When you buy your daily newspaper, what is it you are looking for? For me, it is chiefly the obit notices. So I stick to The Times of India, which faithfully tells me how fast my contemporaries are disappearing, some of them, I am assured, ‘bound for their heavenly abode’, wherever that is. No other newspaper is so informative on this subject. And the Times gives me an inestimable bonus: R K Laxman’s humour. There are, of course, other benefits: news of cricket scandals, fodder scandals, the Misses World, Bal Thackeray’s latest outbursts and the ongoing extinction of his henchmen. There are still more dubious benefits, contained in the Bombay Times, with its pictures of half-naked models and Asit Chandmal’s pontifications on foreign food and wine. On top of all this, advertisements, more and more of them. Where else could I find so many entire pages devoted to the virtues of Santro, Indica, and all those grand and beautiful things that I’ll never afford to buy? Thoughts that set my mind wondering and my fingers counting: Wonder about whatever happened to the op-ed page that most respectable papers fill with thoughtful, serious pieces on contemporary national issues. How did it dissolve into inconsequential pieces lifted from foreign tabloids?
In last Tuesday’s Times, which cost me Rs 2, news and views – all those scandals – occupied 39 per cent of the paper’s 24 pages. Advertisements got 50 per cent, pictures 5 per cent, readers’ letters 1 per cent. Tuesday’s Statesman, on the other hand, gave me only 16 pages for the Rs 1.50 I paid for it. But news and views took up 60 per cent of those pages, advertisements only 21 per cent, pictures 10 per cent and readers’ letters 1 per cent. Those figures tell only half the story. The Statesman’s 60 per cent brought me 1,538 column inches of news and views; the Times’ 24 pages contained less (1,514) column inches of news and views, much of it lost in other-worldly speculation under labels like ‘The Speaking Tree’. On the other hand, the higher price I had paid for the Times bought me nearly 2,000 column inches of pictures and promotion of unaffordable luxury goods and barely covered girls. Where was my money better spent? Really, the Statesman today reminds me of the Times of better days, before it modernised its culture.
More and more editors today have turned their attention away from readers’ interest in news and views to the promotion of their publishers’ financial success. They are willingly squeezing news to enlarge the space they give to advertisements, which, after all, are what bring in the gravy. Traditional journalistic values are being firmly subordinated to market factors, not only in India, but the world over. Newspapers now care more about profits than about people. The saddest effect of the crunch on news/views is a tendency to make press coverage of them inadequate and shallow, to focus less on issues, more on personalities, to concentrate on today’s sensations but neglect follow-up. Consider only the last of these. Whatever happened to Harshad Mehta and the spell he cast on the bourses, to the suitcases Narasimha Rao received so shyly, to Bal Thackeray’s promise many years ago to close Mumbai to all union ministers unless Belgaum was ceded at once to Maharashtra?
The news squeeze has its effect on the profile of our newspapers’ reporting staff and therefore on the nature of their coverage. “What makes it impossible for certain kinds of things to be covered?” asks P Sainath. “Let us consider the beats that are in the newspapers today. If you look at the beats you find that certain beats have become virtually extinct. The labour correspondent is now virtually extinct. Find out how many newspapers have full-time agricultural correspondents...The extinction of these beats means that journalists are not interacting with very important classes of our society...And if you have not interacted with 60 per cent of your society I don’t think you can do a very good job of reporting what’s happened in your society...I found a non-financial daily had specialised correspondents for covering aspects of business. The political correspondents were being overtaken in leaps and bounds by business correspondents. Then come sports correspondents, which, in India, means largely cricket correspondents...There are also, apart from the usual beats, the emergence of fashion, design and society correspondents. There are also glamour correspondents.”
Still more insidious, worse even than official government censorship of the kind we suffered during Indira Gandhi’s odious emergency, is the sinister censorship that meddling managements impose on editors in deference to powerful advertisers, or to governments and their bureaucrats, preventing honest evaluation of both. In the words of Sadanand Menon, formerly on the Economic Times’ editorial staff, “Today, the media barons have taken over and are redefining media content in whimsical and vandalistic ways, reducing the profession to an extension of advertising. But now there is nothing the journalists or their associations can do about it.”
It is, of course, possible for publishers to argue that theirs is a business like any other; they are in the business to maximise profit and that profits come not from news of events and analysis of them, not from readers’ satisfaction, but from advertisements, and advertisers have to be kept happy. The fact is that the press is not a business like any other; it is much more. Its prime responsibility is to its readers, a responsibility to inform. It is for this reason that it enjoys the freedom protected by the Constitution. The lust for money must not be allowed to obscure this advantage. “As editors collude ever more willingly”, writes Neil Hickey in the Columbia Journalism Review, “with marketers, promotion ‘experts’ and advertisers, thus ceding a portion of their sacred editorial trust; as editors shrink from tough coverage of major advertisers lest they jeopardise ad revenue; as news holes grow smaller in column inches to cosmeticise the bottom line; as news executives cut muscle and sinew from budgets to satisfy their corporate overseers’ demands for higher profit margins each year...then the broadly felt consequence of those factors and many others, collectively, is a diminished and deracinated journalism... which, if it persists, will be a fatal erosion of the bond between journalists and the public.”
Some years ago a number of members of The Times of India’s senior editorial staff quit in protest over the management’s persistent subjection of editorial discretion to commercial considerations. After many months in the cold, the senior most among them, the Times’ former chief editor in fact, rejoined the paper. One of his first effusions on return was an article eloquently glorifying the policy of editorial subordination and a newspaper’s consecration to the goal of profit. At the foot of his article a line (inserted perhaps by a mischievous sub-editor) explained that the author had just rejoined the paper. That explained so much!
(These admirable reflections by D'Souza, previously published elsewhere, landed, rather mysteriously, at our doorstep. We reproduce them here with grateful acknowledgement)
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