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Who will police the media?

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Shillong Notes / Patricia Mukhim   |   Published 10.09.03, 12:00 AM

In France, the Press is a Fourth Power of State: it attacks all yet no one attacks it. It reprimands recklessly. It asserts a domination over politicians and men of letters that is not reciprocated, claiming that its protagonists are sacred. They say and do horribly foolish things. That is their right! It is time we take a look at these unknown second-rate men who hold such importance in their time and who are the moving force behind a Press with a production equal to that of books — Honore De Balzac.

Balzac, leading French philosopher and writer, must have been witness to something going horribly wrong with the press in his country, to come out with such strong words. It makes many wonder if the same is not happening with the media in this country today. The media after all is the fourth supporting pillar of democracy. If the three other pillars, the executive, judiciary and legislature are in a state of decay, can the media which comprises people of the same soil and breathing the same polluted air be any different? The media is privileged only insofar as its acts of omissions and commissions hardly ever come into the public domain.

That people, especially those exercising power, often feel helpless because they cannot control the media. Indira Gandhi used the powers vested on her by the declaration of a state of Emergency in the country to completely muzzle the media. Needless to say she succeeded only to a certain extent because Indian civil society is, to use a new word, ‘unputdowntable’. Every time there is an attempt to curb press freedom or other civil liberties, this small mass of Indian people rise to the fore to challenge the forces of fascism.

Without a vigilant media, all acts of corruption within the judicial, legislative and executive structures would remain hidden. It would be difficult to imagine a scenario without a proactive media, particularly in this day and age when men of straw strut the political stage and pretend to be giants of their time. The revolting manner in which the Indian establishment dealt with Tehelka because it could not stomach the “exposure” by the news portal on major defence deals, speaks a lot about the shameless attempts of powerful politicians to stifle the truth. Such attempts happen all the time and the media must be constantly on guard that it is not soft-soaped and won over to the other side because that would indeed deal a body blow to Indian democracy.

It cannot be denied, however, that the media, too, requires to rein in its wayward tendencies. A correspondent of a leading metro magazine based at Guwahati one day told this writer, “The credibility of the press in Assam is at an all-time low. People are wary of speaking within hearing distance of any mediaperson lest they be misreported or misquoted”. One is unsure as to how much truth there is in this statement. The media in Assam is better placed to check out this fact. But such strong statements from a mediaperson himself calls for some introspection from practitioners of the profession. Mediapersons, too, are as liable to err as people from other professions. The problem is that they hardly take too kindly to correction especially if it comes from their peers. Senior editors may give their junior reporters a drubbing and the chaps may even take the drubbing with some amount of humility considering they are rookies and need the job. But try telling some ‘senior’ editor that there are slips in his paper which are showing and see how well he takes its. The right to be right all the time plagues the media. That is why this pillar of democracy requires strengthening.

While citizens expect those holding office in the executive, legislature and judiciary to constantly improve themselves, there do not seem to be any such high public expectations from the media. Anyone who can write a fairly correct page can enrol himself into this noble (or should one say ignoble) profession of journalism. The media has vacancies for new entrants all the time because of its policy of ‘hire and fire’. The pay packet of most media establishments is horribly meagre. Hence, budding journalists make it their profession to get into a state or regional paper only to be able to get into the metro paper bandwagon. And no one can really blame them. After all each person has the right to better his professional and financial prospects.

But the result of this constant brain drain takes its toll on a newspaper. Every time a new trainee comes in, things start from scratch and those who have to train them are all too aware of the consequences. They are soon overtaken by fatigue. Humanly speaking, it is only right to expect a person one has trained to show some loyalty to the establishment that trained him/her. Unfortunately the word “loyalty” or “gratitude” are not common in the lexicon of mediapersons. The only way to retain personnel is to pay them well and treat them with respect. Most media companies feel they do not make enough to be able to pay their staff well. This is a debatable point. Since employees are not stakeholders of the media firms they work for, they do not even get to scan through the profit and loss figures of their establishment. If they had access to those facts and figures and saw for themselves the assets and liabilities of the establishment, then they might perhaps have more confidence in their employers and a keener desire to work harder. The feeling that their work is not adequately rewarded would dissipate if the establishment was more transparent.

As far as responsibility of the media is concerned, there are different expectations from different quarters. There are those who pick up the papers and only read the news. Others go through the paper with a toothcomb and find out all the flaws. They are unhappy when the language is bad or the grammar is incorrect. Above all, they are terribly offended when the see spelling mistakes.

Unfortunately, even the leading newspapers in the country are today not free from errors. There seems to be a general acceptance within the media that the people do not expect too much; that anything will do so long as the news is sensational. I am afraid such is not the case. I have personally met many readers who have shifted their loyalties from one newspaper to another because they said that they did not want their children to pick up bad grammar or become dyslexic (incapable of spelling words correctly).

Coming to the electronic media, we have today a very vibrantly emerging group of young and well-trained mediapersons who are working with local news channels. To their credit, these young enthusiasts have been able to bring to the public sphere many hidden facets of positive public activities that otherwise go unreported. Because they are aired on a weekly schedule, they are not bogged down by deadlines and hence have ample time to go deeper into issues that matter. But even they need to check their enthusiasm to zoom in too much on the blood and the gore. Somebody gets mercilessly killed and the media, completely ignoring the finer points of respecting the sensibilities of the dead person and his/her family members, takes some kind of morbid pride in exposing the dismembered body parts.

This has caused many parents to switch off the television because they do not want their children to grow up into insensitive perverts. One does not see the logic behind the portrayal of such gory scenes. Is that aimed at evoking the sympathies of the people? I dare say that such scenes staring at us again and again have, instead, deadened our conscience. Without a doubt the media is the most powerful estate not only in this country but the world over. It is a sad commentary, however, that in Britain the media no longer enjoys credibility. An assessment made of media credibility in Europe shows that the British press suffers from the greatest credibility loss. This public survey shows the American media to have more public trust (pre Iraq of course). One is unsure about the status of American press today. From all outward appearances it seems to have sold its soul to American patriotism. The media in India is not doing any better. The only saving grace here is that while some newspapers are blatantly pro-establishment, others are rabidly government baiters and haters. Somewhere between these two extremes lies the truth. It is the poor public who has to ferret out this truth.

At the end of the day, since good currency always drives out the bad, the press needs to police itself because if it does not, it is the reader who will turn its back to it. In a highly globalised world, unless the media puts its act together it will find itself struggling for oxygen. There is no such entity as a “loyal” reader. He is a thing of the past. The reader pays money for his daily newspapers. He has the right to change his loyalty any time.

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