Thursday, 21 February 2013

Changing Face of the Indian Press

A study of Indian history from 16th to 20th centuries will indicate that the transition from feudalism to modern society has been slow and incomplete despite the occasional turbulence, turmoil, wars, social reforms, and intellectual ferment.  It was during the mid-19th century (First War of Independence) and the 20th century freedom movement that the Indian newspapers played a powerful and prominent role in questioning the forces of authority, social prejudices and the suppression of personal liberty.  During the late 19th and early 20th century, attempts to propagate the ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity, and freedom were made by political and social leaders. The journals started by them played a historical role in questioning old ideas and practices like casteism, communalism, superstitions, educational backwardness and women’s oppression. Modern rational and scientific ideas, secularism, tolerance, and economic empowerment of the people were propagated in the writings of national leaders. The newspapers, particularly, served in conscientizing literate and educated people about the need for social reforms and political independence. Until 1950, the newspapers no doubt, served in inspiring people of the country towards a change in their thinking about social transformation, economic empowerment and the establishment of a strong foundation for democracy.  But in recent decades, a decline in the functioning of the press/media has set in. This paper attempts to present a glimpse of events through which the all types of media have passed. Reference is also made to the recent technological changes in our media world and the serious ethical questions they have raised about media’s performance.  
Authentic and available sources describe the birth of Indian journalism in 1780 with Hicky’s Gazette (James August Hicky) which was largely aimed at criticizing the officials of the British government’s East India Company.  (Malhotra: 2008). The history of Indian journalism is about 231 years of struggle for existence, propagation of free speech and ideas of people, and evolving democratic values of the nation. Media practitioners and historians view the growth of Indian journalism in a number of ways. Some feel the history of pre-independence journalism was based on the people’s struggle for freedom and socio-political development in the country. Others feel that the journalism of those days was not value-based with any ideology and that more than political freedom or nation building or informing and educating people, the press was aimed to perpetuate the British system of political rule and governance. 

From the period of British India to the present free, liberalized and globalised India on the path of privatization, print and electronic journalism has passed through many phases of ups and downs, which have not yet ended. The most prominent change is that journalism once regarded as a mission has now changed into a business or trade, a vocation like any other where commercialization has crept in. Journalists are no longer fighters for the rights of people; they are just mercenary writers, most of them canvassers for their employers. 

The stature of the ‘fourth estate’ (press/media) is now transformed into a trade with its own hierarchies and remuneration-based value systems; social commitment of the past is no longer an asset for a journalist or media professional. In the current situation, the press or the media in general are operated by businessmen for business goals, occasionally pleading for justice for the poor, but most of them ignoring the immense problems faced by the majority of the population. Are the media already on the path to become huge conglomerates all repeating the same types of news and creating a false reality?  Does the motive of making huge profits through advertising, ‘paid news’ and ‘private treaties’ dominating the media world today? Have we, as a nation, lost our social concern and ethical values? Why is there so much talk about corruption among the people in private conversation but not in the columns of the newspapers or in the broadcast and telecast media? Have the media become business establishments with commercial dealings with both the government and private houses, not necessarily confined to this country, but ready to do business with similar institutions in any part of the globe?  Is it the result of globalization?  Do the media have special responsibilities to their own nation?  How do the media behave in chain ownership, cross-media ownership, or any other type of ownership?  What will be the result of that behaviour on the contents of the media products?  Are the newspapers, radio, television, etc. to be treated as products generating huge profits for the investors who have an axe to grind? Are they justified in following practices  particularly suitable to amass wealth in the hands of entrepreneurs who consider the media as a tool for enhancing their private and personal fiefdom and profit motives, rather than utilizing the columns and the visuals for helping government and non-government agencies in solving the burning problems facing the nation—economic  backwardness of the majority, poverty, illiteracy and ill-health of almost 80 per cent of our 120 crores of people, illiteracy of almost half of our population, atrocities against the poor, socially weak and marginalized people, especially in the rural areas and discriminations and violations of human rights, including gender injustices?

Rapid developments in technology in the last two decades have gradually transformed the media scenario and the image of journalism and journalists. The old days are gone for good---when journalists used pencils, notebooks and shorthand! But the scribes of old had plenty of concern for the poor.  
Quite often, today’s media people are using the electronic equipment in news gathering, recording, transmission and compilation of information—and that is a commendable and worthy practice. But there are ethical questions about the use of hidden cameras and pocket tape-recorders and surreptitious recording of events and personalities in such a manner that they are presented in a manner predesigned by the media worker in order to trap the interviewee or  present the event to enhance the monetary gains of the unconscionable reporters, editors, publishers or proprietors. 

The Changing Scenario
Development in technology combined with growth in the number of newspaper readers resulting from the rising trend in literacy have led to the unprecedented growth in the number of newspapers and magazines and in their circulations. During 2011, seven out of the top ten English newspapers registered a growth in readership; five out of the top ten Hindi newspapers have shown a steady increase during the same period. Both Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar continue to lead the Hindi dailies with an all India readership of 164.58 lakhs and 148.79 lakhs, respectively (RNI 2011). Even daily circulation of some other Indian language newspapers is enviable when compared to newspaper growth globally. While circulation and readership increased, print advertisement has not lagged behind. Earlier, the English newspapers had almost 85 per cent of the advertisement revenue. Today, the figures have changed; the Indian language newspapers have started approaching towards an equal share of advertisement revenue with their English counterparts.
Readers are now having options of wide variety to choose publications of their choice because of information available in the Internet. All the technological developments are not fully understood and there are still misconceptions among advertisers. (Singhvi: 2006) Advertisers in India are still looking at quantity rather than quality readership. Newspaper producers have taken the line that they can virtually give their ‘product’ free of charge or at nominal price, a small fraction of the actual cost. But once you have the big numbers, lots of advertising will come to you because the advertisers naturally gravitate towards big numbers. But is serving the advertisers the main goal of journalism?

In a world of increasing globalization, the media have great potential.  They can reach important information to their users, even in remote corners of the globe where it was really difficult to reach in the past. One of the most creditable achievements of the Indian press during the 1980s and 1990s was the spectacular growth in the regional press.   Many factors contributed to this growth, the most important of which was the political alliance among regional parties in the formation of governments at the central and state levels. The trends set-up by Eenadu in Andhra Pradesh, Malayala Monorama in Kerala were highly remarkable. Among other factors the rise of literacy, better transportation, aggressive marketing strategies and increasing awareness among the masses about participation in political process contributed a lot in the changing scenario of print media in the country. The creation of the Panchyati Raj system at grassroots level has propagated the views of common people in creation of more stabilized democratic governance through free flow of information in regional and local press. Now over two-thirds of the regional press readers belong to small towns and rural areas.   

The innovation and changes in technology are re-defining the survival, growth and development of the Indian print media. Present day newspaper readers are not satisfied with the traditional way of news presentation, editorial inputs but something extra insight into what others have not reported. Pandey says that when she took over the editorship of the Delhi edition of Hindustan (a Hindi daily) it had a circulation of some 64,000 copies but just after two years the circulation grew to 4,25,000 copies. The reason for this increase was that ‘even earlier the paper had readers, but we could not reach them,’ says Pandey. ‘It is the same paper, the same printing press and the same staff even today. All that we have done is to pay more attention to the way in which news is coming in and the way in which it is collected. We take the opinion of the people and have discussions with them.’ (Pandey: 2006)

While technology increased the economic prosperity of the Indian press, there has been a perceptible and pernicious decline in standards. Sensationalism, trivialization and titillation are becoming the order of the day. Investigative journalism as sting operation has opened a new chapter which made the press to acquire a more powerful position and helped it to enhance the image of the press as a watchdog of the society. Unfortunately, investigative journalism has often been misused to settle personal scores or to tarnish the image or blackmail individuals. This aspect of the modern highly technologized press deserves a careful scrutiny for taking appropriate remedial measures.      
The time has come to examine and evaluate the ethical aspects of our current media performance and personnel.  How to challenge and shape the print media in the growing technologically competitive and globalized environment giving the utmost  importance to the values of Indian society, tradition, culture and human rights and economic development issues. The press in India has always been at the forefront of national progress. The media institutions and  professionals/journalists must be very sensitive to the country’s multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and socio-religious and plural status. They should always do such act in such a way that shapes and maintains equilibrium and tranquillity in society. Editors and owners of the media industry must pay attention to proper self-regulation that would ensure accountability, and lessen its dependence on advertising and marketing strategies, and the increasing commoditization of news. Newspaper owners and broadcast media managers must recognize that news is not a product. They must ensure that increase in readership or viewership is not attained at the cost of credibility. The undesirable and unethical practice of ‘paid news’ and ‘private treaties’ must end unconditionally. Journalists must have the right to express what they believe to be true, just and fair; this is not a right that should be compromised by profit-motives or commercial interests of an individual or organization. For this to happen, media workers have to assert their own economic independence, affinity for truth and above all their self-esteem.       
S.N. Pattnaik is Editor (News), News Services Division, All India Radio, New Delhi-110 001. E-mail: