In India, a press corps searching for its morality

October 2, 2012

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.

Dipankar Gupta, another of my frustrated contacts, isn’t in the least like Justice Katju, despite also being a regulator, at the National Broadcasting Association. He’s gentle in speech, cosmopolitan in manner. A scholar of distinction, he has written or edited a string of books on Indian society, many dealing with the still vexed question of caste. Like at the Press Council, the large majority on the association’s board are from the industry, and they aren’t about to crack down hard on their colleagues and start feuds. Exhortation is all Gupta and Katju have.

Where Katju is a kind of preacher, Gupta is more of a social democrat. “Democracy should not be about gross ratings. Democracy is very difficult. You must always have people who give an example by commending its values.

“But TV is very constrained in what it can say, most of all by the big corporations. Advertising is the great constraint. TV does go hard on politicians, though the big politicians they can’t really touch unless it’s a huge scandal. But they don’t go for the corporations themselves.”

Katju and Gupta don’t have much faith that the masses will do much. Katju thinks they are drugged by the media, Gupta that they have no real way of expressing their voice nor any consciousness of what that would be (neither give much space in their reflections to social media – now growing fast). He looks to the elite to take the lead – an elite that crucially includes the news media. His next book will be about the character of the elite, an institution that, he believes, has largely given up on espousing and promoting the values of democracy.

“It’s a paradox”, says Gupta, “that we, in a democracy for nearly seven decades, should have done so little for the poor, who are the large majority. The middle class in Europe had a project: to relieve poverty through what became the welfare state, so that poverty is very small and at least in our terms, almost everyone is middle class. The middle class in India has no such project.”

It would be wrong to suppose that there are no idealists among India’s thousands of journalists. Not all are blind or indifferent just because they benefit from the boom. Tired of making the complex simplistic for her editor, one young woman who didn’t want to be named told me she was leaving her secure and well-paid job to work for an NGO in the rural villages (where most Indians live).

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, the investigative journalist and the third of the frustrated troika, believes in keeping complex things complex, or at least not making them artificially pleasant when they affect the poor. He made a documentary, Blood and Iron, on the iron-ore mines of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. When I was in Delhi, he asked me along to a conference he was running on “Crony Journalism” which, as its name suggests, was not designed as a self-congratulatory event.

The conference panel told tales of political parties bidding against each other to buy pages of “advertorial” in regional papers; of large favors passing between media moguls and corporate bosses; and, again, of the domination of advertising. But T.K. Arun, the opinion page editor of the Economic Times, shoved the ball back into the politicians’ court, stating flatly that “Indian democracy is financed almost completely by corruption.”

That’s a big statement – but all the people on the panel, who included a top PR man and the head of corporate affairs for one of the biggest companies, hurried to agree. The exception was the one politician present, an important minister of state, for parliamentary affairs, Rajiv Shukla, who had been a journalist and whose wife is a TV anchor. When it came time for questions, I asked him what he thought of this sweeping dismissal of his class’s probity: “I don’t agree at all, not at all,” he said brusquely, and left it at that.

Thakurta, speaking afterwards, said he didn’t think all politicians were corrupt, “but many are and there’s a culture of it.” There is. Though the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is thought to be incorruptible, his government is widely thought to be venal – with scams including corrupt sales of mobile-phone licenses, undercover allocations of coal concessions, criminal contracts for the Delhi Commonwealth Games, and illegal mining in Karnataka – Thakurta’s theme for his film. Arun had said that there was little to be done about it, and Thakurta agreed. All you could do was keep on keeping on.

For these men, freedom of the media is badly compromised because freedom has come to mean indifference to misery and poverty, and connivance in corruption. Like many moralists, they can be blind to popular taste: Poor people anywhere often prefer fantasy to lift them from their environment, rather than representations of reality that remind them of it. But they would respond that media must have a higher calling: to put on the record the true state of society. The moralists see in the grossness of the disparities between the few and the many a standing affront – on the part of the government and the corporate elite and the media – to democracy itself. That’s not mad.

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