Journalism in India as all over the world has changed over the years, especially, right since 1947. If we take independence as a benchmark, there has been a sea change during the last 65 years. After the advent of satellite TV, that is, say mid-1990s onwards, the 24×7 news channels have created a brand of their own, by repetitive telecast of the same news. And the funny part is that different channels pick different news items to go on repeating. To an extent, print journalism has been affected by this in the sense that the morning newspapers do not bring so much news, because we have seen the news on TV the previous day. Print journalism has become all the more important because people look to newspapers for views or informed articles on subjects, rather than plain reporting of news. In plain reporting of news it will become difficult for newspapers to give misleading reports, because people have seen live coverage on TV. But informed articles are very important. The tragedy is that though newspapers were always owned by rich people, except Patriot or Blitz, or a few papers like that, in the last 10 years the larger corporate houses have bought up almost the entire print media and now the electronic media. The result is that the news we get is corporate oriented and not people or society oriented. To give an example, ever since 1991 when Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister started economic reforms, the entire print and electronic media is supporting that set of economic policies as the ultimate solution for the country. Of course, I’m sure that every policy has two aspects. There will be some people opposing and some people supporting. It’s now over 21 years, if you analyse the results correctly. While people are saying that there has been a lot of growth, the fact is that growth started before 1991. If you take the average of every 5 years, you will find mixed results. For instance, for the last 3−4 years the growth rate is going down. So the growth really doesn’t depend only on the economic policies of 1991. It has got a lot of other reasons. For example, right now the international situation is still bad, so despite any policy the growth will be slow. The point that I’m trying to make is that the media should be objective. There is an over dependence on the corporate sector. In any case the media depends on the corporate sector for ads. But earlier the ads were given on the basis of the circulation and the reach to the consumers. Now it is not so. For instance, a top industrial house of the country doesn’t give ads to a top newspaper as the newspaper carries articles against that business house. According to my knowledge, this is not the case in other countries. In India during the 1970s Mrs. Indira Gandhi had brought a legislation called Diffusion of Press Ownership Bill. The Bill was introduced in Parliament though it never became a law. The main objective of the proposed law was that people who own a newspaper cannot own other industry, and people who own other industries cannot start a newspaper. As usual it was opposed by industrial houses and others as an attack on the freedom of the press, when actually it was not. Today the attack on the freedom of press is not so much by a dictatorial regime, as by the people who have got money. There are two ways of gagging the press: either don’t allow them to print like in countries which have dictatorship, or just flood it with money as in free societies so that nobody can give an honest opinion. In India today, we are passing through a phase where the second one is correct. Today if anybody speaks for the poor, the minorities, the unemployed and the Scheduled Castes the press won’t carry that. Without getting into party politics, the fact is that the last regime in Uttar Pradesh was shunned by the entire press because it was headed by a Scheduled Caste lady. And the other funny part of it is that in spite of their opposition, she came to power on her own. Then what happened, in the 5 years that she ruled for, she used the same tricks as others – she muzzled the press. For 5 years no press wrote against her, they wrote in her favour. The result was that she lost the elections. So the other lesson that we get is that the print media has ceased to matter as far as the voting pattern is concerned.
Today the opinion in the newspaper is not the opinion of the editor but the opinion of the owner of the newspaper. Why? I remember when we were in school and college, there used to be a tussle between the owners and the editors, for instance, between the Birlas who owned The Hindustan Times and the editor S. Mulgaonkar; in The Times of India, between Dalmia and the Jains who were the owners and their editor Frank Moraes; or even in the Indian Express, though Ramnath Goenka was different. But the owner also had to take pains to get his viewpoint accepted by the editors, because the editors really represented the public. Today editors have become the agents of the owners. Most of the editors are interested in their perks. Most of the editors today ask their owner if any particular thing that they are printing might hurt the owner. It may not be his particular company that is getting hurt by the news, but as a class. They will ask what car they will get, how much salary they will get, what perks they will get. So the whole editorial class has become a part of the owner’s class. Now this is a very difficult question: in a developing society how can we stop this? I think some laws to divorce ownership from editorials have to be brought. Diffusion of Press Ownership Bill may be one way of doing it, or some other way. In India there is no minimum qualification to become a journalist; the funny part is that journalists are saying that illiterate people are entering Parliament. Parliament is supposed to represent the masses. Suppose, you say a college degree is essential to become an MP, it means you are excluding 90 per cent of the people, because the majority in India are undergraduates. So you can’t say that people who represent us should be from a different class from us. A man from the village will choose someone from a village only. But the funny part is that journalists want some qualification for MPs but not for themselves. I have come across many journalists, they may know English or Hindi, but they hardly know anything. Today the young journalists don’t know the history of India, forget the history of the world. People, who are reporting on Parliament, do not take the trouble to go to the library of Parliament and see the old records, and see that what happened when Jawaharlal Nehru was in the House or what happened when Indira Gandhi and Lal Bahadur were in the House. The maximum that they will stretch back to is during the period of Rajiv Gandhi. So something must be done to improve the standard of Indian journalism. How to do that is a difficult question. Because the moment we suggest something you will say that you are putting the freedom of press in jeopardy. But one must realise the problem first, and then get the solution. The problem is that the Indian press is going through a crisis. The major newspapers are now just propaganda machines for the corporate houses. The smaller newspapers are now getting crushed, because they are not getting ads. So the Government must do something to save these small newspapers, so they can stand on their feet, or there should be Diffusion of Press Ownership Bill or something else. I would like this to be a point of debate.