If Bollywood has spotted the trend, others have followed on cue. The latest Fevicol campaign, for example, is titled “Breaking News” and is a brilliantly funny lampoon of what is often derided as TV news channels’ unfettered and ridiculous definition of just about anything as “breaking news” or “exclusive”. From one laughter show to another, stand-up comedians make fun of TV journalism. In one particularly funny one, the funny man, actually a very funny man, does an entire act in which a TV reporter’s first response, from birth to death, is the question “aapko kaisa lag raha hai?” — which is the most used stereotype to describe dumbed-down journalism, so popular that even a broadsheet daily newspaper has used the same metaphor, of a dumb TV reporter asking the widow of a hooch tragedy the same question, to underline the distinction between lousy journalism and theirs.
The fact, however, is that most TV journalism is neither lousy, nor dumb. In fact the growth of live news TV over the past decade has brought in an entirely new, marvellously
energetic, enterprising and brave dimension to Indian media. For the old world of print media, it’s been a great force multiplier. Nor is the larger profession of news media, whether TV or print, dishonourable, compromised, filled with paid news or entertainment passed off as news. Nor is it all about snakes marrying trees; “wisdom” on how Shani (good old Saturn) can wreck your life if you do not propitiate him every Saturday (I better be careful, actually, National Interest appears on Saturday and Shani may just be reading); hour-long shows on how the world may come to an end “next week” and other such delightful rubbish — my favourite, as an animal-lover, being “Tenduye ka root canal”. Now I am blessed with a wonderful dentist, but maybe there are millions of others who might want to see a leopard chew up the hand of their dentist as he probes deep in its mouth with the killer drill.
All these examples are real, but they still do not characterise TV journalism, and journalism overall. Yet, why is this muck sticking? Why is it that, whichever audience you may have spoken to in recent times, ranging from an auditorium at National Defence College packed with the brightest officers of our three forces of the rank of Brigadier or equivalent, to an audience of predominantly tribal intellectuals and bureaucrats in Shillong Club in the distant Northeast, the questions you face are all about the same, on the “media dumbing down”, mostly on news TV?
Usually this happens when public revulsion at a phenomenon reaches a critical mass. People then tend to accept any generalisation, and paint everybody in the business or the profession they do not like with the same brush. It is as they do with the political class. Further, once such a view gets entrenched in the popular mind, it is tough to dislodge it. The problem now is that the political class is too sharp a reader of the popular pulse to miss this growing anti-media clamour. It is, therefore, sharpening its knives. At least three standing committees of the two Houses of Parliament have produced reports damning the news channels for sensationalism and inaccurate reporting, and demanding laws to “regulate” them. Several high court judgments have already reflected a similar view. All this is adding up in the thickening files of the I&B ministry. And while Ambika Soni has seen the traumatic period of the Emergency first hand and would never be seen to be interfering with editorial freedoms, she will tell you how pressured and lonely she feels every time this issue is discussed in Parliament, and MPs, cutting across party lines, demand blood.
The political class cannot be faulted for feeling that this is their moment to get even with the media. Normally they would never have dared to even suggest this. But now they feel a change in the public mood, and therefore, an opportunity. What can be better than a legislatively-mandated regulatory or supervisory body to keep the media within the “norms of decency and accuracy”. In other words, in control.
The politician is smart, and knows that the freedom of the press in India is not specifically mandated or guaranteed, either by the Constitution or any specific laws. There is the overall freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Constitution and then a wide range of court judgments in the past many decades protecting and expanding press freedom. In fact it was precisely when these freedoms were denied, during the Emergency, that the people of India overwhelmingly embraced the great notion of total press freedom. This, in fact, became one of the greatest social contracts to arise in the course of India’s democratic evolution.
It is this social contract that is now under threat, and all because of the greed and the cynicism of a few who allow the wall between news and rumour, entertainment or superstition to vanish, or sell news time, or space (in the print media), for money. This social contract was back-stopped by the judiciary. Some of that is being questioned now. Two years ago the Supreme Court set up a high-level committee under Fali Nariman, including jurists, top I&B officials and media seniors (including this writer) to debate the regulatory issues arising out of the media’s “sensationalist” and “provocative” coverage of the Gurjjar agitation in Rajasthan, and to suggest correctives. Like many other committees, this too has happily lost its way. But it is worth noting that in the 60-year history of the republic, it was perhaps the first time that the Supreme Court had felt constrained to take an initiative to regulate, if not control or curtail, press freedoms, rather than enhancing or strengthening them. For all of us in the business of journalism, in all media, warning bells can’t ring louder than this.