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"Indian Media in middle of a perfect storm"


ADITYA RAJ KAUL | New Delhi, January 24, 2013 17:39
Tags : Media | India | monopoly | English | government |

We have seen a social media boom in India off late which almost drove the electronic and the print media to a corner on several issues. What do you infer from it?

I think what we are seeing is the gradual crumbling of the monopoly of sending a message that the Indian English media and government has enjoyed for many years. When you think about it, the traditional media companies aren’t media companies at all. Their real strength continues to be converting newsprint into advertising dollars. Wherever this monopoly has been broken, mostly in regional language markets, I think quality is much better. Initially blogging, and then social media, has made it much easier for the average citizen to criticise, analyse and offer counter-points to the mainstream narrative. I am not saying the quality of discourse had been elevated substantially. That will take much more time and substantial social change. If the English press in India could ignore social media it would. But it can’t, thanks to the precedents set up by the Western media that everyone loves to ape. So they engage fitfully, insincerely and with little interest in actual dialogue. What is particularly infuriating, I think, is that social media has a tremendous crowd-sourced ability to fact check. The vast majority of our journalists have always had the ability to control the agenda. They’ve never had to justify their positions on a public forum. The very fact that Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt or even Harsha Bhogle have to deal with dissent is… new and disruptive.

Do you think the Indian media is going through a credibility crisis?

I think media, anywhere in the world, goes through a credibility crisis, constantly. And the crisis deepens and becomes harder to manage as readers and the market get more sophisticated. To make things worse, the government is going through a tremendous crisis of confidence itself. I am not a media historian but I feel that a government in crisis tends to pull the media into the quagmire as well. People stop trusting in institutions. And that distrust seeps into the media as well. In some ways the Indian media is finding itself in the middle of a perfect storm. A weak government is killing faith in all institutions. Social media is making it harder for the traditional messengers to set the agenda. Excellent initiatives by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and titles like The Caravan are making the traditional narratives seem laughably myopic and biased. And to top it all, most of them are losing money, viewers and readers. The best way to react to this is to improve the quality of the product. But Indian companies have a tendency to maintain lousy products as long as they can. Things are no different with the media.

In your opinion, what are the major challenges before the Indian media in 2013?

I honestly can’t think of a better country in the world to be a journalist in right now. Media is still reasonably free in India. And there are so many things for enterprising journalists right now. From border security to law and order, subsidies and social welfare, and energy shortages. The challenge for our media, then, is to pick their fights and fight it well. But this will mean being a slave to the topic and not the eyeball. And persisting with a story even when it is no longer sexy. And understanding that every news cycle does not have to be 24 or 48 hours long. Tough ask this, when the boardroom is full of marketing guys.

Do you admire in particular few journalists in India for their ‘journalism of courage’ or ‘honesty in reportage’ in this age of corporate driven news agenda and biased news circulation?

I enjoy Samar Halarnkar’s humanity, Samanth Subramniam’s ambition and meticulous attention to detail, and Jonathan Shainin’s superb work with Caravan. At Mint, where I publish a lot of work, I have huge respect for the work of many of my colleagues such as Sukumar Ranganathan, Priya Ramani, Niranjan Rajdhyaksha and Anil Padmanabhan. Praveen Swami’s policy and defence work is awesome. In Malayalam television Nikesh Kumar and Shani Prabhakar make some of our more popular English language “hard interviewers” seem like kittens. Pratap Bhanu Mehta is usually, on any given week, the best columnist in the country.I could go on and on. In Indian journalism I think the whole is vastly inferior to the sum of the parts.

Has there been increased interference of the government in social media due to a perceived threat?

Like I said before social media is disrupting the government’s monopoly on messaging. And this is deeply unsettling for a government that likes to control narratives, agenda and the freedom to be hypocritical. I think so far the intention to interfere has been greater than the interference itself. But I think this will change very soon. The need to maintain law and order through suppression rather than enlightened administration is one of our greatest colonial inheritances.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017