The growing crisis of credibility of the Indian media

28 Abril 2011
Article

Despite massive growth in the Indian media industry, the lack of quality and diversity shows an increasing disconnect with the real lives of people in the country and the most important issues they face.

The media in India has grown into an economic giant, with a business turnover which exceeds one percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and matches the economic size of many individual industries in India. It is considered the world’s most dynamic media industry and one of the fastest growing anywhere. The media’s worth is equivalent to half the value of India’s famously successful computer software exports.

Prospering economicaly and growing influence in the public and political domain

For the past two decades, the Indian media business has clocked double-digit growth annually, which clearly outpaces India’s GDP growth rate, which has itself risen from about 5 percent to almost 9 percent a year. A recent report by the consultancy firm KPMG and the Federation of the Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry forecasts a growth rate for the media of 13-14 percent a year for the next five years. Amazingly, India’s print media bucked a worldwide trend and has been growing at 10 percent-plus a year. Last year, it grew by an estimated 26 percent.

This is a very different scenario from the state of the media in much of the world. In most developed countries, the media has reached saturation point. The Western print media is especially badly off, with falling revenues. It is shrinking as major newspapers lose money and circulation and cut staff and coverage.

The media in India has played a disproportionate role in shaping public perceptions of politics, electoral outcomes and the way power is exercised. As recent disclosures in the Radia tapes show, media personalities increasingly rub shoulders with top-level politicians, industrialists and corporate lobbyists and collude in making key government appointments and influencing policy decisions.

In sharp contrast to the immense financial power and political clout of the Indian media stands its indifferent—and generally declining—quality, reliability and authenticity, loss of diversity and pluralism, shallowness in reporting and comment on serious issues, and systematic violation of elementary norms of responsible journalism.

In recent years, the media has lowered the quality of India’s public discourse. Media expansion has led to a shrinking of the public sphere, and spread of elitist and socially retrograde values. This is producing a growing, and potentially grave, crisis of credibility. The low and falling quality of Indian journalism is evident in a number of ways.

First, this country of 1.2 billion cannot claim to have a single magazine of ideas or literary journal of international standards. Nor does it publish a significant number of influential newspapers which are independent of corporate cartels. There is very little diversity in the range of social and political views expressed in the mainstream media.

Second, the media no longer adequately performs the primary functions it is meant to, which give it public legitimacy: namely, informing the public, telling the truth, analysing complex social, economic and political processes, providing a platform for public debate, and acting as the people’s watchdog or conscience.

Tunnelvision

Third, despite rapid globalisation and the opening up of Indian society and culture to international influences, the Indian media remains extremely insular. There is remarkably paltry coverage of international issues, events, institutions and processes. There is an unhealthy obsession with the United States, and very little space for major emerging countries like China, Brazil and South Africa.

Thus, only about half-a-dozen newspapers, all of them in English, have correspondents in any of the major capitals of the world. Only one, The Hindu, has full-time correspondents in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, London and Paris. The rest depend on news agencies, or at best, part-time stringers. Even when a major event occurs—the Iraq war, the Egyptian “revolution” or the Fukushima disaster—Indian newspapers and TV channels (despite their huge budgets) do not bother to send reporters to cover it. At best, there may be desultory, cursory coverage for a couple of days.

The coverage of the South Asian region—in which India is located in a larger-than-life way, with which it shares so much, and on which its own social climate and security depends—is abysmally shoddy. Within this coverage, there is a pathological preoccupation with Pakistan. This has less to do with understanding the complex social and political processes under way there than with gloating over Pakistan’s problems and its difficult relationships with the US, Afghanistan and Iran. At any rate, there are only two full-time Indian reporters in Pakistan. Once, there were five.

No Indian newspaper has full-time correspondents in all the major regional countries—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The Hindu scores better than other papers here too, but it still has no correspondent in Afghanistan, which is a cauldron of conflict and war, and also a crucible where world history is being made.

This is galling because there is at least one highly experienced and respected freelance journalist based in Kabul, who is an Indian. (At one time, there were three, writing mainly for Western papers). By contrast, The New York Times has three reporters covering Afghanistan. Other major Western dailies have one or more reporters based there.

Many Indian newspapers are immeasurably richer than The New York Times, which has run into losses. But they are just not interested in the war and political developments in Afghanistan and the complex relationships emerging between the US, the Karzai government, various Taliban groups, the Pakistani state, Iran and India. These relationships will determine the future of how the West views “radical” and “moderate” Islam and conducts the “war on terror”.

Loss of diversity and quality

Fourth, the Indian media on the face of it has tremendous diversity, with the world’s second-largest press (print) market, some 1,500 TV channels (the fourth largest number in the world), of which 250 or so are news channels (probably the highest number anywhere), 80-85 million Internet users, and a growing number of radio stations.

The press is printed in 123 languages and dialects. The highest number of newspapers and magazines are issued in Hindi—24,927; the second place is taken by the English-language press—9,064. The state with most print media is Uttar Pradesh—with 9,885 newspapers. The largest-circulated Indian daily is Dainik Jagran, with 55.7 million readers, probably the largest in the world. Second in rank is Dainik Bhaskar with 44.9 million readers. These papers are among the lowest-quality publications anywhere, with minimal news value.

However, in recent years, the print media has witnessed loss of diversity, a process of concentration, mergers and acquisitions, and emergence of huge conglomerates, especially in Indian languages, with 20, 30, even 43 editions. This is squeezing out small independent papers both through competition for advertising revenue and through predatory pricing. The average issue price of Indian newspapers is remarkably low: a national average of Rs 2.30 on weekdays and Rs 3 on Sundays. The actual recovery from sales, after deducting commissions for distribution, is well under Rs 2 per copy.

However, it costs Rs 6 to 10 to produce a newspaper of between 14 and 24 broadsheet pages (excluding supplements, etc.). Since circulation revenues can only meet a fraction of this cost, newspapers become dependent on advertising to make up the bulk of the expenses necessary for survival. This has dangerously unhealthy consequences for media independence and diversity. Growing dependence on advertising means less and less autonomy from the corporate interests which buy advertising space or time.

This is only one malady that afflicts the Indian media. Other serious disorders lie in the conscious dumbing down of news coverage; trivialisation of important social processes and events; warped priorities in reporting national and world affairs; downgrading and contraction of space for serious analysis, interpretation and comment; an unhealthy obsession with celebrities; growing sensationalism (ubiquitous in television, but now rapidly spreading in print); and reliance on hearsay and unverified reports.

Even worse is the mainstream media’s self-assigned role as the outriders of “free market” or neoliberal policies—as if the immediate post-Soviet era had not ended, and under-regulated capitalism had not run into a grave financial crisis and the Great Recession since 2008. Editors are now appointed less for their journalistic talent, erudition or news sense than for their “contacts” in high places and ability to “fix” deals.

Bias, censorship and selective exclusion

This is, admittedly, a pretty damning list of flaws. But no less disturbing are: editorialising in the news pages; heavy slanting of headlines and photo captions; censorship of views critical of ruling orthodoxies and of stories written from the standpoint of the underprivileged and the vulnerable; and blacking out of the coverage of unconventional, radical or non-mainstream movements and organisations (including campaigns for peace, human rights, global justice, or sexual equality).

Even more unconscionable is the blatantly partisan support in large sections of the media for ultra-Right-wing and religious-exclusivist political grouping like the Bharatiya Janata Party, marginalisation of readers’ opinion columns, and a systematic refusal to admit, and correct, errors of fact.

The media, as it exists and is evolving today, is simply not designed or meant to report on the existing reality of Indian society or inform the public on the economic and political processes at work in it, including shifts in social values and in the balance of power between different groups, and new forms of political competition—leave alone promote a comprehension of the complex social dynamics that are shaping decision-making structures and India’s changing relations with the rest of the world.

Perhaps the most telling comment on the Indian media lies not in the stories it has done, but in the stories it has missed or killed. These include the death of 8,000 schoolchildren in Maharashtra, the millions of girls who go missing thanks to the spreading practice of female foeticide, and the suicides of two lakh farmers over the past 12 years.

To be fair, it is not that the media never carried these stories. It did—reluctantly, belatedly, half-heartedly, sloppily, following many entreaties by the concerned investigators, or after the issue had already figured in the national or state legislature. It did not originate them, as it should have. These important facts, which speak of dysfunctions in the deepest interstices of Indian society, were unearthed, noted, discovered, compiled, collated and disseminated by others.

Disconnect

The mainstream journalistic paradigm in the Indian print media (with a few honourable exceptions) is shockingly insensitive to the real concerns of flesh-and-blood people, especially the vast majority of Indians who are poor and underprivileged. Its principal—and matter-of-factly stated—aim is to promote the “feel-good” factor and “pump sunshine” into the life of the consumerist elite.

Headlines in most papers show strong biases: e.g. telecom is “liberated” (i.e. recklessly privatised, with harmful consequences, as in the 2G scam), and imports of 1,400 items are “freed” (to promote unregulated imports which could ruin millions of farmers).

What takes the cake is the memorable headline: “India, Beauty Superpower of the world, wins the Miss Universe crown”. This is when Indian women have worse malnutrition levels than women in sub-Saharan Africa—after two decades of agrarian distress, economic collapse, ethnic conflict, civil war and famine in that continent. What matters is not the truth, but the “feel-good” factor, the daily dose of steroids the Indian elite so desperately needs—and gets—through the media.

These trends highlight the Indian media’s increasingly conservative and retrograde character in a period which demands a radical review of conservative approaches, and exploration and examination of alternative options to policies that are failing, ideologies that are proving bankrupt, and mindsets that are patently sterile.

The Indian media now faces a serious crisis of credibility. If it does not reform itself, it will find its greatest asset getting rapidly devalued and eventually vanishing. Robbed of authenticity, reliability and credibility, the media will cease to matter to large numbers of people except as a source of cheap entertainment and titillation. Journalism will then cease to be all that makes it worthy and socially relevant: an honest, investigative, analytical, public-oriented and ethical pursuit.

That would be a grave tragedy and a terrible disservice both to democracy and to the causes of enlightening and empowering the public.