The tragedy – or comedy – is that the media today is being watched, every nano second, by entire armies whose job it is to take a screen shot, save a cache, note down the story and report to the bosses.

news Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 05:30

Chitra Subramaniam| The News Minute| July 14, 2014| 6.00 pm IST

Rarely has the adage a stitch in time saves nine held so much meaning and rarely, if ever in recent times, has that meaning been so acutely applicable to journalism in India.

Let’s face it – the issue of censorship in the media, any media anywhere, is as old as the media itself. It is a constant battle that reporters fight in their newsrooms and in editorial meetings with their editors and colleagues, the people they interview, the sources they cultivate. Now, the battle has split out in the open where an agile and alerted public is watching us very closely.

Editors and media commentators – many of whom have also had their stories commissioned, posted and pulled – taking the high-moral ground on l’affaire DNA is laughable, coming as it does after many reported recent incidents of editors spiking stories after having commissioned them.

We don’t know what happened in the DNA newsroom. Suffice to say that Harini Calamur, Head of Digital Media, DNA has taken full responsibility for it and promises to put in place a process so incidents such as the last one do not recur.

Process is important in a news room. It builds institutional accountability as well as personal credibility. None exists in news rooms in India today. There is absolutely no process in place to ensure that the end product – the story – has passed through the checks and balances necessary for it to be told or read.

And there is even less space for a journalist to argue her or his case for fear of being laughed at, losing a job, incurring the wrath of the editor, or inviting the legal arms of a corporate house. “You have to produce new drama everyday – it’s like a saas-bahu requirement, our lives are mundane, as ordinary as good journalism, so we create a new drama every day because journalists think journalism is boring,” a Bombay-based journalist told The News Minute (TNM).

If we argue that India’s institutions have decayed, it stands to reason that the media, the fourth estate, is as much a part of this decay as is the judiciary, the executive and the legislature. My reports on Bofors were stopped by The Hindu on instructions from the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989. Just like that – stopped. No explanation given, no respect for my work, no respect for the métier and above all, no respect for the hundreds of journalists working in India.

What should have happened – protection for reporters against media owners, avenues to report harassment, etc – didn’t with the result that the media’s own story in India has been slowly but surely coming apart, aided in no small manner by the advent of 24/7 news channels where people are as harassed as the reporters, making news rooms unhappy places.

What is the difference between that episode in 1989 and now? Two things have changed – editors have given themselves the title of CEOs without fully appreciating the rights and responsibilities of that designation. Secondly, we have all collectively failed to say that business-houses and politicians and editors with interests in both run media houses today.

“Newsrooms today are vitriolic – we are witnessing and assisting the soapification of news,” one journalist says. “Stories that polarize, stigmatise, pour wrath and scorn on people get the readership, the TRPs – this puts any editor in a very difficult situation,” the journalist added.

So what is this difficult position? It is having to decide every minute if a story will be read or not which in turn means revenues which in turn may also mean fame and money which in turn means stories that are read – it is a vicious circle.
“In addition to journalistic pressures of finding good stories, we now represent the face of corporate wars between corporate houses – we no longer speak about plants from this business house or that because together, as they own us,” remarked a colleague who has over 20 years of experience in Indian media.

With volumes of money, come volumes of surveillance. What the media seems to miss is that they are being watched very closely, almost industrially on a daily basis. There was a time when television channels had an unwritten rule that a certain politician who had nick-names for his detractors could never be brought in live into any television debate. His bytes were edited before airing. Today he has a free run across the Indian media which he has successfully exposed for being all things to all people, unprincipled and uncouth.

Journalism is full of stories that were killed or deleted. A young reporter spoke to TNM about the story of a government-funded project of a wonder seed in cotton cultivation which in effect was a re-hash of a gene already patented by a multinational company (MNC). All readied to go on air, the story was pulled at the last minute because the MNC was involved. Negative stories about the Maran brothers in Tamil Nadu went unreported for years till more cable operators arrived on the scene.

By being a manager first and a journalist afterwards, a media boss before the head of an editorial team and expert before being able to spot a story, many journalists have dragged the métier away from where it should be.

The tragedy – or comedy – is that the media today is being watched, every nano second, by entire armies whose job it is to take a screen shot, save a cache, note down the story and report to the bosses. Add to this the power of technology and the invasive and ever-present eye of big-brother amplifies. What this translates into is the simple fact that readers are also viewing the media critically and instead of arrogantly suggesting that there has been dumbing down among readers and viewers, it important to ask if we, as journalists are better than those we criticize. Today, the reader and viewer are equally, if not more empowered than journalists.

India still continues to be one of the countries where the press is free, not necessarily fair, but free. The first enemy we have to deal with collectively is within. The rest will fall into place.

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