Fifty years of journalism in India



by E. S. Isaac


Imagine a person in fine garments with a pen-case and an ink-horn hanging from his girdle. He has a set of reed pens, a small knife used as an eraser and also for cutting papyrus. He writes in the cuneiform script. He is a scribe and his profession calls upon him to count, to tell, to recount, to send and to write. At times of war, he is employed for military duties which includes the compilation of the list of those called out for war, or the booty won. He is a man of letters and is closely associated with the royal house. He is also an authority in interpreting the law. The scribe, walked on this earth more than five thousand years ago!


Let’s wake up to this age. The equipment carried by that scribe have been replaced by the latest electronic note-books, mikes, recorders and END units. The cuneiform script has transformed into the latest from Microsoft. The proximity to the ruling elite continues. The counting, telling, recounting, sending and writing, still form part of his duties. Only the times have changed. Challenges are the same. And we, the scribes still walk on this earth!


I may perhaps start with the dilemma that our predecessors in the media faced, 50 years ago when we became free. The Indian newspapers, who fought British imperialism, probably had transitional problems when freedom dawned. Were they to be allies, or adversaries of the first national government? In the euphoria of independence, they probably chose to be allies initially. Fifty years hence, as I speak to you today, I feel, we still seem to be having the same predicament.


Well, the press has been a watch-dog of our hard earned freedom. We have succeeded in exposing, corruption in high places and to some extent cleansing the Augean stables. Of course, this has to be taken with a pinch of salt, as investigative reports have often bordered on sensationalism.


This I consider, as one of the major challenges that we face as a profession. The reasons obviously are manifold. The takeover of the mass media by the commercial gatekeeper can be considered as one of the major reasons. What Dr. William F. Fore, a former President of the World Association for Christian Communication said, is eminently applicable to our situation.


The media are becoming so independent of public policy, so immune to public needs, so scornful of governmental regulations, and so dependent on profit, that they have become one of the most powerful businesses on the face of the Globe. In many ways they have become more powerful than the very governments in which they operate, for they hold a unique combination of both political and economic power.


At least one of the leading newspaper proprietors, has publicly declared that his newspaper is a commercial product — to be traded and marketed for a profit. No wonder, not only Indian but transnational corporations and entrepreneurs are vying with each other to have a share of the burgeoning middle-class/ consumeristic  market in India which I’m told is larger than the ones in the North America and Europe put together.


I think we should deliberate on this challenge as one of utmost concern. Sensationalism and allied maladies that afflict journalism today, obviously are results of the commercialization of mass media messages. The other day, somewhere in the last fortnight of 1997, there was an interesting discussion on the media in one of the satellite channel talk-shows. A panelist who belongs to what “India Today” called the brat-brigade who hanker for a `byte’ , was at a loss to explain why their news bulletins are being advertised.


Or how is it that newspapers owned by business houses pickup every available kiosk-ad-space, to tell the whole world that one sells more than the other. In the process haven’t they beaten hollow the major players in the cola-war?


The point I would like to make, is that, if a newspaper is to be advertised and sold, it ought to have ingredients which would cater to hoi-polloi rather than the thinking readers. I’m tempted to quote what Melvin DeFleur said:


What we have called low-taste content is the key element in the social system of the media. It keeps the entire complex together. By continuously catering to the tastes of those who constitute the largest segment of the market, the financial stability of the system can be maintained.

In the process of crass-commercialism entering the portals of media edifices, issues and non-issues are getting mixed up. News with a commercial angle, news with a political fall-out, scandals and scams, get priority as issues rather than major concerns and needs of the society. After all Stanley Walker has defined news as, “women, wampum, and wrong-doings are always news…”


In such a scenario, real issues, which have a bearing on the real people of this country are often ignored. It is said that the mass media is a mirror of the society. It is for the mass media to project the voice of those who are not vociferous. Unfortunately, they form the majority. More than one-third of our population, live below the poverty line. Waterborn and infectious diseases make public health a major concern.. The cancer of corruption is all pervading, with the powerful men in the land, making a beeline to courts and jails the list is endless illiteracy, superstitions, population explosion, decadent social systems, violence, gender-bias, child labor …..


Though all these issues affect people at large, the media seem to be preoccupied with politics, politicians, celebrities from the tinsel world or the ramps. Alastair Hetherington theorized that “almost inevitably anything that threatens people’s peace, prosperity or well-being, is news and likely to make headlines.”


We all from the media, would agree that proximity and relevance are some of the basic considerations for us to take up a story. Do the unglamorous, unsensational issues like drinking water, untouchability, public health concerns, civic awareness and a host of others, stand such tests of journalistic scrutiny as far as we are concerned?


My intention is not to run down anyone or find fault with my fraternity. In fact our hands are so full in this country, there is hardly any space or time for non-issues.


A friend of mine who is a full-fledged media person and does voluntary work among drug-addicts, often asks, when five kilograms of heroin are recovered, newspapers carry banner headlines saying that five crore rupees worth heroin has been seized. Whereas about voluntary workers, who counsel, treat and rehabilitate five or ten heroin addicts, there is no mention even if organizations dealing with such rehabilitation send across press releases.


Or take for example, how the environmental issue has caught the imagination of the Indian media. I would not say environment is a non-issue. But I’m inclined to say that the issue is getting more attention than it actually deserves.


I come from one of the most backward tribal areas. Tribals who lived on nature and forest produces for generations, are now being threatened or hounded out of their natural habitats by both activists who are essentially city dwellers and the media, in the name of environmental protection. They talk to the emaciated tribal population about global warming, green-house-effect or depletion of the ozone layer, ignoring the ground realities of such tribal societies. It is only rarely that stories about commercial felling of trees by the political or city mafia, get noticed in some corner of a newspaper. One can go on and on. The environmental issue is shown only as an example, to prove that western concerns, get easily taken up by the media in the developing world. Columns after columns, are written in newspapers and magazines, on national and international seminars and conferences on environmental issues funded by foreign agencies.


Not that the issue is irrelevant. Aren’t there much more pressing needs affecting the well-being of our people? Like say, illiteracy, health-care and hygiene, superstitions, and many more which bear immediate concern to the tribal societies.


Pressures of space and time, readership and audience ratings, often act as deterrents in getting issues, like the plight of the tribals or the deprived, ignored in the media.


We seem to be having mistaken notions about the so called national press. To us, Delhi is India. I say this because I too am given to this frog-in-the-well notion of Delhi, and the national media. Francis Bacon probably was hinting at people like me and other media hacks who live in the most polluted capital of India, when he said and I quote, “The fly sat upon the axle-tree of the chariot wheel and said what a dust do I raise.”


The reality is that the journalistic dust kicked up by the English national press, reach a paltry 2 to 3 per cent, scattered all over the country, with heavy concentration among the urban middle class. The rest of the readers, belong to the large regional press in various Indian languages. As you know, the largest selling newspaper in the country is in a regional language and not in English. You would also agree that the regional press by and large, have more commitment to the concerns and journalistic mission, and they do project issues which are generally ignored, by the so called national press.


One of the major challenges that we in the elitist media in this country face, is how to free ourselves from the colonial hangovers. Since all news is local, the regional press can play effective role with its vigorous voice. Is it not time, that we stop treating our colleagues from the regional press, as poor cousins? Is it not also time for us, to strengthen the regional press?


There has been a new trend in the media of late. I won’t call it, the lure of the lucre, but the power of television has drawn, a number of print journalists into its fold. Having been in television for some time, I have come across senior newspaper-men, trading publicity for politicians with lucrative television programs. Eyebrows have been raised against such mercenary operations. During the last decade, there has been large number of such cases, who have put a question mark on journalistic integrity . This is one of the major allurements to any gullible media persons, which is difficult to withstand. I personally feel that such temptations are a blot on journalistic mission. I am not suggesting, that journalists with the talent and a flair for television, should keep away but my experience has been, that barring honorable exception, most of the moonlighters in television from print media do not dabble in television, but for the money and influence it wields. I do not know, how many of us can desist this temptation.


Yet, another challenge comes in the form of junket reporting. Holidaying in exotic places, at home and abroad, and gifts of expensive gadgets, are now being accepted as journalistic perks. Here again, there is a danger of objectivity of news becoming causality.


A decade or two back, old fashioned PR men, did not go beyond wining and dining. Today, the professional PR agencies and consultancies , are ever willing to oblige with a promotional piece. It may be in tune with the present day ethos in the country, but I do not know how this will affect credibility.


Modern information technology, provides us immense opportunities and challenges in the media. I often feel, that we are in danger of being controlled by machines rather than we controlling the machines. This technology, no doubt helps us but I’m afraid we are slowly losing the human touch. Any event today, can be covered sitting thousands of miles away using technology, but this has an inherent danger, of missing out the feel of people.


I have a sterling example, of a young lady journalist, of a regional language paper. She was rushed to Calcutta to cover the last journey of Mother Theresa. Unfortunately, she had no accreditation and there was no time to get permission for access to the event. Here, her commitment to the profession and ingenuity worked. She befriended some of the nuns, organizing the last journey of Mother. She could convince the sisters, that she needed access for coverage which could be done, only by putting on their vestments. They readily obliged. And there she was, reporting from the closest range. Such professional accomplishments are not meant for machines.


Incidently, this young journalist is among us today.. I must tell you that she has never told me this but her boss did!


I am sure all of us have had such adventures. And that is what makes this profession unique.


I wouldn’t call it a full-fledged survey, but I did make, an attempt to find out the entry of young Christians into journalism. If what I have come across can be considered as an indicator for the country, unlike in the past, very few Christians are entering the profession.


This is an unfortunate trend. We often point at Pothen Joseph, Frank Moraes, B.G. Verghese, T.J.S. George, and many others as sterling examples of Christians in journalism. I am sure there are some more in the making among us today …


If the present trend continues, a time will come, when we may have no voice. It is therefore a challenge, for all of us, to motivate and mentor, deserving young Christians to join the profession.


All this talking about professional challenges in journalism, before a group of journalists, has been like putting one’s hand inside a beehive. No doubt, the hand is mauled by stings but if honey is found, it is worth it. In my village there is a saying, if the honey collector tells you, that he has not licked his hand, don’t believe him. Thank you very much.


Asia, SocietyE.S. Isaac