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Thursday, October 6, 2022

Divided and discredited


Tags : US | The Economic Times | TV | CAG |

Back in 1986, even as I was planning to go to the US to pursue a PhD in economics, I was surprised by a job offer from The Economic Times. My seniors and teachers advised me to take up the offer since the job was ‘prestigious’. Back home, when my uncle who was a contractor heard I had accepted the offer, he was shocked. His shock was based on his experience with journalists. According to him, journalists were masters at accepting ‘gifts’ and other favors. I was convinced he was a typical small town businessman who had no idea about how the media actually operated at the national level, in cities like Bombay and Delhi. It turned out that my small town uncle had a better idea about media and journalists than me. I was appalled at the manner in which fellow journalists in Bombay took gifts at press conferences and then indulged in barter exchanges at the Press Club. My faith in journalists and the media was not completely shattered because of many peers who symbolised and lived all that journalism was supposed to be.

My faith is still not shattered 26 years down the road. But the idealism, the optimism and the dreams have long disappeared. I still believe that the media is THE Fourth Estate in this deeply flawed democracy that we call India. But I also know that it increasingly functions as a Fifth Column. I had always believed that the primary role of media is to be antagonistic and irreverent. That it was given a mandate by democracy and free speech to be anti-establishment, exposing the high and mighty without fear and speaking out for the man on the street. But sadly, the Indian media – at least vast swathes of it – has become an integral part of The Establishment. It is a rare P Sainath who keeps writing about hundreds of thousands of farmer suicides. Most others are engaged in trivial pursuits that would shame even a gossip columnist. When I watch TV channels and read newspapers, I cannot but help think of Shobha De and Stardust. At least De and Stardust were not sanctimonious about the kind of journalism they practiced. Cannot say that about most of our contemporary media icons whose real interests range from real estate to portfolio allocations to ministers.

That the contemporary Indian media is doing everything to discredit itself is a big tragedy. A bigger tragedy is the disgraceful manner in which it is divided. Let me give you the example of how peers have treated the persecution of Zee by this regime. I was outraged at the sniggers of fellow journalists when two editors of Zee News were arrested on charges of extortion. But then I thought, in these tragic times when no one is a saint, perhaps media outlets had some logic in deciding to not openly protest against the arrest and the confinement of the two editors in jail for more than two weeks. But then the cops filed a case against Zee News for naming the boyfriend of the gang-rape victim during an exclusive interview. Fellow journalists did not protest and did not call this an act of vendetta by a vindictive establishment. And then the cops have yet another case against Zee News for allegedly airing a forged CAG report. Fellow journalists are still largely silent. I think this silence and lack of open protest at the targeting of Zee News is beyond disgraceful. It reflects the rot that pervades our profession. The divide is so complete that Indian media now resembles Indian politics: narrow personal interests and prejudices towering over the basic tenet that freedom of speech and freedom to criticise must be absolute. National interest has been the victim in this race to become the propaganda tool of your ideological or monetary mentor. Both the Left and the Right are equally guilty of this.

Are things as bad as they appear? They are. Is there any hope for something better emerging in the near future? I must admit there is. And the reason is the attitude of the Indian youth. To older people, the youth appear totally disconnected from India and reality, living in their own cocoons of social media and complete disinterest in reading newspapers or watching news. But the older people are wrong. The youth is connected; it is just that it is no longer willing to accept either the Mai Baap culture of yore or the propensity of politicians and journalists (yes journalists) to divide India on the basis of caste, religion and ethnic identity. I am convinced the Indian media will have to deal with this new Indian who is double quick in spotting hypocrisy and sanctimony.
Perhaps when that happens, the Indian media will remain divided, but not discredited. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017