Thursday, December 2, 2010

The murky compulsions of Indian media

I have a theory. A rather speculative one. Haven't been able to shake it off, so here goes.
Imagine yourself as a 20-something journalist in New Delhi in the early 90s. Life's a constant adrenalin rush. There's a story breaking every day (the 90s belong to a slower era). You're positioned inches away from the epicentre of it all. And slowly, but surely, news goes electronic. Not many of your colleagues have the face or the confidence to be in front of a camera. You have both, so it's time to shine.
Once you've got the basics right, it's time to formulate a lasting ideology. How do you read the landscape? Well, the Babri Masjid has come down, so you certainly know which party you do NOT like. So that's the BJP out of the way. Your journalistic instincts are sufficiently honed to warn you about the Janata Dal - it's a ragtag aggregation of questionable characters, never meant to last. As for the regional parties, well, you find yourself pondering over the promises offered by Mamta Banerjee, Karunanidhi, Jayaalalithaa, Laloo Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Bal Thackarey, Deve Gowda, Sharad Pawar, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, Shibu Soren et al (some of these currently belong to the JD). This is a pantheon that inspires despair.
That leaves the Left - whom you're willing to romance from the sidelines, thanks to your Left-leaning alma mater - and the Congress. Yes, the Congress. Finally, here's a party that has survived and will continue to survive. Besides, the dynamic duo of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh are ushering in sweeping reforms. The tide is changing. Businesses are ready with a palette of bright colours. India is getting a makeover. All's well.
In a manner of speaking. Because, frankly, if the debate is reduced to "Secularism versus Capitalism," then there must be only one clear winner. As a journalist, you decide that you must try and understand the rhetoric and pragmatism offered by this "sole national, secular party." In order to believe in this phrase, you blank out the pogram conducted against the Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. You were too young then and that Sikhening thing happened ages ago. No point holding on to old grudges. You'll still fire salvos at the Congress - after all you're young and idealistic - but you see it as a mild favourite.
So you go easy on Bofors and play up the Srikrishna Commission report. No harm done. You have the best interests of the nation in mind.
And so it begins. A tilt. A wee bit of tilt. Is there a quid pro quo involved? Not at all. Just a thumping tricolour inside your chest, goading you to do the right thing.

If you've been a journalist for even one day - if you have ever filed a single story - you will know what it takes to bury your own emotions and file a factual report of events. Quite often, it's like arbitrating against your firstborn, in favour of the neighbour's scamp. You must confront yourself, steel your mind, and speak the truth. Well, let's not go as far as the truth. You must at least tell the world what seems to have happened. But these are testing times. The world and India are changing. The country deserves better than the truth. So you must make up your own mind (and the news) as you go along. You are, after all, the barometer of the 90s and the new millennia. Let's keep this in mind and continue our theory.

Midway into the 90s, the worst case scenario comes true. The Congress is vanquished in the polls. The JD assumes power. Over the next three years, 4 JD Prime Ministers attempt to hold the steering wheel. Needless to say, each of them give India a bumpy ride and crash into the shoulder.
Then you see the REAL worst case scenario unfolding. The BJP comes to power. The corridors of South Block lose their allure. But you're a seasoned journalist by now and you will do what it takes to sniff out news and offer it to your growing audience. Mercifully, a war comes to your rescue. The sight of a uniform gives you orgiastic pleasure, so you have a field day covering the perils and romance of a conflict. For the first time ever, your countrymen get a feel of the trenches. Thanks to you. You're now an overnight sensation. Everything you've done before pales in comparison. You realise that you've redefined the news capsule merely by highlighting the drama behind dramatic moments. You've stumbled upon the magic formula. People don't want staid news. They want an exciting commentary on current affairs. A choreographed chronicle that offers a peep behind iron curtains. Generations of newspeople will be inspired by your model. In fact, those generations are already crawling out of the woodwork. The media is growing like never before. Money is pouring in. Choices are being offered to viewers and readers.
You spend the next few years consolidating, understanding unfamiliar market forces. In between, the BJP government at the centre keeps you entertained with scams and comedy. And when Ahmedabad happens, you feel justifiably disgusted. Ahmedabad was intolerable, just as New Delhi in 1984 was. Yet, you now throw your weight firmly behind the Congress.
You're also experiencing changes in your personal life. You can now afford a couple of penthouses in prestigious Delhi pincodes. You travel business class (if not in the Prime Minister's entourage). You've made it. Moneyed pleasures are cloying. You feel a vague urge to unearth newer dimensions to success.
In this backdrop, the national elections deliver the best possible verdict. The BJP is defeated and the Congress comes back to power. It's time for over-the-top celebrations. Fellow journalists, select businesses and sundry actors of the capital are popping open the champagne. You feel compelled to join in the revelry, never mind that the nation will interpret your beaming face. What's not to celebrate? Finally, here's a party worth worshipping. It's headed by a queen who refuses the crown, has been galvanised by a prince with an alleged Midas touch and the new government will now be headed by the most trustworthy Indian (only the final part of this statement is true, you know that, but what the hell!).
From now on, you can enjoy unlimited insider scoops. You yourself are an insider. You haven't noticed it, but over the years, the anti-fascist content of your reports have decidedly become pro-Congress. Your slide in position has been glacial - an imperciptible movement in slow-motion - but those who now matter have noticed it. You no longer allow people with opposing opinions to have their say in your shows. You will be rewarded. With high civilian honours, plenty of political gossip and incessant opportunities to interview the Who's Who. Your channel will certainly air its share of Exclusive News. Again, thanks to you. By now, your idealism doesn't recognise you (it languishes in fusty memorabilia in your closet where, without your knowledge, skeletons have crept in).
What you've also conveniently forgotten is that two disparate demons were challenging India in the 90s. The fascism of the religious right was just one of them. The other, equally lethal demon, was the market fundamentalism of the financial right. That's right. Ultra-capitalism. The theory that markets will self-regulate and the government must exercise no control whatsoever over businesses. Do you know why you blocked out this development? The fact that your own financial success depended on it. Your media house relies on these businesses to thrive. Over the years, you've been part of your media house's think-tank and you've accepted that some targets are never meant to be shot at. Sure, you can aim at and bring down any political lightweight at any time. That's always fun. You can't be touched while doing so. But the businesses - they're now sacred. They must not be touched because, well, the tricolour is still thumping inside your chest. Good things are being done to India by these businesses. If they need to cut corners in the process, then you must understand. You now have the maturity to understand.
That's why, when the Congress won itself another election and alliance partners proved to be a pain in the proverbial butt, you decided that there was no harm in playing the middle fiddle. For one, you were helping the "sole national, secular party" meet a crucial objective. For another, you were helping businesses take India to the next level.
How you wish you knew your conversations were being recorded! You wouldn't have sounded like confiding a crush to a high-school friend. You'd have invented a code worthy of an espionage thriller, so that the middle fiddle sounded like the middle ground. Yes, the middle ground. The spot you were obliged to occupy as a journalist.

Journalism is a difficult profession. Of all the professional roles I've played in my life, being a journalist has been the most difficult. And the only way to hold on to your sanity - and pursue the, shall we say, truth - is to operate on the premise that every belief you hold MIGHT be wrong. The news is never about you, your convictions, your take on life. It's about facts. If you have the heart of a humanitarian and the mind of a robot, there's an outside chance that you will be a good journalist. Unfortunately, few in the Indian media currently fit the bill.


  1. beautifully passionate, Esh!
    Perhaps we do have a small breed of the real journalist...hopefully there will be some introspection?

    Besides, this is stuff for at least 20 evenings with the single malt...:-)

  2. You're right Pat. A truly Free Press is probably the second most important requirement in a democracy, the first being a functional Constitution.
    Single malts are most suited for the topic because we will soon run out of logic and must terminate our talk in incoherence :)

  3. Very interesting & different perspective. Keep pouring out more such interesting perspectives. There is no right or wrong :)

  4. It is refreshingly different article that I have read in the recent times.You have traced the growth of a 'successful' media icon aided by fortuitous circumstances and careful choice of political leanings.I particularly enjoyed though not sided with your tongue in the cheek comments and silken irony that left no open wound but did enough damage.But then is it not what everybody does to succeed, be it in politics or business? Why take on one individual when there are plethora?
    As for media ,both printed and visual,we all know they palm off a farrago of half truths and untruths as news and the gullible reader/viewer is willing to gobble them up.Accuracy these days has become the badge of slave.No one bothers about it these days sadly though.The pernicious political system that we have today ,has given legitimacy to all sorts of things that we would shudder at in the bygone days

  5. Thanks, Sanjay. I consider that high praise, coming from a former boss and a tech whiz.

    Parthasarathi, sir, thanks for your comment. Not sure if a compromise in ethics is a prerequisite to a successful career. In journalism itself, P Sainath shines as a beacon in the darkness. He infuses a sense of urgency into the problems being faced by the Indian farmer. What is arguable, though, is my claim that journalists must be purely objective. For instance, will Sainath's articles be half as good if he didn't base them on a passionate, deep-rooted ideology?
    Also, while the piece itself seems to have alluding to one particular journalist, I feel that the trend being described is generic. With minor variations, this narrative can apply to other journalists.
    Although I focused on the neta-journo relationship and kept the corporate-journo romance in the backdrop, my intent was to suggest that the latter is more damaging than the former. For the past decade or so, our media has ferried our corporates to dizzying heights. That must stop. We must not have PR material masquerading as news.
    BTW, I was pleasantly surprised by Rajdeep Sardesai's acknowledgement of the corporate-journo link. He went to the extent of accepting that it is not possible to ask corporate leaders hard-hitting questions. He also made a telling point about "his generation" versus the "seniors." He claimed, rightly I think, that as early as the 70s, senior editors had unlimited access to the highest chairs in the land. Of course, those people were not subjected to as much scrutiny as today. So the issue probably isn't whether the situation has deteriorated but whether it can change.
    Just a thought.

  6. How intensely passionate this writing is! I am just staying there probably romancing each and every extremely insightful thought one by one with awe and wonderment...keeps me going for a long time....Thankyou write soo well...