Katju’s Questions

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Many of the editors who trashed his proposals were downright dishonest

The six-member committee appointed by the Press Council of India to consider the standardisation of academic qualifications for journalists and regulation of India’s mushrooming schools of Journalism has its task cut out. Given the sharp reactions from India’s editorial pantheon, both print and electronic, it seems unlikely that its suggestions will find many takers within the industry.

There are no easy answers why this is so. Is the all-powerful national media simply protecting its turf? Is it the familiar keep-your-hands-off-me trait of mainstream media that makes it resist any kind of regulation? And, equally crucially, will the Government respond? As the raging content regulation debate shows, it does not appear very keen. But then, in turn, is governmental intervention desirable to begin with? There is no end to the questions but none affords any straightforward answer.

The editors who trashed Katju’s proposals were downright dishonest—at least some of them, if not all. The catch, as usual, was in what was left unsaid. What was not stated was the fact that media groups themselves are running training institutes, and any ‘external’ regulation would amount to killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Consider this: fees for a one-year diploma course is upward of Rs 2 lakh (The Times Group and Express Group charge around Rs 250,000 for a one-year course, while NDTV and TV Today charge more than Rs 200,000 per annum), with several students absorbed in low-profile ‘backroom’ or desk/production jobs. Appointments to jobs that enjoy a public profile, like anchoring and to a less extent reporting, are either appointed from within the industry or through an intricate network of clientelism that involves the bureaucracy and political class, including the now Facebook driven ‘old boys’ networks.

In a perpetually crisis-ridden industry, journalism schools make neat profits, given the huge number of applicants jostling to get a coveted berth in premier media organisations (application fees alone range from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000). For the schools, expenses are minimal, with internal resources put to use for training (ready equipment and in-house personnel who act as trainers).

It is nobody’s case that standardising the syllabus and regulating training institutes will necessarily translate into a crop of world class journalists. Vinod Mehta, one of country’s top editors, has admitted he failed his BA. Some others with sparkling journalism degrees from Columbia along with sundry columns and regular TV appearances barely cross the credibility threshold. Yet, there are the Cambridge-educated John Simpsons of the world whose march along with the Northern Alliance into Kabul for the BBC was a master-class act of journalism.

Perhaps the strongest case for standardisation comes from India’s chaotic education peddling market. There are at least three levels of ‘education’ in journalism and mass communication. At the top are institutions run by state governments and the Centre, the latter mostly on the basis of UGC guidelines. But there is little consistency in syllabi within UGC-run institutions. In Delhi, for instance Delhi University and the state-government-run Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University have different course structures. Then there are the prestigious private institutes like Symbiosis and Asian College of Journalism. Finally, there are hundreds of assorted private media institutes that are run by various fly-by-night operators and real estate barons, apart from slightly more ‘serious’ local ventures that combine commercial gains with a degree of professional orientation.

It is the last category that is in the midst of a churn born of uncertainties arising from shrinking job opportunities in India’s once-booming media market. These schools also cater to Hindi-speaking professionals and aspirants, some of whom are straining to find a foothold in the lucrative English media even as they practically run most ‘national’ Hindi news networks based in Delhi. Dr Dharmendra Singh, head of Journalism Studies at Lingaya’s School of Management and Sciences, an institution located in Mandi village, a South Delhi suburb near Haryana, welcomes Katju’s initiative. “People from rural areas lag behind and they should be brought up to the national and even international level. You have to provide the right conditions, otherwise only Eklavyas will be born,” he says, referring to a talented trainee of Guru Dronacharya of the Mahabharata who, as the story goes, was forced into the shadow of the privileged.

Katju may not have pointedly suggested a re-ordering of the media’s skewed power structure, which accords privileges along linguistic lines. But this could well be an unintended consequence, with the potential of smashing the opaque and patronage-driven recruitment mechanisms of large sections of the mainstream media. That this battle should visit the media sector perhaps indicates a mounting popular perception that journalists are right ‘up there’ in the power stakes, what with pictures on television of smiling politicians and corporate barons hobnobbing with editors and journalists.

The author is a former TV journalist who now teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi