Dialogue  October - December 2005 , Volume 7  No. 2

Opportunities for Indian media

Swapan Dasgupta

If there is one profession where the generation gap is starkly evident, it is journalism. Most of the media veterans are vocal in insisting that the profession has suffered an ethical and qualitative nosedive. In particular, they point to the growing commercialisation of the media to argue that the dissemination of information today resembles the marketing of soap and toothpaste. At the same time, the younger entrants into the media express a profound degree of satisfaction with the fiercely competitive profession. Salaries and perquisites having risen exponentially in the past 15 years and public recognition at an all-time high, there is a feeling that the Indian media has truly come of age.  
    Despite sharing some of the misgivings of the veterans, my own belief is that the optimism of the younger generation is not unwarranted. Yet, this gung-ho faith in a better future needs a few caveats.
    To understand how the media and journalism has changed, particularly since the process of liberalisation began in 1991, it is important to shed a few myths. First, the belief that journalism was more than a mere profession, and that it was actually a noble calling, is not entirely true. It is a cruel but undeniable fact that till the early-1990s the bulk of those who entered the media did it as an after-thought. True, there were a few exceptions but they happened to be highly educated individuals blessed with a private income. The pathetically low salaries offered by newspapers—the situation was particularly grim in the provinces—ensured that those who had meaningful alternatives kept away from a life of unsocial hours and poor pay. Today, the media is a voluntary option of young people who want to make a success of their lives. While salaries may not have touched the dizzying heights of the financial sector and IT, journalism today does offer a far better future than was earlier the case. Consequently, the quality of entrants into the profession is far higher today than ever before. Indeed, the real problem is that demand far exceeds quality supply.
    Second, the universe of the Indian media has increased dramatically with the deregulation of TV. The explosion of cable TV and the mushrooming of news channels have increased the reach of the media from the educated middle classes to all sections of society. It needed a basic degree of literacy to imbibe newspapers; there is absolutely no education barrier to accessing TV. In short, the obligations of the media have become vastly different. Whereas editors of an earlier era targeted the opinion makers alone, today’s TV journalists have their eye on a larger social constituency. This, quite naturally, has a bearing on the selection of news and its packaging. The experience of post-War Europe shows that tabloid journalism is a natural concomitant of an expanded market. This is precisely what has happened in the Indian media.
    Third, the newspapers of an earlier era were disproportionately dependant on the Government of the day. Beginning with newsprint quotas and stretching to Government advertisements, no newspaper could seriously be expected to take positions that were sharply at variance with the official line. This explains why genuine dissent became the prerogative of daring individuals such as Ramnath Goenka. Most newspaper proprietors preferred to play safe. This was equally true of journalists whose futures were linked to government-dictated pay packets and lollipops in the form of subsidised housing.
    Today’s media economics work very differently. The end of the shortage economy has meant an explosion in consumer choice and consumer spending. This in turn has triggered huge increases in the advertising budgets of the private sector. Government patronage is no longer the key to survival either for the proprietor or for the journalist. The result is that priorities have changed and the very definition of what constitutes news has altered beyond recognition.
    Fourth, the technology and communications revolution has resulted in an information overload. Significantly, this overload is international in character courtesy international TV channels and the worldwide web. Instant news provided by TV has, for example, changed the contours of newspaper reporting. Since readers are no longer content to read a re-hash of what they have seen the evening before on TV, the very nature of print journalism has had to change. In seeking to offer something fresh, newspaper editors have perforce become more targeted in their approach. They have to either create newer and newer angles or hone in on areas that are not prone to visualisation. The process is evolutionary and leads to major distortions. The trivialisation process that many serious readers complain of is a natural consequence of this elusive search for originality. To some extent, the distortions could have been minimised if the media managers had spent more on news gathering. However, in India, the budgets for news gathering remain pitifully small, although sheer competition is forcing a rethink.
    Finally, despite its evolution into a full-fledged industry, including listings on the stock markets, the Indian media remains deeply regulated by international standards. The modification of a Cabinet resolution of 1955 banning foreign direct investment in the media has led to some influx of capital. However, this has mainly been in the entertainment sector, as the success of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Star Plus shows. In the news media, the 26 per cent FDI ceiling has meant that Indian professionals have not yet succeeded in making the world grade.
    India has the potential to become the new media hub of Asia. Its democratic culture constitutes an appropriate environment for creativity and freedom. Objectively, India is much better placed than Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai—places that are at present jostling to get larger shares of the media pie. The 26 per cent barrier constitutes a needless investment barrier, as does the inexplicable government ban on private sector news broadcasting over radio. The obstacles remain in place because there is a section of the media proprietors who are fearful of full-scale international competition. They mask their threat perceptions with invocations to swadeshi and nationalism. Yet their own commitment to Indian values and the very Indian sense of restrain is non-existent. The fear of cultural pollution from foreign players is highly exaggerated since the contamination process has been nurtured by Indian-run enterprises.
    I believe that India has the necessary critical mass of talented media professionals who can make a global mark and catapult the domestic media industry to the levels seen by the IT industry. Yet, IT has been the gainer because it never suffered the effects of intrusive government intervention. If the media is unshackled in India, it has the ability to become a global player of consequence. For India, that will be good news.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati