: This is not just about the Aarushi case. But after years of defending the news media at every public forum and talking about how all the mistakes are about evolution, not intent, I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that maybe it isn’t so. My assumption was that the TV news industry is just about seven years old. Evolution will bring maturity and things will settle down. But to what? Ill-trained dolts passing judgements on issues they haven’t researched? Editors under perpetual pressure from owners?

Television news is a case in point. There are 115 news channels in India, the largest anywhere in the world. As competition increases, some amount of tabloidisation is normal, even good because it makes news more relevant. But competition has also stretched resources. There aren’t enough trained people to handle this growth — on the business or the content side.

The result is evident on air. If a reporter is the sort who cries loudly when someone dies, she assumes that a mother who is dry-eyed while talking about her murdered daughter is faking it. And she says that, on air, with a halo of moral superiority.

For long, media critics have blamed entertainment television of being regressive, but watch half an hour of Hindi news on some of the most popular channels to see truly regressive opinions being spouted freely on air. The whole context of right and wrong, on how women should behave or families should operate comes from an orthodox, regressive mindset. So a doctor couple that is friends with other couples is surely into “wife swapping”, and a teenage girl who has “sleepovers” is basically having it off with someone, by implication.

Most TV reporters are imposing their half-baked moral judgements on the audience because editors are allowing them to. Editors and publishers simply don’t have the time, energy or money, or all three, to take them through the ropes.

The result: In a market where the context of news was set by some really good brands, the drop in standards has been nauseatingly dizzy.

Most of it shows in the numbers. News viewership has actually fallen by one whole percentage point over the last two years, ad revenues are stagnant at about Rs 1,500 crore and some channels go for as little as Rs 300 per ten seconds. Margins are in a free fall because costs, especially those of distribution, have gone through the roof. You could argue that this shows a market ripe for consolidation. That, however, will not solve the problem of falling standards. So, a market solution is out for now.

On the policy front, three things could help. One, pushing digitisation so that pay revenues become a reality and channels can invest it in content. Two, tightening licensing norms, which is already happening. Three, making the content code applicable to anyone launching a channel, not mandatory currently.

These, however, will only facilitate a better news-gathering environment. A more practical solution, arguably, lies in setting a benchmark that is above the market — commercially and content-wise.

The BBC, a high-quality and popular news channel, is funded by the British taxpayer. As a result, it has pushed up standards of programming, forcing private stations to do the same if they want audiences.

Maybe it is time for Doordarshan (DD) to do the same thing. That can happen if it is given real autonomy but with all the taxpayer money and legislative support it already gets. If audiences flock to DD or any other good broadcaster which has the luxury of ignoring competitive pressures, private broadcasters too will up the ante on content quality. And those who can’t compete on it will move out.

Write to me if you can think of any other democratic solution.  

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First Published: Tue, February 15 2011. 00:46 IST