Is there malaise that ails the Indian media today? Yes, and the disease is in both print and visual media, which have undergone a transformation for the worse! Is it the downgrading of the political stance of our leaders; or is it the increased commercialisation of the society? In recent years, there has been a rising tide of concern about the troubled relationship between journalists, politicians, and the public. The core question revolves around who does, and who should, influence press coverage of public policy debates, and electoral campaigns. The answer has assumed more importance than ever, not just in India but even in countries as USA, which has recently witnessed a vitriolic presidential election, both in the print and visual media platforms. Obviously, the media has come a very long way since the days gone by.
The impact of the media explosion on India’s public debates has been instant and far-reaching, leading many to ask, is it for the good or ill.
The media has never had such a vast audience or readership. There has been a proliferation of TV channels, catering for all types of national, local, vernacular audiences. Similarly, there has been an equally massive footprint of newspaper titles, once again catering for readers spread far-and-wide within the country. The quality of the content has marginally improved, no doubt, but the public has also witnessed a plummeting of the ethical standards that were so visible many years ago, before the era of commercialisation. The impact of the media explosion on India’s public debates has been instant and far-reaching, leading many to ask, is it for the good or ill.
A study of the success and shortfalls has to be accompanied with a comparison of the two channels of news reporting. The newspapers are conscious of the fact they are competing with the many TV (read idiot box!) channels, which are so many that they have to compete, not just with the print media, but also between themselves 24/7 for the same set of eyeballs. The TV channels have long since dropped the pretension of providing a public service, with “breaking news” sensationalising any and every item without any verification of substance. The perennial war of ratings of the TV channels has led the newspapers to try to outdo their visual media competitors in order to gain readership. Consequently, newspapers and TV channels report news in a manner that instigates outrage rather than increase awareness and initiate a debate!
There has been a general decline in the number of newspapers in many nations, which, however, is widely debated; the probable causes are the dropping newsprint prices, slumping advertisement sales, the loss of much classified advertising, precipitous drops in readership, and the advent of internet news. In recent years the number of newspapers slated for closure, bankruptcy, or severe cutbacks has risen, especially in the United States, where the industry has shed a fifth of its journalists since 2001. Revenue has plunged while competition from Internet media has squeezed older print publishers. The discussions have become more urgent lately, as a deepening recession has cut profits. This trend is visible more in the United States, and the English-speaking markets, though there is a large rise in sales for countries like China, Japan, and India.
Newspapers and TV channels report news in a manner that instigates outrage rather than increase awareness and initiate a debate!
What are the factors that have allowed the Indian print media to grow, while, in comparison, newspapers are declining in the Western nations? The first is literacy. Back in 1981, shortly after India’s magazine market got a new life, only 40 percent of Indians could read and write. Today, the population is 50 percent larger and 75 percent of it is literate. This has led to tripling the number of people who can read a newspaper! Initially, not every literate person had the money to buy a newspaper. The newspaper circulation has gone up due to the average incomes having more than doubled since the early 1990s, leading to a greater than before buying power (notwithstanding the demonetisation!). There is still some time for the effective control of the population growth, and with the rising incomes, the next couple of decades could see a further escalation in the circulation of Indian newspapers. There are other factors too.
Robin Jeffrey, an Australian academic, points to the importance of printing machines manufactured in India at a fraction of the cost of high-end machines from Germany, Switzerland, or USA. Initially, the machines may not have been as good or as fast as those that had been imported, but the lower price tag made smaller presses viable, and that allowed publications to open new print sites in the smaller towns, thus achieving deeper market penetration, and bringing the news closer to home instead of from a distant metropolis.
Such localisation of reach and content has helped the press fight back against the blitzkrieg of television channels. Publishers have also adopted aggressive pricing strategies to increase circulation, and hence, the income from advertisements. In a buoyant economy, which has resisted the effects of the global recession for some time now, the strategy of low-price, low-cost has worked well.
The story of the main English news channels on TV is, however, not so similar, with almost all logging losses of about 15-20 per cent. TV news, at one time, was seen as a lucrative business and attracted the attention of the power elite but, as cold reality has dawned, they get only about one per cent of the total viewership.
The distinction between facts, opinions, and speculation, which are the basics of any journalism course and taught all over the world, has blurred into irrelevance.
Role of the Media
The role of the media, also known as the ‘Fourth Pillar of Democracy’, is mainly to rouse the social conscience of the public about the apparent miscarriages of justice and governance. On some occasions, the media has done a remarkable job, but there have been many occasions where the media has been found wanting. Television news in India, with far too many channels – Wikipedia lists the channels as per language and at last count there were more than a hundred – competes for viewership 24/7, and with the ‘Breaking News’ sensation, sets the pace for the print media. With the perennial ratings and circulation war between themselves, the result has been disturbing.
The distinction between facts, opinions, and speculation, which are the basics of any journalism course and taught all over the world, has blurred into irrelevance. There is a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude towards facts and corrections if issued in the newspaper, are with reluctance and published somewhere in an obscure corner on the inner pages; corrections are never heard on any TV channel. There seems to be a genuine disinclination to research a story and a disregard to verify it thereafter.
A free media is the mortar that binds the bricks of freedom in a democracy. Thomas Jefferson has said that given a choice between government without newspapers (there was no visual media in his time) and newspapers without government that he would opt for the latter. A government needs the media to keep a check on its policies as a mirror and a scalpel; instead, if a nation has a blunt-axe media, then the society is not well served and the media would not be playing its role efficiently. In India, this should be a matter of concern for right-minded citizens, if the information provided to them were impulsive, for then the opinion would also be ill considered.
A Code of Conduct for the media does exist; there is also a regulatory body that exists; but, is it effective enough to enforce it?
Media and National Security
The debate on whether the media needs to be regulated is an ongoing one. In the opinion of this writer, the answer is both in the affirmative and in the negative. Dr Manmohan Singh, the former PM of India, has been quoted in the India Today of 10 Oct 2005, “Newspapers can’t be mere platforms of entertainment and gossip. They can’t be purveyors of justice. They must serve a larger purpose.” Mr Narendra Modi, the current PM of the nation, while speaking on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Press Council of India on 16 Nov 2016, has said, “…there should be no government interference in the functioning of the media….freedom of expression needs to be followed, but there must be limits.”
A Code of Conduct for the media does exist; there is also a regulatory body that exists; but, is it effective enough to enforce it? What one media organization may find as saleable news may not be very palatable to another. This is not in the least a suggestion for regulating the news contents, for self-accountability gives media the necessary freedom of expression and a certain degree of independence. It, however, should be careful to write/talk about issues that are sensitive to national security. The PM too has expressed a similar opinion referring to the telecast of the angry reactions of the families of the passengers onboard the Indian Airlines flight IC-814, during the Kandahar hijacking in 1999. The round-the-clock reportage emboldened the terrorists to think that they could get any concession from the Indian Government with such pressure.
While national security has taken a completely new meaning today and encompasses many spheres, such as food, water, energy, to name just a few, this writer is restricting the examples pertaining to the military. There have been occasions when news about the military has been brought to the notice of the public without any thought of its impact. Cases of corruption in the military, considered the last bastion of discipline, should and must be reported, but at the same time, it must also be brought to the notice of the same public, through similar prominence in the news, of the prompt action taken by the concerned authorities. This is almost never done, giving a wrong impression to the public and the military personnel in particular, that the issue has been brushed under the carpet, just as in other cases of corruption. Has anybody in any media, print and visual, ever given a thought to this aspect?
There is an urgent need for the media, more so the visual media, to observe self-discipline, ask mature questions of the politicians and officials, and report objectively and responsibly.
Another issue, sensitive to national security, is the subject of military readiness or new acquisitions. One wonders how does the media lay its hands on “Secret” or “Confidential” documents, or the proceedings of a meeting, and report them for the consumption of the public without a second thought, when the same documents, if reported by a member of the military, would invite strictures and punitive action under the Official Secrets Act? There are numerous examples, from the recent Pathankot/Uri attack and the aftermath of them, to the acquisition of aircraft and equipment, and the current holdings in service. Such information has an alarmist trend to it, giving an impression to the average person that the nation’s military is ill-prepared to take on an adversary.
There is an urgent need for the media, more so the visual media, to observe self-discipline, ask mature questions of the politicians and officials, and report objectively and responsibly. While wrong doings should not be suppressed, there is a definite need for some introspection before reporting on sensitive matters that could affect the morale of personnel and could also lead to the unwanted disclosures of military plans. State-authorized regulation is not the answer, but self-regulation through acquiring domain knowledge on matters of national security, is.
The Press Council of India, the existing regulatory body, needs to act on its mandate and wield the stick whenever required. Dr Aroon Tikekar, former editor, is quoted in the Outlook (05 December 2011), “When the media fails to evolve its own code of conduct, the first casualty is its impact on society….if the media starts enjoying power without responsibility, it can be a menace to all concerned”.
The Gulf War and the Kargil conflict brought the activities of the military in the field, to the living room. These conflicts highlighted that journalists cannot cover their ignorance while reporting on a conflict, with sheer enthusiasm alone.
Maroof Raza, a military man turned journalist, had said at the turn of the century, “Soldiers and journalists are not the most like minded people but in the 21st century they will need each other more than ever before” (SP’s Military Year Book 2001). The Gulf War and the Kargil conflict brought the activities of the military in the field, to the living room. These conflicts highlighted that journalists cannot cover their ignorance while reporting on a conflict, with sheer enthusiasm alone. One has to have a reasonable understanding of military affairs and operations while the military would do well to understand that “information is power” in this information age.
National security can no longer be simply classified as internal and external, for the police or the military to take care of. Some crucial factors that have a direct bearing on national security are education level, diplomacy, self-reliance, economy, development, and demographics. The media plays a very important role to bind all sections of society- a major factor to ensure national security.
The flow of information is key to participative democracy and public debate. As in the USA, the Indian Constitution asserts the fundamental right to information. However, not all information, especially related to national security, can or should be shared. For a country of the size of India, a large volume of information exists, quite a bit of which is generated by the hyper-active media itself. There is, therefore, a need to have a high degree of information management. This process is essential, both, within and outside the military.
Media and the Military
One accepts that information is power, especially in this ‘information age’. The media has the capability to mould national and international opinion and can be a potent force multiplier as was evident in the Gulf War and then in the Kargil Conflict- India’s first ‘live’ war. While the coverage of the Kargil Conflict was direct from the battlefield, it was evident that the media personnel lacked training and preparedness, and was just trying to ape the CNN. It revealed a lack of knowledge of the command structure of the Armed Forces and how responsibilities are distributed, not only in the military, but also within the national intelligence framework.
Military runs under tight rules and regulations. It works under a veil of secrecy, contrary to the requirements of the media, thus giving out an impression of officialdom…
With technology marching on at double pace, gathering real time information is not a major problem for the media today. The problem, however, is the collection of the information, sifting through it, separating the chaff, and then passing on the relevant information to the public; unfortunately, this is where the major shortfall is with a majority of the electronic and print media where quality is sacrificed at the altar of quantity.
Military, on the other hand, runs under tight rules and regulations. It works under a veil of secrecy, contrary to the requirements of the media, thus giving out an impression of officialdom, and a self-perception of operating at a higher standard than the society in general in morals, ethics, and general behaviour. The military is also perceived as a well-oiled machine, which can be relied upon to tackle any emergent situation, be it taking a child out of a sunken bore-well, or tackling the enemy on the frontiers. With such a reputation at stake, stories with limited, unauthenticated, and half-baked information, without an interaction between the military and media, quite often leads to a mutual antagonism between the two.
A clash between two institutions, one, which believes in openness, and the other, which operates from behind a cloak of secrecy, thus becomes inevitable. The press wants freedom and the military wants control. That there is a need for both the military and the media to get to know each other better is well appreciated by members of both communities, however, the media would not be in agreement with many of the restrictions that the military would has in place.
There has been little or no training imparted to military commanders in dealing with the media. Instead of being rankled, it is time that Generals, Admirals, and Air Marshals changed their mindset on dealing with the media.
To ensure a harmonious relationship between these two pillars of our nation, certain steps need to be initiated.
- Is there a trust between the two institutions? The MoD and the military need to carry out a check whether the media can be trusted and taken into confidence prior to launching a major offensive in a war or an operation in CIO/anti-terrorist operations. If the answer to that is no, and which in all probability is the answer, we need to apply some confidence building measures.
- Control of the media and censorship is a very difficult proposition, as the two are contradictory to the very foundation of the principle of freedom on which the media works. Self regulation has to be inculcated.
- There has been little or no training imparted to military commanders in dealing with the media. Instead of being rankled, it is time that Generals, Admirals, and Air Marshals changed their mindset on dealing with the media. Similar is the case for the training of defence correspondents.
- There is a need to promote active interaction between the military and the media. Young journalists should be encouraged to join the Territorial Army while officers on study leave or otherwise should be attached to the print and electronic media.
- Military commanders need to pay attention to issues of Public Affairs and Media Relations, rather than just focus on operational issues. Information needs to be made a Principle of War.
The reporting of the country’s progress, the foreign policy debates, the military modernisation, all need a media, which should understand its role in nation building.
Strong journalism is the very basis for accountability. Strong journalism, however, is not synonymous with sensationalism. The media must understand the nuances of national security for it to be able to play its role with responsibility. National security, even at the cost of repetition, is today not just military but a host of other subjects too, though military grabs the maximum attention. There are a range of challenges facing the country today, to cite just one, our need for energy, and hence the unhindered supply of oil and gas, from wherever it can be made available. This one need, is linked to the country’s foreign policy, which again, cannot be just the domain of the MEA.
The world is watching India’s development, and its march towards becoming an economic superpower. The reporting of the country’s progress, the foreign policy debates, the military modernisation, all need a media, which should understand its role in nation building. Suffice it to say that the media story in India at present, is as multi-faceted, as chaotic, as compromised, as cacophonic, and occasionally even as splendid, as the country itself. For India to be recognised on the global stage, transformation has to begin at home. What place better than within the media to start the process?