Beautifying India's ugly media spaces

Can things get any worse? On Sunday, when reports of the blasts in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka came in, Indian politicians first tried to use it to score points in the ongoing general election. Then, Indian news media simply went ahead and named some people as the culprits whilst the Sri Lankan police was still figuring things out. All of Monday, Sri Lankan media and citizens were expressing their disgust over our politicians, media and trolls. This has happened over several incidents now. For instance, when Indian trolls were gleeful about Muslims being killed in the mosque shoot-out in New Zealand, in March this year. 

Across the world, Indians command respect for their love for learning, democracy and of course, a growing economy. We are seen as erudite people with the intellectual firepower that shows up globally in IT, academics and in the management of some of the world’s top firms. For the last few years, however, we seem to be bent on demolishing that image. The image of the Indian coming out of news channels, newspapers and social media is of a rabid, fanatical, war-mongering chap who enjoys the spectre of violence — verbal or physical — against any person he doesn’t agree with. 

It is very easy, and probably fair, to blame media for it — especially television news. News media is the intellectual fodder that informs our arguments, debates and decisions on what to buy, who to vote for et al. But the last two years, news media has been doing a shabby job of informing. The shrill, one-sided headlines, bad reportage, the screaming that passes for debate, are hardly news. There is no focus on science, technology, business or societal changes on nightly news bulletins. Yet this seems to be attracting more not less people. News consumption on television rose from 6.5 per cent in 2015 to 7.2 per cent in 2018 even as total TV viewership grew, according to Broadcast Audience Research Council data. 

To make matters worse, you have the WhatsApp university where manufactured news, disinformation and prejudice are amplified to a largely media-illiterate mass of people. So entire sections of society believe that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said some of the rubbish that is being attributed to him.

There are four simple ways of counter-influencing, if not cleaning, this up. 

One, each of India’s 400 news channels (yes, we have that many) post their sources of funding, shareholding, profit and loss accounts, and balance sheets online every quarter. This should be part of the conditions for getting a licence. More than half of Indian news channels are owned by politicians, builders or random people who are in it to peddle influence or curry favour, not to make honest money or further the cause of good journalism. This move will force dodgy players out or at least, keep them in check. 

Two, create an independent-of-the-government media regulator by merging all the bodies that currently “self-regulate”. Please note, this regulator has to be independent-of-the government, a la Ofcom — the regulator and competition authority of the UK communications industry — for this move to work. 

Three, let Doordarshan go free. Currently, it is part of the “autonomous” Prasar Bharati. It is, however, not independent to do the content, hire people, distribute or fund itself the way it wants to – much of that is still controlled by the central government. If DD had true autonomy, it would change the shape of the news market by default. Across news and entertainment, the UK has five public service broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4, ITV; each world-class. Competitors are constantly grumbling about how they are subsidised. Sure they run on public money but it is well-spent. The five have created a news and entertainment ecosystem that forces private broadcasters to up their game. In India, there is no such benchmark.

Lastly, can we as Indians agree to disagree with civility online, to question every forward and every bit of misguided history or factoid thrown at us. Can we decide not to watch loud, shrieky news channels that divide us? That will help in cooling things down a bit and hopefully we will go back to being the Indians the world respects. 
Twitter: @vanitakohlik

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