Warning Bells Toll for Indian Media Houses

Schadenfreude isn’t a sentiment most of us would admit to very easily- we usually like to think we are better than that. But as the world recently watched the royalty of global media squirm and wriggle in visible discomfort on prime time TV, not too many tears would have been shed for the father-son duo that has lorded over the biggest media empire in the world, and created more enemies than friends in the course of its almost inexorable rise to the top.

While the top slot can be lonely in the best of times, when you cross that thin line dividing investigative journalism from downright voyeurism – as the Rupert Murdoch owned NOTW clearly did, it’s pretty hard to cry foul and blame others.So what are the lessons we can draw for our own rapidly evolving media houses, with both print and visual media expected to witness unprecedented growth in the Indian market in the coming years

Well, first the good news. Given the abysmally low standards already in place, we are in no real danger of sinking further down any time soon. The myriad reality TV/ entertainment channels masquerading as news channels do not quite set the benchmarks when it comes to a high standard of journalism, hence the chances of falling short of the BBC benchmark doesn’t even arise. However, it does hold out warning signals for where Indian journalism could be headed unless there are immediate steps taken to stop an irreversible slide into a shrill, banal and increasingly sanctimonious future

As would be amply clear to anyone watching the latest illustration of Indian media’s penchant for highly biased reporting, in the form of the casualness with which most news channels have been advocating giving fundamental constitutional provisions a go-by, it would appear that most Indian journalists have simply forgotten what they were originally meant to do- namely, reporting stuff. Instead, the new age journalist, steeped in the 24/7 tradition of creating/manufacturing stories where none exist, would much rather turn into opinion maker/agenda setter, who decides the terms of the debate instead of allowing it to be set by others. Watching one fulminating anchor after another, gleefully excoriating their guests on the evening news (unsurprisingly, politicians being at the receiving end most of the time), it’s hard to believe you are watching an actual news channel and not the passing of a judgment at the end of a mob-trial, conducted in the redoubtable court of public opinion (yeah, nowadays, it would appear that the courts and the judiciary are just mere constitutional add-ons)

So what’s the way out?…do we allow our media houses to continue down the slippery slope of playing to the galleries, especially given the disproportionate clout the middle/upper middle classes enjoy in setting, and thereafter governing the national agenda?…clearly, for all those interested in the long term health of Indian journalism, the answer has to be a resounding no, even though there are no easy answers in the horizon.

Getting off the moral high horse would be the immediate prescription for our desi news houses, with the Lokpal agitation once again re-affirming what most neutral observers already know- the space for objective, even handed journalism is getting narrower by the day. What they don’t realize is that in their quest for greater TRPs, in their blatant disregard for all norms of neutral and ethical journalism (take a look at the regional networks, and you will get an object lesson in everything that journalism is not supposed to be about) most of these news channels are traversing the very same path that the NOTWs of the world had taken in the not too distant past, with the end destination being there for all to see. It is precisely this fate that Indian media houses, and more importantly their owners, need to bear in mind as they move ahead into the next stage of their evolution. The road to hell, they say, is often paved with good intentions. As the Anna movement has clearly shown, the good intentions are there for all to see- one can only hope that the brakes are applied before we reach the final stop.

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