Dialogue  October - December 2005 , Volume 7  No. 2

Media Sexed Up

Prakash Singh

“Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, and they are more important than them all”. This is how Edmund Burke described the Press Gallery of the House of Commons in relation to the other Estates, namely the Nobles, the Clergy and the Commoners.  
    More than two hundred years have passed since Burke made the above observations. The media continues to be very powerful – in fact, it has grown stronger over the years. Politicians, in general perception, are considered the most powerful in shaping our lives and influencing the events. However, if there is any group of people the politicians are scared of, or at least chary about, it is the journalists.  
    The media has a far more expansive reach today than ever before. According to available figures, 180 million Indians today have access to newspapers and magazines, 384 million Indians watch television and 700 million Indians listen to the radio. A total of 58,469 publications were registered with the Registrar of Newspapers in 2003-04. Significantly, the circulation is increasing and the figures are estimated to be going up by about 15% annually. This expanding reach of the media makes it all the more powerful. “We are living in a media-driven world”, as Sir Arthur C. Clarke said.  
    Unfortunately however, while the media is growing, it is not growing up. Quality-wise, there are very disturbing trends. As beautifully summarized by Shefalee Vasudev, apart from truth being the first casualty, the list of injuries include the following: 

        
˛   Subjectivity, inaccuracy, misquote
        
˛   Marketing men as editorial heads
        
˛   Sexing it up, dumbing it down, sting operations with methods and morals mixed up
        
˛   ‘Breaking news’ dozen times a day on TV and the kaisa lag raha hai (how does it feel) journalism
        
˛   Convenient fearlessness, textual politics, pseudo-secularism
        
˛   TV studios as courtrooms, SMS voting on serious human rights issues
        
˛   The PR industry as source, selling of editorial space
        
˛   Pride and prejudice of editors clashing with that of those in power
   
In the wake of globalisation, media has become part of the entertainment industry – and it is here that it seems to have lost its way. Entertainment is being treated as synonymous with sex and crime. The result is that our newspapers and magazines are full of pictures of semi-nude models, trivia on celebrities, and articles on dating, art of kissing, bedroom manners, office romance, one-night fling, etc. Some of these would put even Vatsayayan to shame. Sex surveys are published periodically more to titillate than to educate. Sickening SMS jokes are inflicted on us every day. The frivolity of the rich and powerful is highlighted on what has come to be known as Page 3. The media is projecting, and in a sense making us, “a nation of sexaholics”.
    The genuine reader has a real problem. When he buys Debonair, he knows what he is bargaining for, but when he subscribes the daily newspaper he is not looking for pornography. The so-called national dailies are however throwing soft porn at us everyday. In several families, parents are greatly worried over the sinister effects of these papers on their growing children. Some have even taken the extreme step of discontinuing such papers and opted for a less unacceptable daily. Incidents of rape are published with all the lurid details. It would be no exaggeration to say that the increase in crime against women is to be attributed in no small measure to the lascivious and prurient material being published /displayed by the print and electronic media.  
    The media’s rationale is that they are catering to public demand. Actually they are turning the traditional economic theory upside down. Instead of demand creating supply, they are supplying pornography and thereby creating demand for it. Commercial considerations are paramount. The circulation of the newspaper or the magazine must show an upward trend and the revenue must increase. It matters little to the media if, in the process, they subvert our values and distort our cultural ethos.
    Nani Palkhiwala, in one of his speeches, referred to the uninterrupted civilization of India for thousands of years even though there was no strong central authority except for brief intervals, and said that this could be possible only because the country was held together by the ideal of Dharma. The media has today abandoned the path of Dharma – it is, in fact, demeaning itself and degenerating into a highly counter-productive force. Idealism is a forgotten word. The one factor particularly responsible for this phenomenon is that the levers of control have been transferred from the editors, who used to command great respect, to the media moghuls for whom circulation and revenues are supreme considerations. As rightly observed by M.V. Kamath:  
                   
“The buzzword today is how to get rich quickly. The means 
                    are of no consequence. It is the ends that matter. In such a 
                    situation what can one possibly expect of the media? Its role 
                    is one of iconisation of the rich and the powerful as if to say 
                    that those struggling to make both ends might make those 
                    celebrities their models. India’s political culture has changed. 
                    So has the media’s culture. That culture is one of power for 
                    power’s sake and the devil take the hindmost.”
    Pritish Nandy’s indictment is even harsher :  
                   
“Media has become a product of the dimwits, by the dimwits, 
                    for the dimwits. It no longer aspires to change the world. It’s 
                    becoming insensitive and profit-driven like any other commercial 
                    activity.”
   
The media is today influenced and even led by grossly materialistic market forces. It no longer leads. In the process, it is slowly and imperceptibly hijacking the country from its time honored culture. “Food, fun and luxury appear to be the be-all and end-all of life,” as stated by Prof. I.V. Chalapati Rao.  
    Freedom of the press is cherished in all free societies. Voltaire is still remembered for his famous quote that “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it”. In India, freedom of the press is implicit in the Fundamental Right of ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression’ guaranteed under Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution. It has been settled by several judicial pronounce-ments that freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of the press. However, as observed by Fali S. Nariman, this freedom of the press is “not for the benefit of the Press as an institution but for the public good”. AH Sulzberger, President of the New York Times made the point when he said:  
               
“The crux is not the publisher’s freedom to print; it is rather the citizen’s right to know.”
   
The Government of India set up the Press Council of India to act as a watchdog over the media. But the media takes it very casually because the Press Council has not been vested with any punitive powers. There are any number of instances where the Press Council issued guidelines but these were treated with contempt by the media. Thus, a complaint was made to the Press Council against The Hindustan Times for publishing advertisements of massage parlours, which are more often than not dens of prostitution. It was pointed out that these advertisements amounted to open solicitation and attracted the mischief of Section 292 of IPC, The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 and the Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, 1956. The Press Council upheld the complaint and, in their judgment of June 28, 2005 “expressed its deep unhappiness and concern over the failure of the press to self-regulate the discharge of its responsibility towards the society” and directed the paper to “ensure that the undertaking is not violated”. Another complaint was made against The Times of India for publishing articles and photographs which were indecent, vulgar and obscene, and attracted Section 292 of IPC, The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986 and The Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, 1956. The Press Council of India “deprecated” the publication of such articles and photographs and advised the Daily to “take more care and restraint in publishing such articles/photographs in future”. Both the national dailies, however, remain unaffected by the Press Council’s advisories, and they continue dishing out soft porn day in and day out. The distinction between broadsheet journalism and tabloid journalism, which is sedulously maintained in the West, stands obliterated in India. Healthy norms are thrown to the winds. The coffers of the media must jingle. What happens to the society and its youth is of no consequence to them.  
    The Mumbai High Court, in its judgment on Writ Petition No.1232 of 2004, Pratiba Naitthani Vs. Union of India & Ors., passed the following order on December 8, 2004: 

        
(i)  Newspapers and periodicals are restrained from publishing any advertisement which amount to 
               invitation to prostitution;
       
(ii)  Newspapers and periodicals are restrained from publishing any advertisement which have sexual 
              overtones;
      
(iii)  Newspapers and periodicals are restrained from publishing any advertisement which would violate 
              Section 3 of the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986 and other provisions of 
              different Acts.
   
The order, however, continues to be flouted. Sir Harold Evans, who was voted Editor of the Century in 2002, said that, “the press owes its freedom to respect for the rule of law”. In India, however, there are sections of media for whom no rules, guidelines or laws are sacrosanct. These sections could well be compared to the mafia. “Power corrupts”, said Lord Acton long ago, and the two segments where this is most glaring in India are the political class and the media. The media has the unique privilege of unaccountability. A journalist may publish any nonsense and get away with it. As admitted by Karan Thapar, “there is inaccuracy, misrepresentation and lack of careful research” in media reporting. A Chief Secretary can be suspended, a Commissioner of Police can be arrested, but there is no punishment for an errant journalist. No wonder, even the Prime Minister expressed his anguish at “hit and run” journalism.  
    The media has sermons for all sections of society. But as deplored by Rajdeep Sardesai, “it is remarkable that those who write stirring editorials and organize high decibel debates about the need for accountability in every public institution – from the legislature to the judiciary – do little soul-searching themselves”. It is high time that the parliament empowered the Press Council of India and gave it teeth to deal with the irresponsible sections of the media. That would not be curbing the freedom of the press; it would only amount to curbing the licentious traits of the media moghuls. “Where the body of the people is so thoroughly corrupt that the laws are powerless for restraint”, as Machiavelli said, “it becomes necessary to establish some superior power to put a curb upon the excessive ambition and corruption of the powerful”. 
    The government, on its part, cannot escape the responsibility for corrupting the media. Advertisements are a powerful instrument in its hands and these are generally given to ‘friendly’ papers. Besides, allotment of accommodation, financing foreign jaunts, appointments in committees where perks are attached, and even ambassadorial assignments are some of the carrots which the government dangles before the journalists. No wonder, quite a few fall for these temptations.
    A by-product of the market influence over the media is that issues which should concern us profoundly – issues like the ongoing agrarian crisis, the rising inequality in our society, the displacement of tribals across the country, etc. - are being systematically sidelined for the simple reason that they do not make good news. Thus, as pointed out by P. Sainath, the Lakme India Fashion Week-2004 produced some 4,00,000 words in print and over 1,000 minutes in television coverage, while close to 10,000 rolls of films were exposed. But the suicide deaths of thousands of farmers and weavers in Andhra Pradesh and some other states got hardly any coverage. “The media have lost their compass and, with it their compassion. What Prof. Prabhat Patnaik, one of the foremost economists, calls ‘the moral universe’ of the media has changed a lot for the worse. All their awesome technological advances cannot hide this. Indian journals of the freedom struggle had differing perspectives, angry debates. There was richness and variety. Today, you have McMedia. It tastes the same every where.”

    This is, however, not to denigrate the media or to overlook its positive contribution. Only, the aberrations must be taken cognizance of. The media must introspect and rediscover the Dharma it upheld. It played a stellar role in the past, particularly in the pre-independence days and during the Emergency, and there is no reason why it should not play that role in future also. Even otherwise, the media’s role in keeping the people informed and educating them has generally been laudable. It is always the first to give us information whether it is about September 11 terrorist attacks in USA or about the earthquake in J & K on either side of the border. The media has also been educating us on topical issues like environment protection, health care, state of literacy, human rights and several other relevant matters. As observed by Sagarika Ghose, “while there is certainly strong evidence to suggest that standards are falling, that language is being degraded, that the colour supplements often look like soft pornography, yet taken as a whole, the media today is a very much a symbol of the evolving democratization of India”. There is no doubt a disconnect today between the mass media and mass reality. “The challenge”, as emphasised by Sainath, “is to reconnect with the people. And rediscover the greater traditions of the Indian media”.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati