The Free Indian Press: The Hype & The Reality

For quite some time now, a lot of Indians with misplaced jingoism and the Government of the day have been espousing the notion that, one of the major identifiers of the Indian democracy is its free & unfettered press. Let's take a closer look at this oft-trumpeted hype.

My initiation into the world of the Indian media came about through a professional association in the early stages of my career. I was based in the Indian city of Bombay (Mumbai) in those days and courtesy this association, gleaned insights into the workings of two of the biggest publishing groups based out of Mumbai.

What became clear to me in stages was totally contrary to the image I had of the media as a naive starry-eyed young man. These were feudal set-ups, run by hard-headed business houses helmed by canny owners & CEOs who possibly cared about investigative journalism and bold opinion pieces only to the extent that they helped to sell copies without, in any way, affecting their business interests or their links with whichever power group they were cosying up to at the time.

Let's get a little more specific here. The Indian Express, owned by the redoubtable Ramnath Goenka was considered a newspaper clearly slanted against the largest political party of the times, one which had been in power for most of the years since India had attained freedom, viz., the Congress(I). Yet when Mrs. Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency and her younger son Sanjay became the ominous power behind the throne, Mr. Goenka capitulated soon after a series of raids across the country affected severely his various other businesses. He decided to toe the line in more ways than one. When it was demanded, reportedly by the Gandhi family, that his editor Arun Shourie, who had published a series of investigative articles clearly aimed at exposing corruption and nepotism in high places, must go, he immediately complied by summarily sacking him. Arun Shourie, who later in life went on to join the other major political party, BJP, and became a minister in the late nineties, was removed unceremoniously and faded away without a whimper. Some years later, after Mr. Ramnath Goenka had passed away, his daughter-in-law, who took over the helm, opted for pragmatism and gave a lot of favourable coverage to the Prime Minister at that time, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi.

A fate, similar to Arun Shourie's, befell another veteran & respected editor, Girilal Jain, who had to go because of differences with the family that owned the paper. Incidentally, while being associated as an outsider in a professional capacity with this group, I brought up the issue of Jain's ouster with a close friend of the family, only to be told that recalcitrant employees needed to be shown the door without much hesitation or ado and Girilal Jain had it coming to him for a long time.

Am I then saying that while most editors are keen to practise unbiased & fearless journalism, they are hindered in this quest by their owners? Not quite. Believing that would be rather naive and simplistic for the reasons stated subsequently.

Editors of major mainline papers and magazines, like most other senior executives in corporations, are indeed employees who have landed lucrative assignments and hence must protect their turf and ensure their survival in that exalted position. CEOs do it by anticipating what the board really wants and then going hell-for-leather to make it happen. They also have to suck up to key members of the board because, like any committee, most boards are driven by one or two personalities. Since most major publishing groups in India are family owned, closely held and don't have elaborate boards, this often means being on the right side of the owner-CEO at all times and doing whatever it takes to ensure this. Can you ever visualize any of Rupert Murdoch's editors cocking a snook at him as it were and deviating significantly from the path charted out by him? Indian owners are at least as feudal, if not more so, than Murdoch and believe in the good old adage of ' my way or the highway'.

Things weren't much different when later on, I came in contact professionally again with the largest publishing group in Eastern India. Ownership was a strictly family affair, having been handed down the generations. They maintained on their rolls a stable of authors, celebrities and columnists who had already made a name for themselves, ensuring that their writings and outpourings were duly sanitized and conformed to the editorial policy of the day. In a city famous for scoring points through state sponsored vandalism and rampage, this publishing group has had to tread a careful path not to have its offices torched and its press forcibly dismantled by ruling party 'supporters' who strongly felt that their reporting regarding certain events had been consistently unfair and biased.

Then of course there are the major and regular advertisers to be taken care of. Since advertising revenues substantially contribute towards a publication's bottom lines, op-eds or letters from readers overtly critical of these establishments or their products will never quite see the light of day. It's all part of that unwritten, rigorously enforced, editorial policy.

The situation is made worse by the quality of the average journalist. Journalism has never quite been a high-profile preferred career choice in India and hence the folks who get into it do not quite have the necessary quality and more often than not do not possess the needed integrity. While grammatical and syntactical errors are easily taken care of by the array of sub-editors, slants and manipulative reporting succumbing to an array of benefits, tangible & intangible, dangled by politically powerful or wealthy persons or celebrities are commonplace. Since the average journalist is not quite a well-paid person, succumbing to inducements of various kinds can be considered a logical frailty for many of them.

I have not had any direct association with the predominant publishing houses in the North & South. The pole positions in both these regions are held by closely held, family run business houses so the situation can't quite be too different from what I have narrated earlier.

So what, I can well imagine some of you thinking. Why highlight the shortcomings of the Indian media when the situation isn't too different in many other countries where democracy has been prevalent for a long time now.

I agree with part of that assertion. One doesn't have to look much further than the mainline American media willingly subverting the truth and suspending objective investigations at the behest of the Bush administration regarding the recent invasion of Iraq. Untruths, half-truths and slanted hype put out by the administration were all dutifully carried without searching questions being asked, illustrating the frailty of the concept of a free, objective media.

There are some fundamental differences though. Let me summarize these.

  1. Closely family held & managed vs. held by a consortium and managed by a board: The latter is prevalent for many mainline publications in the U.S. & U.K. as opposed to the former situation which is widely prevalent for the leading publications in India. A board managing the organization and a reasonably diverse, powerful editorial board ensures that content and reporting are generally far more objective & balanced compared to an owner-CEO run organization aided by a high-profile editor who has his own biases but is nevertheless completely subservient to the owner-CEO.
  2. Lopsided market domination vs. a more even, competitive market situation: The latter is again more prevalent in the U.S. & U.K. which are the two countries I'm taking into consideration for the purposes of this comparison. The business house is of course not to be blamed for market domination which happened over the ages because of a variety of factors. However, market domination does beget a degree of arrogance, a sense of omnipotence and a set of powerful cronies who in turn help one to maintain that dominant position. Objectivity & impartiality are most often the resultant victims. I am tempted to narrate the story of how a major manufacturer of watches and a major advertiser in mainline dailies all across India was brought to its knees by the dominant newspaper group in Western India because of perceived slights. I will reserve that anecdote for another day, however.
  3. Average quality and integrity of the journalists: I daresay that for major mainline publications in the two countries being considered for the purposes of this comparison, the quality and integrity standards of the average journalist are significantly higher than that of the journalists employed by the dominant mainline publications in the West, East, North & South of India.
I guess that discourse should tell you a thing or two about the much-hyped free & unfettered Indian media. I rest my case.

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