Indian media: ‘Pimps, sharpers, bawds and opera-girls’?

Robin Jeffrey
Visiting Research Professor, ISAS

This has been the summer, autumn and winter of India’s discontent. The Anna Hazare movement, a crowd-drawing, TV-friendly embodiment of middle-class exasperation, grew out of a succession of bribery and corruption scandals. Those scandals extended from multi-billion dollar scams among the country’s biggest capitalists, politicians and bureaucrats to small-time daily bribe-taking from anyone needing to get a job done in a government office.

The new chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju (retired) has picked up on Anna Hazare-style solutions as the remedy for some of the wild aspects of India’s dynamic media. Mr Katju has advocated creation of a super media-ombudsman with super-enforcement power and a powerful ‘media council’ that would police all Indian media. One gets the feeling Mr Katju listened as an adolescent to All India Radio (AIR) under the tutelage of the legendary Dr B. V. Keskar, the legendary Minister of Information and Broadcasting from 1952-62, who made AIR into the best friend Radio Ceylon ever had.

Today, Indian newspapers and television channels are Dr Jekyls and Mr Hydes. At their worst, television channels – more than 500 of them – fall over themselves to find program content and style that grab the widest attention. That often means half-baked reporting, salacious stories and voyeuristic program formats. On the print side, some newspapers and their employees have been exposed for soliciting bribes to provide favourable news coverage.

At their best, however, Indian media are free, gutsy, inquiring – exposing their own malpractices and many of the rip-offs that the Anna Hazare movement rails against.

Mr Katju brings a patrician, lofty-judge’s view of the world to his job on the Press Council. The Council website records that he is ‘a well-read and erudite person. … loved by young and old for his erudition and vast knowledge of diverse subjects including law, literature, philosophy, jurisprudence, social science, history’. We have to hope his command of law, literature and so on is more sophisticated than his interpretation of media history. In speeches, he paints a naively idealized picture of the way newspapers operated in the north Atlantic world from the eighteenth century. ‘In the Age of Enlightenment in Europe the print media represented the voice of reason’, he told an audience and went on to deplore the fact that Indian media are so woefully deficient in men and women of knowledge, culture and refinement. Not a Rousseau or a Voltaire in sight.

But the north Atlantic print world was never like the one Mr Katju imagines. The Scots poet Robert Burns caught the flavour in 1790 when he returned a newspaper to someone who had offered him a free subscription. He was, he wrote, with tongue deep in cheek, greatly impressed by

The news o’ princes, dukes and earls,
Pimps, sharpers, bawds and opera-girls;
… [and] that daft buckie, Geordie Wales [the Prince of Wales],
… threshin’ still at hizzies’ tails [chasing skirt]

Sound familiar? That was Scotland in 1790, remember.

To be sure, media in India can be silly, stupid and lascivious. Editorial decisions can be appalling. (Recall the live coverage of the Mumbai mayhem in November 2008 when live television feeds provided useful information to the murderers).

But elements of a free media have always been wild and tasteless and driven by the need to find readers, viewers and advertisers in order to pay bills. But you don’t minimize irresponsibility by setting up super-panels chaired by aristocratic ex-judges. You improve quality by ensuring there are multiple voices, by preventing monopoly ownership and cross-media ownership, by rewarding the genuine training of journalists and by creating an overseeing mechanism based on respected media practitioners and with the power to expose and ridicule cruelty, bad judgement and sexual exploitation.

The discussion of media freedom has also overlooked a new, game-changing aspect.

India now has 900 million potential broadcasters – if we take the latest subscriber numbers for mobile phones at face value. (Deduct 30 per cent and you still have 600 million active subscribers – 50 per cent of the population). How do you go about monitoring and controlling the mass-message capacity of 600 million cell phones? And yet those phones are now linked through dozens of imaginative networking initiatives, and they broadcast millions of messages each day.

We welcome all comments and feedback at isasblog@nus.edu.sg.