The unmaking of news broadcasting

Cover of The Indian Newsroom: Studios, Stars and the Unmaking of Reporters. Credits:
India’s news broadcasting industry is a matter of national shame. More than 400 news channels battle each other for viewership by simply dropping their standards lower and lower every day. Much of the media analysis around why this is happening is uninformed opinion that amounts to hand-wringing or pure ranting. There is very little research or perspective. That explains the trepidation with which I picked up Sandeep Bhushan’s The Indian Newsroom: Studios, Stars and the Unmaking of Reporters. Thankfully, it rises way above the usual “oh, these news channels” kind of commentary to give you an insider’s view on what has gone wrong. 

Mr Bhushan was a TV journalist with NDTV and Headlines Today for 20 years before quitting. He uses his experience and some good research to come up with a book that is a satisfying, albeit worrying, read. It covers a lot of territory but if I had to pick out three things that appealed to me, then it would be its take on ownership, regulation and on journalism itself.  

First, it explores, with reasonable depth the key issues that have pushed the TV news industry into a downward spiral. The biggest of these, to my mind, is the financial crisis that grips the industry and the complete lack of ownership controls. Some years back I had analysed that roughly half the news channels then were owned by people and organisations who were not interested in news per se—politicians, their affiliates, cable companies and real estate barons, among others. They were launching news outlets simply to extort money, curry favour or influence citizens or policy, and were happy blowing up money on keeping a shabby news operation running. But this completely kills the market for the those who want to seriously cover news. The result is a small news broadcast market with just about three companies that make money, on and off. Mr Bhushan examines the question of ownership in great detail.

Second, in the context of ownership Mr Bhushan talks about owner-editors and how they have affected regulation in India versus other countries. One of the big things the dual role of owner-editors does is stymie the whole idea of self-regulation. Most owners, rightly, do not want any governmental intervention in regulation. But the result is a toothless body like the Press Council of India or the News Broadcasters’ Association which nobody takes seriously. “In both the USA and UK self-regulation is moored in parliamentary guarantee with bipartisan support. So while regulators do their job for the entire spectrum of media platforms, they are only responsible to their respective regulators, i.e. the Congress and  the Parliament. Even BBC, one of the greatest media institutions, is subject to Ofcom, UK’s regulatory authority while FCC (Federal Communications Commission) oversees a range of media platforms other than print media in the USA,” he says. 

Private broadcasting came to India in 1991 because we had an archaic Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 defining broadcasting. Since then, except for The Cable television (Networks) Regulation Act of 1995, there has been little by way of an overarching look, committee or even discussions around how to put it all together. The Cable Act itself was a reaction to the Supreme Court’s landmark “Airwaves are public property” judgement earlier in 1995. This reporter has for long argued for an “independent of the government” regulator that harnesses the power of the media business, to generate taxes, jobs and ensure plurality and diversity a la FCC or Ofcom. In Mr Bhushan I find a kindred soul. He is categorical that he doesn’t advocate regulation shaped by government but one that is modelled on the lines of Ofcom, which has both regulatory and licensing powers. As an aside his quick analysis on the evolution of the FCC and Ofcom were great reading. 

The third reason and the central point of Mr Bhushan’s book is the complete sidelining of the reporter. Any half-decent journalist can see that over the years TV journalism is about some star anchor hogging the time and the big stories. As Mr Bhushan says in the preface, “This book is born out of my resentment over the television news discourse that has consigned reporters to invisibility. Over the last two decades, satellite television has firmly ensconced news anchors at the centre of the industry….. This invisibalisation of reporters is not ‘natural’ and far removed from the global news television template,” he writes. And he talks, in great detail, on how this happened at NDTV with star anchor Barkha Dutt taking over all the big stories and airtime. Or through the rise of Times Network’s brand of opinionated, factitious coverage that Arnab Goswami carried over to Republic TV. Mr Bhushan calls it outrage journalism. He debates a policy option for solving this so that news becomes more representative of all sections of society. 

For anyone interested or worried about Indian news television and the harm it is causing to the quality of discourse and therefore to the health of our democracy, this is a must-read.

The Indian Newsroom: 
Studios, Stars, and the 
Unmaking of Reporters 
Sandeep Bhushan
Westland Publications, 312 pages, Rs 460

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