The Year in the News Media

30 Dec,2011

 

By Ranjona Banerji

 

This year started with a hangover – like all New Years should. But unlike the pleasant pain that goes with the knowledge of a party that may have meant over-indulgence but was fun just the same, the media started 2011 with one of those truly mammoth unpleasant hangovers.

 

The outcome of the Radia tapes was, at best, a loss of reputation for a few well-known journalists but at worst, a loss of faith in the media as an institution. Public knowledge about the somewhat questionable dealings between journalists and publicist Niira Radia meant that the media could no longer hide in those famous ivory towers. Even more unfortunate was that the finger of suspicion was pointed at all journalists because of the transgressions of a few. It did not help matters that although Vir Sanghvi lost or surrendered his influential column Counterpoint in the Hindustan Times, Barkha Dutt did not just continue with NDTV, but went from strength to strength.

 

So it was a somewhat cautious Indian media which initially tackled the phone-hacking scandal in the UK and the closure of the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World. Here was journalistic excess in order to get a story taken to a whole other degree – criminality. The tabloid press and the British public and celebrities have historically had an interesting and confrontational relationship. But the desire to delve into every aspect of the lives of the rich and famous – without the reverence shown in our part of the world – made for big sales and bigger profits. The readers loved the sleaze and watching the powerful cringe.

 

But this scandal was something else. It was newspapers hiring investigators to pry into the private lives of ordinary citizens and using dubious methods like hacking into voicemail messages to gain information. One reporter lost his job for spying on British royals; but what was the punishment for breaking into the cell phone of a murdered teenager, deleting her messages and not only giving hope to her family that she was still alive but also materially distorting a police investigation into her disappearance?

 

As it turned out, the reprisal was fierce and final: a newspaper which was over 150 years old was shut down and the British parliament had a public questioning of the owners and editor of News of the World – Rupert Murdoch and his son James and Rebekkah Brooks.

 

The world’s media watched shocked as skeleton after skeleton popped out of the News of the World and NewsCorp cupboards. But surely there was no room for complacency here in India. After all, the problem was not just the Radia tapes; it was also the elephant in the room – paid news. Media houses – without or without the collusion of journalists – had been selling editorial space to political parties. The reader or viewer, of course, was left in the dark and assumed s/he was reading or watching real news stories.

 

In the midst of all these depressing signs that some media introspection was required, we had all the uncomfortable revelations by Wikileaks, which turned international diplomacy on its head and exposed lies about the US role in the Iraq war and the black money held by European banks. The subsequent arrest of Wikileaks editor Julian Assange in the UK, on an old sexual assault charges filed in Sweden added to the drama. Was Assange really guilty as charged or was this an international conspiracy to get him extradited to Sweden and from there to the US to punish him for publishing secret cables and other information on the internet? The jury’s still out on that one.

 

Wikileaks, though, emphasised once more how the internet was changing journalism and anyone who ignored it, did it at their own peril. Social media is playing the role of a catalyst in creating public opinion outside of the traditional media. The traditional media may not be destroyed but it will be damaged if it does not pay attention.

 

Back in India, though, we still had a couple of dramas to play out. The new chairman of the Press Council of India, retired judge Markandey Katju, decided that he didn’t want to be head of a toothless body that was limited to the print media. He proceeded to write a series of articles attacking journalists, calling them frivolous, badly educated and shallow. He listed the sort of news that should be carried and slammed the choices made. He also said that the Press Council’s ambit had to be increased to include television.

 

Katju may have been wrong and he may have been right in his opinions, but unfortunately for him, the Press Council remains toothless. And besides, instructing newspapers and TV channels on what aspects of news should and should not be carried impinges directly on the freedom of the press. No one spared Katju and so he quickly backtracked a little.

 

Then, perhaps just to prove Katju right, media coverage of the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption agitation proceeded on just those shallow, one-sided and breathless lines that the former judge had bemoaned. This protest was covered as if it was the only one the country had ever seen. Numbers were inflated or exaggerated. Those who questioned aspects of the Jan Lokpal Bill were shouted down as enemies of the people. As is inevitable, the print media could not sustain its adoration of this movement and started asking uncomfortable questions. TV however continued with its happy path of supporting this “national movement” at all costs until, slowly, a bit of reason leaked into the emotion.

 

The doubts had crept into TV studios after the standing committee submitted its version of the bill but the Anna Hazare movement remained adamant on its own stand. But it was really the indifference shown to the movement by the people of Mumbai which ended that love affair. Rather than focus their cameras on 4,000 people pretending they were 40,000, TV cameras panned empty grounds showing us how low the turnout was.

 

In journalism, as in life, there are no absolute truths. But there are facts. In 2011, the facts have shown that the people are watching the media. And there’s hardly any place to run or hide. Like we’re forcing politicians and government servants to come clean on their dealings, a little bit of spring cleaning by the media would not be amiss in 2012.

 

 

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