Dialogue  October - December 2005 , Volume 7  No. 2

The Indian Media and National Problems

D. N. Bezboruah

The Indian media has been unduly obsessed with what it chooses to regard as major problems of survival, when, in fact, many of these problems are imaginary. However, casual generalizations are always risky, and it will therefore be my endeavour to restrict myself to the print media alone for two reasons. One is that despite my long association with the radio as a medium since 1956, my familiarity with television is too limited for me to hazard any worthwhile observations about the electronic media as a whole. However, my close association with the print media for over two decades has helped me to arrive at certain perceptions that may not be widely shared. The other reason for confining myself to the print media is that it is the print media that seems to be unduly paranoid about its future with the emergence and popularity of television. This is a problem of it is own making like others that I also propose to dwell on.  
    Those who are needlessly panicky about the future of the print media in India would do well to look at the progress that Indian newspapers have charted since the advent of colour television in the country. Colour television came to India in a big way with the Delhi Asian Games of 1982. Contrary to expectations, it is since the advent of colour television that the number and circulation of periodicals have really gone through the roof. Anyone can get hold of the latest statistics, but the trends should suffice for our present needs. In the year 1939-40, the number of publications registered with the then Indian and Eastern Newspaper Society (IENS) was just 14. This number increased to 132 in 1969-70 and then to 356 in 1963-64. But by 1987-88 it went up to 477, and today it is over 700 publications. There are many more publications not registered with the INS even today. What is indeed significant is that it was after the advent of colour television that the growth curve took a steep upward climb. Of the 693 periodicals registered with the present Indian Newspaper Society (INS) in the year 2000-2001, 398 were dailies, 106 weeklies, 41 fortnightlies, 129 monthlies and 19 others. While Hindi periodicals accounted for 211 and English for 179, the number of publications in other Indian languages also registered a significant increase. In 2000-2001 there were about 55 Marathi publications, 30 in Gujarati, 29 in Malayalam, 28 in Bengali, 27 in Urdu, 16 in Assamese and 13 in Oriya. Compared to the figures of 1969-70, these increases are remarkable for languages like Assamese and Oriya.
    If the growth in the number of publications has been sensational in the years after the advent of colour television, the increase in circulation of periodicals has been even more so. By 2000-2001, the total circulation of the 693 periodicals registered with the INS was 50,735,721. Today, this figure has crossed 56 million. In a country like India, this figure has to be multiplied by 5.5 to arrive at the impressive total readership of around 308 million. There is something else that one needs to take note of. This is the fact that in 1982 there was not a single daily newspaper in the country with a circulation of over a million. Perhaps the only periodical with a circulation exceeding one million was the weekly magazine of Malayala Manorama with a circulation of nearly 1.3 million. Today there are at least three daily newspapers (probably more) with a circulation exceeding a million. And there at least two newspapers (The Hindu and Ananda Bazar Patrika) that are nudging the million mark if they have not already crossed it.
    Those who have looked at this scenario of unprecedented growth of newspapers and other periodicals in our country a little more closely, cannot help wondering why publishers of newspapers and other periodicals need to worry about their future. The proof of the pudding is already in the eating. If anything, there is every reason to expect that this trend will continue – despite the fact that many observers talk about newspaper circulation figures having reached a plateau. For many of us the plateau is nowhere in sight, though we have noticed that many smaller newspapers with lower circulations are not doing so well because advertisements are drying up while the cost of production is increasing. This is an issue that needs to be examined a little more closely in the interests of newspaper publishers and readers alike. But the point that needs to be made is that this phenomenal increase in newspapers and newspaper readership is nothing to be surprised at. After all, India has been increasing its population at the rate of over 21 million a year. In other words, the nation has been adding more than one Australia to its population every year. Out of this number, at least 65 per cent is going to be literate some day. This means an increase in the literate population of the country by 13.65 million every year even if the literacy rate remains static. But there is also a steady increase in the literacy rate of the country. Hence the annual increase in the literate population of the country would be of the order of 15 million. This is what should explain how the number of newspaper buyers has increased from 22 per thousand to about 56 per thousand in a matter of 30 years or so. This is not a development to be sneezed at. And yet, even the psychological explanation for this phenomenon is so utterly simple that one cannot help wondering at the fear psychosis among newspaper publishers about the future of newspapers. It is normal for anyone acquiring a new skill to seize every opportunity of trying out the newfound skill. Literacy too is a skill. Hence, as soon as someone learns to read, there is a natural desire to test the skill. Obviously neo-literates are not likely to buy books to try out their newfound skill. They are going to start with newspapers, move on to magazines and then graduate to books.
    However, a massive increase in the literate population every year is not the only reason for the startling increase in the number of buyers of periodicals from 22 to 56 per thousand in a matter of about 30 years. The other important reason for this is that the per capita income of people in the country has also increased substantially. This may not be so readily apparent from official figures. However, everyone knows about the size of the black, parallel economy. The implication of this is that our per capita income is really much higher than it is made out to be in official statistics. As such, the fear that the growth of the electronic media will be at the cost of the print media is an unfounded fear and will remain so until we manage to control our galloping population growth rate.
    However, there are certain problems that the bigger metropolitan newspapers (mainly the English ones) have created for themselves. One is the myth that they are “national newspapers”. They are nothing of the sort. They are just metropolitan dailies with fantastic advantages of huge populations of educated readers, huge populations of wealthy consumers that manufacturers are dying to woo, a profusion of advertisements designed to rope in these consumers, a ready-made technological infrastructure and an abundance of skilled workers and journalists to keep such newspapers going. When one looks at the advertisement revenues of these metropolitan dailies, one is inclined to accept a jocular remark made some time ago about a leading English metropolitan daily. The remark was that the publishers could afford to pin a five-rupee note with each copy of the paper and still make a profit. In the beginning, I was inclined to treat this remark as an exaggeration, but today I am inclined to believe it for reasons that I shall come to by and by. But how does calling themselves “national dailies” create problems for such metropolitan dailies? In the first place, they are presuming to be what they are not. How are they “national”? In terms of size and circulation? In that case this distinction should have gone first of all to Malayala Manorama that was the largest circulated daily in India for many years until The Times of India overtook it. It was neither an English daily nor a metropolitan one. It did not call itself a national daily, and did not need to. It was far more national in character than most of the metropolitan English dailies, and carried more news about rural India that the English dailies. The metropolitan English dailies generally give the impression that they regard Delhi to be India. They think that India’s border in the East ends with Kolkata. The Northeast has begun to exist for them only recently after some of them started special editions for the region. If they are really national newspapers, why did not a single one of them try to find out the nature and level of discrimination carried out against Assam with the passage of the IM(DT) Act in Parliament? Has any of the so-called national dailies taken up the other discrimination against the north-eastern States that impels the Centre to have Draconian laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Disturbed Areas Act, when there are many other mainland States with militancy and the Naxalite menace that have not been brought under such Draconian laws. For a metropolitan daily to presume that it is a “national” daily is to pretend to assume responsibilities of looking after the entire nation – a responsibility that they are incapable of discharging. That apart, when a newspaper calls itself a national daily, it proclaims by implication that newspapers not published from metropolitan cities are less concerned about the nation as a whole or about rural India where the soul of our country is. The question that naturally arises is: are daily newspapers that are English and not published from metropolitan cities ‘unnational’ or anti-national? This is a problem of false pretences they have created for themselves.  
    The other problem that metropolitan English dailies have created for themselves and for other newspapers is to demand and eventually secure foreign direct investment (FDI) for the print media as well. After years of a wholesome decision not to permit FDI in newspapers and periodicals, there has been a volte-face by the Union Government on this vital issue. The kind of sophistry used to justify FDI for the print media was that the media was no more than a commodity, and if FDI was acceptable for the electronic media, there was no reason why it should not be permitted for the print media as well. This is the typical argument much in favour in our polity – that two wrongs make a right. This is the kind of argument that capitalizes on a bad precedent in order to extend and perpetuate it. Permitting the entry of the electronic media into India was bad enough. But then it is often difficult to keep airwaves out. However, the print media involves machinery and equipment that are not comparable to mere air or ether waves. But that is not all. The print media deals with text that is of a durable nature as compared to the ephemeral images of the electronic media. What appears in the print media can be re-read, reproduced, analysed and discussed. This does not happen quite as easily without a studio of sorts in respect of the electronic media. But that apart, once there is FDI in the print media, the foreign investor can get an Indian newspaper to print virtually anything he wants. Knowing the typical mentality of Indians kowtowing before foreigners, it stands to reason that a foreign investor would not need even 25 per cent equity to force his will on the Indian collaborator. And what about the FDI extending to Indian language newspapers and liquidating smaller regional papers in a very unequal and unethical competition? The foreign investor will be here to make money. He would have no time whatsoever to pick any bones about a bigger newspaper wiping out smaller ones. All that he would need is an Indian partner willing to do this. And there is no dearth of such ‘cooperative’ Indians.
    There is a new culture in newspaper publishing in the metropolitan world. It is the culture of having a chief editor who is also CEO of the newspaper. The advertisement, circulation and finance department heads also have to report to him. As a result, the editor has little time for editorial functions. One of the difficult tasks expected of him is that he should be able to keep advertisement revenues unaffected with his personal influence even if the circulation has come down very sharply. If he is able to achieve this difficult task, he actually cuts costs for the publishers who manage to keep the same advertisement revenue even though they have much lower print run. The rewards for such miracles are naturally very hefty, and that is precisely why one learns of astronomical salaries for editors-in-chief that have gone through the roof. Whether such arrangements make for the best kind of journalism or newspaper publishing is indeed a very debatable point.
    Finally it is what the fraternity of journalist are doing to the media that is of the greatest concern. Journalists have as yet failed to evolve a code of conduct for themselves, which means that they are indirectly asking for an agency of the government like the Press Council of India to come out with a code of conduct that they would be expected to follow. How much more dignified it would have been for journalists to come up with their own code of conduct, that they agree to follow in letter and spirit, rather than invoking such a code from the authorities. There is no gainsaying that such a code of conduct has become indispensable because of what we have done to the media and to our own calling. We have arrived at a stage where in many cases staff reporters dictate to organizations arranging press meets, what the level and style of hospitality and gifts shall be! We have also arrived at a stage when senior journalists have no qualms about not publishing news when killing a story is far more lucrative to them personally that letting the public know what it should. Naturally such conduct leads to problems of credibility and trust. But these are really problems of our own creation. And that is the real tragedy of the media in the ultimate analysis – especially in a country where we have had the tradition of seeing journalism as a mission during our freedom struggle.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati