Freedom Issue 2017: Essay

Media in the Mirror

Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament and author
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Journalism in a time of change

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.

Once dominated by government programming, 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 today—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) recently 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: for the second decade in a row, Hindi newspapers experienced the fastest growth, with average circulation soaring at a compounded annual growth rate of 8.78 per cent since 2006.

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 judgement: 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.

Free press is like the parrot in a cage being sent down a mine-shaft to see if there is enough oxygen at the bottom; if it comes back dead, or choking and spluttering for air, you know it is not safe for miners to go down

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.

After three-and-a-half years of facing this myself, my patience finally snapped, and I have sued the most lurid of the TV news channels for defamation. But justice in our country moves at a stately pace far removed from the breathless breaking news speed of television, and one’s character can be assassinated before a judge has even scheduled a date for the next hearing of a case aiming to prevent such character assassination.

We have had countless spectacles of an unnaturally long-drawn-out media trial, fuelled by motivated leaks, with discussion shows on the voyeuristic Indian TV channels debating accusations and imputations with zero evidence or even elementary research behind any of the statements aired. In the process, justice itself is ill-served; not only is the climate prejudiced for a fair trial, but even judges consume media, and they are human— they are bound to be influenced by what they have seen, heard and read in the news.

And the standards and filters for what gets into the news have weakened or disappeared in the chronic quest for sensation. Manipulated and malicious claims are reported uncritically, without editors asking even the most basic questions about their plausibility. One egregious politician has spent years saying the most outrageous things about matters he has absolutely no clue about, and his absurd exaggerations are always reported uncritically by a complicit media. No one even asks him the elementary question, ‘how do you know?’ How do you know what you claim to know? I once asked a journalist friend about this, and she replied, abashed, “Well, he always makes good copy.”

So that’s all it takes—make things up and assert them with confidence, and the press will report you because it’s good copy. It’s hardly surprising that trust in the media is eroding. A friend summarised the problem succinctly for me: “When I was young, my father wouldn’t believe anything unless it was printed in the Times of India. Now, he doesn’t believe anything if it is printed in the Times of India.”

THIS SHOULD BE a matter of serious concern to all right-thinking Indians, because free media are the lifeblood of our democracy. Media and journalism provide the necessary information that enables a free citizenry to make the choices of who governs them and how, and ensures that those who govern remain accountable to those who put them there. Government needs a free and professional media to keep it honest and efficient, to serve as both mirror and scalpel; if instead we have a blunt axe, then society is not well served.

Indian journalism is also changing rapidly with technology, as journalists now work across a multitude of news distribution platforms. While many venerable publications now have a multi-media existence—the Times of India, for instance, has three print newspapers, two television channels and multiple internet sites as well as social media accounts—others are digital-only, including new entrants to the news business such as The Quint, The Wire and Scroll.in. Of course, print, radio and television also continue to flourish and require reporting. 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, such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, 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

Today’s smartphones have made everybody a potential journalist. We are all familiar with the major stories, usually of assault and violence, which were filmed on a personal mobile phone and then made it onto our television screens. Other such snippets bombard us on WhatsApp. If every citizen is a source of news input in this way, the media business itself has changed beyond recognition.

This has wider consequences, raising new ethical challenges in journalism. How can we get at the truth when flooded by unverified information, whether through a phone call, a tweet or even a message on Facebook or WhatsApp? How do we preserve journalistic objectivity, which is cherished all the more in India because so few media outlets possess it?

The pressure of keeping up with the relentless 24x7 breaking news cycle, and now the rise of social media, prompts mainstream journalists to publish without the traditional recourse to fact-checking. Indian media has found it increasingly difficult to maintain a clear distinction between opinion and reporting, commentary and speculation, unverified rumour and certified fact—categories too often blurred in news coverage today.

Journalists must function as independents, and present news in an objective fashion. However, their salaries are paid by the owners, whose agenda must necessarily prevail. And it’s not just the commercial agenda: more than a third of news channels in India are owned by politicians or political affiliates, who use their channels to pander to the political interests or ideology of the owner. The new Republic channel claims muck-raking credentials but has never taken on a single misdeed of the ruling BJP, whether the Vyapam scandal or the medical college bribery scam revealed in Kerala. If that’s your only source of news, you would never know these scandals have even occurred.

Couple this with the fact that we are currently ruled by a government which has a tendency to intimidate newspaper owners, and you can understand India’s embarrassingly poor performance in the World Press Freedom Index, falling three points down to 136 th, out of a 180-nation list. Yes, we are 136th in the world in terms of press freedom—and we are proud to be the largest democracy in the world.

A lot of these problems stem from a lack of a proper regulatory authority in the press. The Press Council of India, a statutory body with quasi-judicial powers, lacks any actual punitive power, rendering it a toothless watchdog. The Broadcast Standards Authority is no less ineffective.

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.

How do we get there?

First, we must engender a culture of fact-verification and accuracy that the industry currently appears to lack. Journalists should not feel pressed by their employers to ‘break the news’, but empowered to hold stories until they are sure their facts and accusations are accurate. The rush to judgement on the basis of partial information must stop.

Second, we must insist on better journalistic training at accredited media institutes that emphasise values of accuracy, integrity and fairness in their students. These standards should extend to media organisations: when false claims or intentionally misleading statements are published or broadcast, TV and print news outlets should issue retractions with equal prominence.

Third, 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’. Newsrooms must be required to maintain a more diverse journalistic environment. Every story plugging a point of view must be required to provide some space for the alternative view, or for a refutation.

Forth, journalists must welcome comments and feedback from their viewers and readers, to generate both an environment of trust between the consumers and the media, and the feeling on the part of the public that they are not merely passive recipients of a point of view. The Hindu is perhaps unique in India in having a Reader’s Editor who serves as a sort of Ombudsman for the newspaper and acknowledges mistakes of fact or emphasis in the newspaper’s coverage. This helps drive a natural cycle of loyalty and engagement between the paper and its readers.

Fifth, 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. A powerful business interest, vulnerable to government pressure, will usually override ethical journalistic concerns. India is one of the few major countries where no restrictions currently exist when it comes to media ownership by our own citizens.

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 free press is like the parrot in a cage being sent down a mine-shaft to see if there is enough oxygen at the bottom; if it comes back dead, or choking and spluttering for air, you know it is not safe for miners to go down. If the media is choking or suffocated, that is a clear indication that society is no longer safe for the rest of us.

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—even if they couldn’t prevail over political repression, intimidation or violence.

In an India assailed by gau rakshaks and assorted vigilante squads, where intolerance and bigotry have been unleashed across the land and seemingly condoned by those who are in power, at a time when morality is tossed aside and ethical values are sneered at, there has never been a more urgent need for a journalism of principle and courage.

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.

(This essay is an extract from Shashi Tharoor's N Ramachandran Memorial Lecture in Thiruvananthapuram on July 30th, 2017)

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