I was in India last week, where I met three frustrated moralists. One was a journalist, an investigator of some distinction (which, to be fair, can be frustrating anywhere). The other two were regulators of the press and broadcasting, respectively. They have little power and thus little influence over what they see as a scandal: the way the media ignore the "real" India – impoverished, suffering, socially divided – in favor of a glossy India that’s little more than the three “C's” – cinema, celebrity and cricket.
Justice Markandey Katju is one of these frustrated regulators. Katju, a former judge of India’s Supreme Court, is chairman of the Press Council of India, which – very loosely – oversees the press. When I told smart Indian journalists that I would see him, they were amused, and many told me he was “mad”. Justice Katju does thunder, but he’s not crazy: He’s an outspoken moralist, and his thundering says something not just about Indian media but also about India.
Calling Katju "outspoken" would fall too short. He hectors and lectures. In fact, Katju does speak with something of the fervor of the Indian governing class of the pre- and post-independence period, when ideals were at least as important as details and mechanisms. “There was a fashion show recently in Mumbai,” he said, “where there were 512 journalists. 512! The models were wearing clothes made of cotton grown by farmers who are committing suicides in their thousands every year! And is that reported? Maybe one reporter will be sent sometimes.
“The content of Indian journalism is an insult to the poor. Seventy percent of the country who live on $2 a day or less are invisible. The media show the rich and famous. The corporations and the finance houses control the politicians.”
Katju’s tirade isn’t very nuanced. The fashion shows and other beautiful-people events, which now abound, are eagerly covered but often give the proceeds to the poor; while there is one famed reporter, Palagummi Sainath, who writes often in his paper, the Hindu, about rural poverty and has put rural suicides into the consciousness of many. Still, it’s small potatoes.