Why a free Press matters in Indian democracy

Journalists must function as independents, and present news in an objective fashion

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Tue 15 Aug 2017, 9:31 PM

Last updated: Tue 15 Aug 2017, 11:32 PM

If one needed confirmation that the supposedly timeless, unchanging India of cliché is indeed transforming itself unrecognisably, one need not look beyond the dramatic changes in our country's media.

India's visual media landscape is now brimming with numerous private offerings, with over a hundred 24x7 television news channels today in multiple languages - the medium-sized state of Kerala alone has 13 all-news channels in Malayalam - catering to the Indian public through a range of increasingly breathless and hysterical shows aimed at attracting the highest number of eyeballs and ratings.

Welcome to India's extraordinary media environment - an environment in which the Fourth Estate serves simultaneously as witness, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Media now is driven by the 'breaking news' culture and the search for the villain of the day: the news must be broken and so, it seems, must the newsmaker. In ancient times, India put its accused through agnipariksha - a trial by fire; today, we put them through a trial by media. Television news in India has long since given up any pretence of providing a public service, with the 'breaking news' story privileging sensation over substance. Indian TV epitomises the old crack about why television is called a 'medium': 'Because it is neither rare nor well done.'

Sadly, matters are not much better in the print media, which - with its ability to provide context, depth and analysis that television cannot - could have compensated for the limitations of television. But they too share the tendency of television to fall prey to commercial interests over public interest.

On the one hand, the print newspaper still thrives in India. Unlike in the West, where young people have largely dispensed with the home-delivered physical morning newspaper, and instead scour the internet, in India the printed word on pulped trees remains an amazingly healthy industry. India now has the world's largest number of paid newspapers, and the number continues to grow - from 5,767 in 2013 to 7,871 in 2015. (Over those same two years, 50 newspapers ceased publication in the US, which has less than a quarter of India's print papers.)

Moreover, figures for newspaper readership released by the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) showed that, over the last decade, newspaper circulation has grown significantly in India, from 39.1 million copies in 2006 to 62.8 million in 2016 - a 60 per cent increase, for which there is no parallel in the world.

One basic factor for this sharp increase in newspaper circulation is our country's rising literacy rate, which has climbed to 79 per cent, owing largely to the 'cow belt' of the northern states - the Hindi- speaking heartland. In the 1950s and 60s, when Hindi speakers were overwhelmingly less literate than those who read in English, Malayalam and Bengali, Hindi newspapers had low circulations. Today, they are on top.

Printed newspapers are a more reliable source of news than the internet in a country where access cannot be guaranteed all the time, owing to still-patchy electricity supply and weak broadband connectivity. So advertisers in India have remained loyal to the appeal of newspaper ink over the flickering cursor, and India's newspapers are in no danger of becoming financially unviable. There are still 280 million people yet to become literate. And when they get there, they will want their own newspapers, too.

But still our newspapers also seem conscious that they have to compete in a tight media environment, where it is not they, but TV and social media, that sets the pace. They know that every morning they must reach readers who have watched TV and read WhatsApp the previous day. So newspapers, too, feel the need to 'break' news in order to be read, to outdo their TV and social media competitors. Most are led by the nose by TV's perennial ratings war, and seek to reach TV-exposed readers each day with a banner headline that stimulates prurience or outrage rather than increases awareness.

The result is that our media, in its rush to air the story, has fallen prey to the inevitable rush to judgment: it has too often become a willing accomplice of the motivated leak and the malicious allegation, which journalists today have neither the time nor the inclination to check or verify.

The damage is done in a blaze of lurid headlines - and rectification, if it comes at all, comes too feebly and too late to undo the irreparable damage to innocent people's reputations.

Indian journalism is also changing rapidly with technology, as journalists now work across a multitude of news distribution platforms. As a result, these days, a journalist's skill-sets are not limited to just one medium, and constantly need to be enhanced to keep pace with the new ways of news production and distribution.

Social media platforms are increasingly becoming the younger generation's first port of call for news coverage. With over 200 million users for WhatsApp, 241 million Facebook users and close to 28 million active Twitter users in India, it is no surprise that a number of the leading news agencies across the country now push content to their audiences through these channels. The media is increasingly sourcing news stories directly from the public domain, from people's Twitter feeds and Facebook posts.

The media's current obsession with the superficial trivialises public discourse and abdicates the watchdog responsibility that must be exercised by free media in a democracy.

Journalists must function as independents, and present news in an objective fashion.

The free Press is both the mortar that binds together the bricks of our country's freedom, and the open window embedded in those bricks. No Indian democrat would call for censorship, or for controls on the free Press: what we want is not less journalism, but better journalism.

Journalists must engender a culture of fact-verification and accuracy. The rush to judgment on the basis of partial information must stop. We must insist on better journalistic training at accredited media institutes that emphasise values of accuracy, integrity and fairness in their students. We must welcome different perspectives in our newsrooms and not allow them to become echo chambers forcing an opinion onto their viewers in the guise of 'the nation wants to know'. Journalists must welcome comments and feedback from their viewers and readers, to generate an environment of trust. The government must introduce laws and regulations that limit control of multiple new organisations by a single business or political entity, thereby encouraging an independent and robust press in the country. Finally, a single overseer for print and television news companies, as recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, would help limit the power of corporate and political behemoths over our media and help promote media standards.

The aim of journalism in times of change, especially when some changes in society may be considered for the worse, is to offer us the most meaningful record of how it would have felt to live during our era and how humane values were kept alive. We do not have enough of that. Instead, the media's current obsession with the superficial and the sensational trivialises public discourse, abdicates the watchdog responsibility that must be exercised by free media in a democracy, and distracts the public from the real questions of accountability with which the governed must confront the government. -The Open Magazine

Shashi Tharoor is a Member of the Indian Parliament and author

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