Five Freedoms Remarks by Vijay Simha at Panel Discussion in IIT Delhi on Role of Media: Making of a New India The

organisers of Literati 2012, my fellow panellists, and the many budding geni uses in this hall, thank you for having me here this evening. As we gather today, the Indian media industry shows no signs of slowing. It is a lready the biggest in the world – more than 70,000 newspapers and 500 television c hannels and newer publications coming in every day. Amitabh Bachchan, for instan ce, is to inaugurate the first issue of India’s newest cinema magazine tomorrow. T his market of over 100 million copies of newspapers every morning is still the a dolescence of our media. It is projected to grow five-fold as more people learn to read and write in India’s interiors. Our media appetite is likely to stay enorm ous for the next 50 years. The role of the media in India is thus unignorable. The making of a New India, however, is altogether a different thing. Great natio ns are not shaped by size and markets alone. Great nations are shaped by charact er. The attitude, integrity and skills of her people will shape New India. For I ndia to be modern, magnanimous, masterful, and welcome at the top of the comity of nations, its media will need to mature fast. It will need to do what it has n ot: pause, introspect and correct. For, once markets get going, they acquire a m omentum of their own. Feeding the needs of the market then becomes a necessity. The fastest growing markets in India are of the media and mobile phones. There i s a world of difference though between the two. Cell phones do not shape thought. They do not affect future generations. They do not affect the moral fibre of their users. The media does all of this. It helps grow minds – many schools make it mandatory for children to read and discuss news paper content every day. It shapes daily decisions – from the meaty, like choosing a life partner, to the mundane, like choosing a restaurant to eat out. The medi a is our first, and often only, window into the soul of a nation. A New India can only mean an India where people don’t live by the things they cann ot control – like religion, gender, caste and region. Who among us has had the fre edom of choosing a religion, gender, caste or region to be born into? We are sim ply born into a religion practised by our parents. We grow up in a region our pa rents happen to be in at a given moment. We do not choose the caste that we are later identified by. Our gender depends on chromosomes. And yet, India in 2012 i s crippled by Indians who spend lifetimes fighting over these encumbrances. A Ne w India can only mean an India that is just. Not a country where the justice sys tem can take decades to decide on a case. A New India has to be known for its s ense of justice, not for its sense of bias. Our media is today debilitated by the same inhibitions. The newsroom in India ha s become a brutal arena. It has shrunk in skill, integrity and impact. It has gr own in neurosis and menace. It is not a place you would want to take your childr en to. It is a place you want to get out of, the moment you’re done with your work . If the media has to have a role in the making of a New India, it will need a f ew freedoms. I can think of five. Freedom from mediocrity The skill levels in the Indian newsroom have dipped frighteningly in basic areas . You would be astonished to learn that many graduates of journalism schools or institutes in India are unemployable. The IITs and IIMs, I believe, face a simil ar obstacle. You can’t be a journalist if you don’t read. The newsroom demands an un derstanding of history, politics, economy, and the social sciences. You need to be interested in why some are poor and some rich. Interest in reading has waned

over the past decade in journalism students. They are able to talk but they cann ot write. I spent a year as the head of a new business newspaper in my most recent journal ism assignment. In all that time, we managed to unearth just one youngster who m ay be described as talented and reasonably honest. Many don’t understand how India is governed. They cannot name prime ministers, chief ministers or great thinker s. They don’t know economic policy or corporate ethics. They are not interested. C onsequently, there is much mediocrity. This is across television, print, radio, the Internet, and English and non-English media. Unless the newsroom has a sense of Old India, it cannot begin to shape New India. Freedom from poverty Even though the media market is galloping in India, there’s no money in it. Barrin g a handful of seniors, most journalists live by the month. We paid trainees Rs 15,000 a month about a year ago in the newspaper I worked with. Trainees were ex pected to move up the ladder in six months maximum with higher pay, of course. I t is possible that some publications pay their trainees a few thousand more. One of our trainees started to be away from work fairly regularly. The other half, he was always late. This person told us he was hungry all the time because his m oney was going on transport, rent and bills. Therefore, he said, he couldn’t work. The New York Times laid off 7,000 staffers some time ago saying it couldn’t afford them. In the history of Indian journalism, no organisation has ever employed th at many people. There’s always a crunch for money. Most journalists can last three weeks with their salary. This does not appear to be the case with owners who ar e also publishers, editors, and printers. In an organisation I worked with, the assets of the core management seemed to multiply while the staffers made virtual ly no economic progress. The owners of media organisations ought to be asked to declare their assets each year so we have a better sense of what’s going on. Apart from this, expenditure is usually higher than revenue. The media business model seems to be failing. The prognosis is that by 2050, the last newspaper wou ld have been delivered in the United States. In India too, many television chann els cease to be. Delhi, for instance, has hundreds of journalists willing to wor k freelance for a pittance. If our media has to help make a New India, economic wellbeing must travel to every journalist. A profession hampered by poverty can barely strengthen a nation. Freedom from arrogance The term Fourth Estate was meant to indicate the crucial role of the media as wa tchdog. It was never meant for the media to arrogate all powers of society. A jo urnalist’s job would put him in proximity with policemen, doctors, lawyers, entert ainers, politicians and bureaucrats. It is a complex relationship with boundarie s shifting every moment. Partly due to this nearness to power and partly because of the media’s instincts of arrogance, journalism in India can easily lose touch with reality. Before the Internet, 24x7 television and the mobile phone, the number of journal ists in India was far fewer. Parents didn’t encourage children to be journalists b ecause they saw no prospects for such a person. A journalist was not likely to c ommand respect in the marriage market then. Now, however, things have changed. T elevision and the Internet have made journalism glamorous. Suddenly, Indian pare nts began to understand the power of a media job. Over the past 15 years, many m ore families send children to journalism schools. In their minds, they have equated journalism with business administration. We no w have as many journalism institutes as MBA institutes. The focus has shifted fr om journalism skills to influence. The ability to have a minister pick up your c all is more important than knowing what’s actually going on in his ministry. A nat

ural consequence of this has been newsroom arrogance. Anyone can walk in and sen se the hubris in an Indian newsroom. It took Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate to at le ast partially make some editors reconsider their journalism priorities. A New India cannot be shaped by arrogance and ignorance in the media. Freedom from owners The core job of journalism is to report. There would be no media if there were n o reporting. A reporter needs to be fearless. To hold the head high, which is a constant requirement in the field, a reporter must be free from worry of Holy Co ws. Increasingly, it has been noticed that multi-tasking has overrun the newsroo m. A reporter is also expected to arrange invitations for his bosses to high-pro file events. The events may have nothing to do with the making of a nation but a n owner might consider it important to be seen there. Priorities then change for the reporter. Journalism has worked best when an owner maintained distance from an editor. It takes different skills to be an editor and altogether different skills to be an owner. When an owner is also an editor, editorial meetings tend to be overtaken by gossip. Pleasing the boss is a natural instinct when a journalist is unsure a bout his role. Either he investigates and helps shape a better country, or he ke eps the boss’s friends happy. A consequence of this has been the few and far between instances of great journa lism in India. Even so many years later, the Watergate Scandal is the gold stand ard for investigative reporting. Many newsroom youngsters today have difficulty explaining Watergate or who Richard Nixon was. You may have noticed that most sc ams are first reported by the CAG. The media then picks it up. Only a few are th e result of hard work by journalists. A New India cannot be shaped by media managers. Only heroic journalism can help. Freedom from corruption In journalism, corruption would be understood as distorting news for no reason. This happens most blatantly in the form of paid news, where corporations and pol itical personalities are written about in exactly the manner agreed upon for a f ee. For instance, a politician may be performing poorly in an election but the n ews report will say he is likely to win. Surveys can be manipulated at will too. But there is a more insidious form of corruption that affects newsrooms. News is withheld for a fee. I know of a few instances where investigations have been co nducted and the news not published. Soon enough, the subject of investigation an d the publication concerned help each other out in a manner seemingly unconnecte d to reporting. Often, favours are returned in event management in the form of e nsuring celebrity presence or by meeting part of the expenses. Unpublished news is even worse than paid news and we haven’t yet understood it fully. A dishonest m edia can barely help shape a New India. It is said that the younger person is the most important in a gathering. In them rests the future. I am willing to invest my faith in the youngsters here – that t hey will hold the Indian media accountable for a New India. Thank you. The panel discussion was organised by the IIT Delhi Board of Student Publication s on 23 September 2012.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful