Weekend Panorama: The Rotten State of Indiaâ€™s Media - India Real Time - WSJ Weekend Panorama: The Rotten State of Indiaâ€™s Media Early in November, before more interesting controversies distracted them, Indian journalists were up in arms over a statement by the chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju. The PCI chairman had the audacity to articulate his perspective on the state of Indiaâ€™s news media, holding that he had a â€œpoor opinionâ€ of it and expressing his assessment that â€œa majority of the media people are of very poor intellectual level,â€ with no â€œidea of economic theory or political science, philosophy or literature.â€ The Indian press, he argued, â€œwas not working for the interest of the people.â€ The outrage that followed was largely limited to the journalistic community. For most consumers of news in India, in print or on television, and for dispassionate observers, Mr. Katjuâ€™s assessment was an articulation of the most obvious reality. In fact, the PCI chairman did not need to set the bar as high as an evolved intellect and an acute understanding of economics, sciences and liberal arts for Indiaâ€™s news journalism to fail to clear the hurdle. Most newspapers and television channels struggle to meet the very rudimentary requirement of reporting news with the analytical depth that a subject deserves, without bias or deliberate distortions. What is broken about the news media in India is self evident on the front pages of the dailies in the mornings and on the nightly news on television in the evenings. Fragments of news, a significant portion lazily strung together from press agency clippings, are what a careful newspaper reader can sift out between a series of full-page advertisements peddling products, and images of women (usually of non-Indian origin) in different states of undress (in their defense, savvy editors must be acutely aware now that many of their readers prefer to get their titillation from their English-language newspapers than from other sources.) If there is any original reporting at all, it is always a bit unclear if a government agency or a private company has sponsored the report, or whether it is just another unpaid favor that has been granted by the editor. Frighteningly, the situation is even worse on television channels. Most news channels just do not do reporting anymore. What counts for reporting is usually a small snippet of a roving â€˜journalistâ€™ talking to a few randomly chosen individuals on the streets of Delhi and Mumbai for their take on the big controversy of the day. This then segues to what has become the preferred format of all channels: a panel of six to eight â€˜expertsâ€™, usually spokesmen of major political parties mixed with out-of-work politicians, newspaper and magazine editors, and the dayâ€™s representation from the roving celebrity class of lobbyist-PR agent-commentators (whose reason to be on the panel is never quite clear), ranting at each other while struggling to have their screeching voices heard above the incessant screaming of the anchor. All this while the viewer struggles to keep up with the multiple, disjointed layers of scrolling headlines perennially sliding on the screen below the screamers. So, it is broken in some very obvious ways. That news has become entertainment is part of the story. In itself, this need not be a crime. If journalists report and package news in a compelling manner that grabs an audienceâ€™s attention, that is no bad thing. That the news coverage from mainstream media is obsessively focused on just politics, Bollywood and cricket is also only part of the problem. To the extent that this is a genuine reflection of the audienceâ€™s preferences, there is a case to be made for the focus on these three areas. But it is harder to defend the plethora of stories that have blatant errors and distortions, sometimes even on the main features and headlines of the day. News in India is also broken in ways that are not immediately apparent. For a start, there is just not enough investment made to explore a story fully. Very rarely do you see newspapers and television channels bring reporting and analytical depth to a story, unraveling the many plausible layers behind what is well known and well documented. The fascinating story of a country with the diversity of India, which is seeing important transitions across its political, economic and social fronts, should be an exciting canvas to paint stories of multiple hues and colors. And yet, more often than not, the point of the news seems to be to reduce this extraordinary diversity to the most banal, or to a contest between extremes that can only be resolved through a shouting match on live television. Equally troubling is the consistent presence of a single, dominant narrative in the mainstream media on almost any issue of importance. This is especially true on any subject that can be even remotely categorized under the broad umbrella of national security. From militancy in Kashmir to the Naxal insurgency in central and eastern India, from relations with Pakistan to the troubled Northeast, there is rarely a dissenting narrative to be found. Almost all the daily reporting tacitly accepts the governmentâ€™s perspective. There is never any real effort to discover whether there are competing truths, whether there are stories that will cause Indians to examine these subjects with less certainty than what their government has been telling them to believe. The dominance of a single narrative extends to other issues too. Anna Hazare is either leading a national revolution at one moment or leading a bunch of crooks the next. Tata Motors is building a revolutionary cheap car for the masses that should make every citizen proud, or Singur is a fight for the future of economic reforms. (A well researched Purdue University analysis showed how over a period of 18 months, the media accepted and amplified a narrative of the Tata Nanoâ€™s launch that was remarkably in sync with the companyâ€™s own communication.) The list goes on. Above all, though, the objectivity of the Indian news media is now in question. The audio recordings of PR agent Niira Radia revealed last year showed a cozy relationship between the journalists and the subjects they are supposed to cover objectively. A television anchor was heard playing the role of an intermediary in negotiations between the UPA allies during the formation of the central government in 2009. Newspaper columnists were taking advice from PR agents on what to write in their columns. What the tapes revealed was a press that was fiercely independent on the surface, but looked like it really wanted to be influenced by the highest bidder. And, therefore, for every story that is covered, there always seems to be five other stories that are deliberately ignored. In many ways, the crisis of the media in India reflects the broader crisis and angst that the news media is going through around the world, especially in the West. But the drivers could not be more different. The turbulence in the West is driven by a dramatically shrinking readership amongst newspapers and magazines. Mainstream news organizations in the West are threatened too by a new breed of media outlets that is ideologically extreme and filters every domestic and global event using the narrow lens of the fight between the left and the right. Remarkably, neither is an issue in India. Almost alone in the world, Indiaâ€™s print, magazine and television news businesses are growing rapidly, in circulation as well as in advertising revenues, often in double digits. Between 2003 and 2009, as print circulation declined in most major countries, India added more than 25 million new readers. Advertising and circulation together is expected to grow at more than 10% annually for the next few years. Neither is ideological radicalization an issue in the Indian press. In fact, reflecting the rest of the polity, the domestic news media rarely possesses even a clear philosophy on economic development, politics or international relations. Of course, none of this should take credit away from the journalists and reporters in India who still continue to do the old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, toiling to get the facts and the stories right. And, in the midst of all the gloom, the magazine sector has seen much innovation as well as the occasional willingness to counter the mainstream narrative and to invest in digging out the real stories behind the screaming headlines. But more often than not, their work highlights what is starkly missing in newspapers and television channels (and unfortunately, their circulation dwarfs the readership and viewership of these newspapers and channels). So, how did we get here? For a start, the crisis in Indian media does lend credence to the emerging wisdom around the world that objective and independent journalism can only thrive in a non-profit environment, perhaps with the benevolent support of wealthy trusts and individuals. Most major newspapers and television channels in the country are owned by for-profit corporations that understandably have an emphasis on the bottom-line. These organizations invariably have other business interests and relationships that may make objective journalism within their newspapers and channels difficult and inconvenient. Many media outlets are disproportionately reliant on their advertisers â€“ a recent analyst report estimated that nearly 75% of print revenue in India comes from advertising â€“ thus, the temptation always exists to pander to them, especially when these advertisers are the subjects of the reporting. The temptation must also exist to punish those advertisers who choose competing outlets. This drift towards seeking easy ways to pander to audiences and advertisers is exacerbated by the culture of incestuous self-serving relationships. Enthralled by the prospect of not being subject anymore to the long speeches of the Information and Broadcasting ministers masquerading as news on Doordarshan, we made celebrities out of the new television anchors on private channels before they had even become genuine reporters. Many of these celebrities became a coveted part of the incestuous social circles of Delhi and Mumbai that brought the decision makers of the polity together, much before they had learned how to draw the lines adequately between their personal lives and their professional responsibilities. Many editors have overt and covert relationships with political parties and business leaders. These relationships, and the outcomes that they reveal on newspapers and magazines and television channels, highlight why outstanding journalists around the world have always believed in keeping a safe distance from the polity; in knowing when the party stops, and when the honest work begins. Underlining the troubled situation is the absence of any kind of meaningful regulation. When the PCI chairman raised the issue of bringing electronic media under the Press Council as well, and giving â€œmore teethâ€ to the council to call out errant behavior, in a way, for example, that the Bar Council currently does for lawyers, he was met with vicious opposition from editors who cited the need for absolute press freedom to play their special role as the societyâ€™s watchdog. So, is there a path to renewal for journalism in India? Absolutely, and the answer partly lies in the staunch defense the editors made for the freedoms they have become used to. They are right that regulation is a slippery slope. While the temptation to regulate is high, the role of the press is a unique one in democracies and the freedom of the press â€“ even a flawed news media â€“ is absolutely essential to making sure that it stands a chance of playing the role of the custodian that it was always meant to. One of the best chances for renewal lies not in limiting the freedom of the press but in expanding it, and particularly in rolling back the limits that are currently put on it through the structure of the anti-defamation laws in the country. There is no doubt that the threat of a libel suit â€” whether from a politician or a business leader â€” carries much weight in the coverage choices made by journalists and editors. India also hasnâ€™t seen the proliferation of online sites like in the West that scrutinize the coverage of mainstream media and hold journalists accountable for their reporting. The other response to the proliferation of mediocre journalism has to be more competition. Competition to the entrenched, for-profit, domestic media should come from two sources: foreign news organizations and a new non-profit public broadcaster. Foreign news organizations have been locked out of the domestic news market. Limits exist on foreign ownership in local television channels, while foreign print organizations cannot tailor editions for a local audience. No rational argument exists any more for these controls. In a resurgent India where domestic firms have fiercely competed with foreign companies in markets at home and abroad, the only reason for these controls now is the protection of domestic media firms. And, it is time to break the status quo on this. There is no guarantee that foreign news organizations will practice a more elevated form of journalism (the outrageous behavior of the tabloids in the U.K. is still recent memory.) But there is at least a chance that a fresh infusion of talent and methods from established news organizations, facing shrinking revenues in their own domestic markets, will shake up Indiaâ€™s cozy, incestuous media circle. Perhaps these imports could also teach some of our celebrity anchors and editors the rudimentary lessons in reporting and objective journalism that they seem to have skipped on their way to stardom. The game changer, though, would be the establishment of a new, non-profit public broadcaster with the mandate to pursue serious journalism without the distraction of an agenda set by advertisers and business partners. While the restructured Prasar Bharti could well have evolved to play that role, there is no evidence that it is sufficiently independent from the governmentâ€™s influence to get there. Around the world, public broadcasting has always been a bulwark against the race to the bottom in journalistic standards. Whether the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, or the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the United Kingdom, these public broadcasters have played a valuable role in pursuing stories with an objectivity and integrity that sometimes have eluded the more mainstream news organizations. PBS, in fact, was explicitly created in 1970 to counter what was then seen as the dominance of three network television corporations in controlling news and entertainment in the U.S. All three organizations have done a stellar job of grooming reporters who have gone on to play leadership roles in private news corporations. While their revenue models differ, a substantial portion of their financing comes from public donations, grants and contributions from local affiliates (in the case of PBS and NPR), and a national television license fee in the case of BBC. In other words, they are free to pursue independent journalism measured against standards set by independent leaders, none of who are reliant on advertisers or the government for their careers. No pillar is more important in a democracy than the fourth estate. And no institution is weaker in India presently than its news media. There is a path to renewal, and it is one that involves more competition and more freedom of expression. Ajit Mohan is based in New Delhi and writes the Weekend Panorama column for India Real Time every two weeks.