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Emasculation of the fourth estate

In the immediate post-Independence period, there were two modes of getting news inputs — print media and radio. There had been, of course, short documentary features before the main film in movie theatres, but these being more of a propagandist nature, were not considered to be news. As for All India Radio, everyone knew that it was in fact controlled by the government, so there were quite a few unseen hands with strainers sieving the news before the brew could be offered to the public.

Such was the low credibility of our radio that Indians mostly went to BBC whenever they wanted the “real” version on important events such as the Chinese aggression of 1962.

The AIR’s nadir had been reached during the Emergency, when censorship was clamped down on all modes of media especially the print media and voices of dissent sought to be suppressed. Yet that period saw the Indian fourth estate’s finest hour, with a majority of its components fighting censorship tooth and nail and often suffering for their effrontery. One also recalls the underground, cyclostyled press, which kept the ordinary Indian up to date about goings on in the country.

In those days, the print media was the only source of credible news and views. Mind you, not that everything was hunky dory with that component, for some of the newspapers and journals of the times had their own axes to grind.

Also, the establishment sought to put across its points of view through publications of its own. But, even then, there was a broad-based solidity and credibility about the print media, which unfortunately has evaporated with the passage of time.

Moreover, the print media of that era, both at the national and regional levels, wielded real importance, and its “voice” was heard. Politicians and bureaucrats infesting the corridors of power listened to what it had to say and reacted accordingly. Editorials and news items were religiously snipped off by underlings hired for that purpose and placed before the bigwigs everyday so that they could sniff which way the wind was blowing. Letters to the editor, too, were scrutinised and grievances rectified. The editor of a newspaper, seated within his cramped and cluttered cubicle, was courted by all and sundry as though he was a king. Journalists were a tough and brazen lot, aware of the power that they commanded, but sensibly using it to purvey credible information rather than for self-aggrandisement.

What a different scenario it is today! The fourth estate can wear out its throat denouncing the prevalent chicanery and corruption without as much as moving a hair on the heads of politicians and bureaucrats. Committed journalists can lambast local administration against its apathy and inefficiency without effecting meaningful change. Previously, if someone’s name came out for the “wrong” reasons in a newspaper he or she would become incommunicado for months altogether! Nowadays, arrested culprits do not even bother to try and conceal their features as they are led away in manacles, while the exposed “corrupt” prance about openly, having developed skin thicker than the proverbial rhino.

The process of emasculation of the fourth estate began with the intrusion of television towards the middle of the 1980s, when the electronic media became yet another of its components.

Right from its commencement, the idiot box, started in India as a tightly controlled arm of the establishment and prosaically named Doordarshan, unabashedly played out its role as a purveyor of news without an iota of credibility. However, if one imagined that the entry of private channels had invested credibility to the medium, one was sadly mistaken.

This was because private players who later entered the arena had their own games to play, the greatest casualty being the objective presentation of news and views.

The problem with the audio-visual media is that it has to attract viewership in order to survive, for without viewers there is no advertisement, and without advertisement there is no channel! Even for 24x7 news channels change in the style of news content and presentation was necessary — the style of the Doordarshan-type newscaster with deadpan expression and monotonous voice certainly would not serve to attract viewers. Moreover, it was the way a piece of news was presented, rather than the basic significance, which served to increase viewership.

Thus the process of sensationalising the most ordinary news item and making it sound earth-shaking began with the intrusion of the electronic media.

At the same time, editorial discrimination as to news-worthiness of an item began to play a less dominant role. Being a visual presentation, availability of footage was an important consideration, with the result that more often than not, trivial bits of news got more importance over crucial items merely because the channel had more visuals to air. To make news-presentation livelier, live debate format was introduced, which often descended into farcical verbal fisticuffs, inducing laughter in the viewer rather than a cerebral response. The reality was that the audio-visual media, unlike established print media, had to pander to an amorphous viewership belonging to different strata and different social and educational background, thus presentation and content could not be too high-brow or even directed towards a presumed average audience.

The electronic media, perforce, had to aim at the lowest common denominator in order to attract the widest spectrum of viewership. Thus petty news, with which viewers could empathise more readily, rather than those of wider potential impact but not immediately perceptible, took precedence. As is well known, visuals make a more direct impact upon sensibilities; thus through intrusion into households, and providing presumably instant news, the electronic media made a direct challenge to the print media, coercing the latter to adapt in order to be able to compete.

The problems of the print media were made more acute with the phenomenal increase in the number of publications, as also the invasion of the “wannabe” media moguls. Corporate houses which could boost their business prospects by controlling a media group, politicians who had made their piles through dubious means — there has been a mad rush to grab a slice of the media pie, both print and electronic, thereby eroding credibility even further. Established media organisations, which had painstakingly built up their reputation through decades of conscientious journalism, suddenly found themselves being challenged by fly by night operators, whose concept of news-significance was based on the size of the font the headlines were printed.

Unfortunately, the print media succumbed and took the easy way out. No doubt a few tried to resist, but found it to be the surest route to rapidly decreasing circulation and final exit. Today, whether it be in the national or regional level, overt sensationalism is the order of the day, with trite, badly written “human interest” pieces hogging the front-page space which would earlier have been made better use of. Equally unfortunate is the total lack of scruples displayed by a major chunk of the fourth estate to objective presentation of news and views, with many of them not hesitating to openly flaunt their partisan perspectives, unconcerned as to how the readers would categorise them.

Many of the negative traits displayed by the electronic media have rubbed off on a section of the print media. For instance, the so called “national” newspapers published from India’s capital unabashedly pander to “mass” culture, with reams of newsprint devoted to salacious goings on in Bollywood and photographs of mostly inadequately dressed celebrities. With such trivialisation came the inevitable emasculation, for the powers that be have recognised that in the realm of today’s fourth estate the intelligentsia has been marginalised.

To add to its burden of woes, in contemporary times the information technology explosion has ensured access to news and information from sources outside the scope of the fourth estate. For instance, it had been social networking sites which had been largely responsible for whatever “success” the Arab Spring has attained so far. In fact, to a segment of the new generation, a newspaper or even a news channel belongs to an alien world, for they have their own world literally in the palm of their hands!