Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Indian Press - 6: Journalism as Business

Indian-owned newspapers were a key factor in promoting and spreading the nationalist perspective under colonial rule. Ironically, after independence, when control of the "elite" British-owned publications passed into Indian hands it did not lead to significant change in their anti-national agenda. This was not a failing of Indian journalists but of the owners of newspapers. Drawn from a class that had collaborated with the British and grown rich under them, the new owners proved to be money grubbers with little sense of their nationality or the importance of a free Press.

Nothing exemplifies that distressing reality as much as The Times of India,  the most widely read newspaper in the country.

Perhaps its most obvious failing has been of political awareness. As noted earlier, the current ownership of TOI even prides itself on its British antecedents. The newspaper traces its roots to publications founded in Bombay as far back as 1838, consolidated under its current name in 1861 by Robert Knight, a former bureaucrat who became a journalist to improve the projection of the regime’s views. He established an energetic anti-nationalist policy that became the paper's "tradition."

An equally important failing has been the multifaceted lack of integrity that characterized the new Indian ownership. In 1946, as Indian independence loomed, the British owners of the TOI sold the paper to Ram Kishan Dalmia, a Marwari bullion trader from Calcutta who had built a conglomerate business empire. He was a maverick who lived by his own rules and hedged all his bets, reportedly maintaining five wives simultaneously in separate households and giving financial support to both Gandhi and Jinnah.

To raise the money to buy the paper Dalmia pillaged a bank and insurance company under his control, a transgression the authorities might have missed had he not launched a scornful campaign against Prime Minister Nehru's policies. (Nehru is said to have dismissed him as "an ugly man with an ugly heart and ugly mind who thinks owning a newspaper makes him an expert on foreign policy.") In 1955, the issue of the gutted companies was raised in parliament by Feroze Gandhi, Nehru’s son-in-law. Dalmia was tried, sent to prison for two years, and ordered to pay back the looted money. He raised the funds by selling the paper to his son-in-law, Sahu Jain, also a businessman with no background in journalism.

Since then three generations of the Jain family have made the Times Group a lucrative business. The parent paper has spawned a number of other publications, and diversified into radio, television and e-commerce. In the process, they have destroyed whatever journalistic integrity the newspaper once had. In the 1980s the family was seized with jealousy at the political influence wielded by the Editor of the newspaper, and there was a deliberate devaluation of the post. The functions of the Editor were distributed among pliable nonentities, and all senior journalists made to eat humble pie. The “we’re no different from a company selling soap” speech from the management became a rite of entry into the editorial ranks. To discourage any idealistic notions of editorial independence the Jains replaced the tenured career tracks of top staff with negotiated fixed-term contracts.

Without proper editorial direction, the paper has fallen into a state of qualitative rot, without gravitas or organizing intelligence. A heavy-breathing self-righteousness has replaced coherent policy on important issues. Editorial content is now a mishmash of agency reports and Press releases, replete with items reflecting a prurient male menopausal sexual interest. Photographs of scantily clad White women are a standard feature of the op-ed page, and readers are offered a consistently ludicrous mix of tabloid-style items, including such news as "Mariah Carey quashes bisexuality rumours"  and "Woman bites off husband’s tongue."

In addition to ruining the editorial quality of the paper, the Jains have gutted its credibility by blurring the line between journalism and advertising. In 2004, the paper began signing “private treaties” with other corporations, accepting their equity stock in exchange for “innovative and integrated” promotion of their image and wares in the paper. By 2009, there were over a hundred such agreements, spilling advertising copy into the editorial pages in so-called "edvertorials."

The “sale” of news coverage is not a new phenomenon in Indian media, but it was always in the past confined to the corruption of individual journalists. Instead of cracking down on those who took bribes to provide coverage, TOI institutionalized the corruption, making it a source of corporate revenue. In seeking to monetize its news columns, the paper has even gone to the extent of seeking payment from art galleries and restaurants for mentioning their names in reviews. It routinely carries reviews of cultural events without identifying where they are.

Other "elite" publishers have followed the TOI example. By 2009 the problem of paid news was so prevalent and obtrusive that it led to an investigation by the Press Council of India, a government-supported watchdog body. Its two-member investigative team issued a brief and damning report in July 2010. “The phenomenon of ‘paid news’ has acquired serious dimensions” it said. “Today it goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies and has become pervasive, structured and highly organized. In the process, it is undermining democracy in India.” Much of the reporting in print and on television prior to the 2009 national and state elections had been paid for, “almost always in a clandestine manner.” Many “media companies irrespective of the volume of their businesses and their profitability,” had sold news coverage. The marketing executives of media companies had even produced “rate cards” or “packages” that offered the option to have news items not only “praise particular candidates but also criticize their political opponents.”

According to one published expose, a newspaper in Maharashtra during the last general elections was offering to publish a candidate’s profile along with “four news items of your choice,” for Rs.400,000. An entire newspaper “supplement” praising the candidate was on offer for Rs.15 million. Candidates without money got little or no coverage. The Election Commission has taken note of the situation; it issued detailed guidelines in 2010 requiring poll officers throughout the country to look for and take action against “paid news.”

The meanly commercial approach to journalism has resulted also in a gross underfunding of critically important editorial activities. None of the major English language publications even pretends to provide comprehensive coverage of the country, much less of the world. Even the biggest metropolitan papers are grossly understaffed. Specialized beat reporting is practically nonexistent; even when journalists claim to focus on specific areas there is often little evidence of expertise. Reporting capacity drops off a cliff in rural areas and outside the country.

This explains why the Maoist insurrection now recognized by the government as the country’s most serious internal security threat went virtually unnoticed as it grew and spread. Such major problems as the rotting of thousands of tons of grain due to improper storage, and the theft of food meant for the very poor, have surfaced not from routine or investigative reporting but from “leaks” by disaffected bureaucrats and even court judgments years after such crimes. (Media organizations are able to pretend they have "uncovered" these stories because they did not cover the court proceedings.) The dependence on and competition for “leaks,” by journalists who are themselves ignorant of the facts have resulted in the Press being open to gross manipulation.
The most blatant example of that was the so-called “Bofors scandal” of the 1980s, a campaign of salacious disinformation that incapacitated the Rajiv Gandhi government at a time it was trying to launch the first wave of economic reforms. More recently, coverage of the scandalous corruption related to the Commonwealth Games in 2010 – which occurred under the oblivious noses of the media organizations in Delhi – was set off by a “leak” from a source within the British government weeks prior to the Games. The hysteria of coverage that followed made it seem that the CWG would be a fiasco; it blackened India’s image around the world and reduced attendance at the Games. After the Games went off successfully, the media organizations did not examine their own failings and offered no apologies. Nor did anyone in the media speculate about the motivation of the leaker.

Such vulnerability to foreign manipulation is hardly surprising, for Indian mass media have very little capability to judge global realities. What appears in print or on television is almost entirely from American and British news agencies, with a tiny bit of PTI reportage providing the “Indian angle” (usually gleaned from the Press Office of the nearest Indian Embassy). At the highest levels of Indian journalism the incapacity to report on world affairs extends from petty ignorance – the Chief Editor of one major television channel pronouncing Haiti as “Haishee” – to profound incomprehension of a broad range of international political realities.

One indication of that incomprehension is that two decades after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a well-documented transatlantic rift, Indian commentors continue to refer to “the West” as a coherent unity. Coverage of China, a country of crucial importance to India, has remained minimal despite a border conflict and a range of unresolved political differences. The Middle East and Africa, also areas of great national importance, are even hazier in our mass media. Indian publishers seem unembarrassed to reprint articles from The New York Times or The Guardian even on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As a result of all this, much of the political analysis in Indian newspapers is confused and confusing. Not a single publication or broadcast organization offers a coherent worldview. Not one of the major weekly newsmagazines reports regularly on world affairs. Typically, all have turned a blind eye on the looming global financial melt-down that threatens both hyper-inflation and deflation. When those crises materialize -- it is no longer a matter of "if" -- Indian society will be as unprepared as it was to meet the challenges of the first Arab invaders of Sind or the stealthy British takeover of Bengal.

To be continued.

No comments: