TOWARDS A TRULY ‘FREE’ PRESS

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An independent media is often touted as the true barometer of a mature democracy. On that count, despite sustained attempts by various forces, the press in India has largely managed to retain its freedom and emerged unscathed. Needless to say, the threats have emanated mostly from the politicians, particularly those in power, but there are also other antagonists like business groups, NGO lobbies, specific vested interests or affected persons, who have often felt the urge to break the bones of a journo or two. While the Emergency, Rajiv’s Information Bill and some POTA provisions constituted blatant official attempts to stifle the media, intimidation from other quarters can be quoted by the dozens, but through all this the media has persisted, prevailed and preserved itself too.
I think I should not stretch my press freedom too much, so let me put the trumpet aside. If the media in India is so independent and fairly..or even unfairly..free, then is all well with it? Indeed, the media’s success on the freedom count has less to do with its courage and integrity and is more about conducive conditions going to its complete advantage.
For one, the newspaper reading public at large still values the sanctity of the printed word though ‘publish and be damned’ is the media’s motto, given the pressure of deadlines and competitive journalism. Also, defamation cases against the press are time consuming and hard to succeed under current laws and aggrieved parties often end up causing more damage to themselves than the original report did. Above all, the politicos, businessmen etc would always love to have a favourable press and go out of the way to keep it in good humour. They would not like to be seen as anti-media because such a perception would affect their image, besides inviting avoidable scrutiny of their activities. Being on the right side of the media is not only good PR but also the politically correct thing to do. All these and more have made media some kind of a divine voice, and the arc lights were rarely directed on the media itself. These luxuries may soon vanish. And is it not divine law that the real enemy is the one within, not external? Well, the media by its own making is courting deep trouble, though outwardly it seems boom time. Two major factors are now completely overhauling the scenario and the rules are being rewritten. One is the politicization of the media and the second is its commercialization. Though this is nothing new, this year is a watershed and sets the tone for the future.
Politicians who have either been pampering or fighting the media have realized the trick and are becoming barons themselves, bringing the kind of money and muscle into media that existing entrepreneurs are incapable of. In TN, the raging battle between the kazhagams had never been confined to the hustings and streets alone. Both have their print mouthpieces and their own TV channels. The DMK’s Sun Group has now bought out a newspaper chain and is all set to paint the state red and black. The opponent will not remain idle, for sure. So it will be politics on newsprint and cheerio for the printed word’s sanctity. For those who were cursing the media, the current crop of journos are going to Seem like angels if only they can guess what’s coming. FDIs and stock markets too are rocking the media boats no end. Gone are the days when newspapers were targeted only at readers. Today, they have another audience and that is the shareholder. He needs profits and PEs, and has to be pampered, unlike the reader who swallowed whatever was dumped on him. While the reader would balk at slanted reporting, a shareholder would not mind if it can help get advertisements and swell revenue. In short, he will dictate. And then there is the price war. The real battle is for the flow of ads that is dependent on circulation, which by current reckoning does not necessarily mean readership. So pushing sales at any cost, is the mantra: More pages, more colour and next-to-nil cover price. The buzz is that much management are not even interested in collecting those paltry sums. A ‘free press’ indeed! Mumbai is already inundated with many newspapers while Chennai is all set for the downpour of newsprint, if not news. The newspaper ‘consumer’, (‘reader’ is passe), would not have dreamt of such things even a few months back.
Newspaper economics has been turned on its head but in the race for eye-balls, caution and conventional wisdom have been given the boot. Indeed insiders are worried for the health of the fourth estate because even a casual calculation would reveal that the newspaper industry simply cannot sustain this kind of reckless, consumerist competition. It cannot be equated with other products, in terms of content, costing and market conditions, but nobody appears in a mood to listen. The flip side is that journos suddenly are the toast of the head hunters with the profession and the prospects suddenly looking up. So for those who were just sitting on the sidelines gulping down whatever was dumped, here is a chance to do that yourselves … to others, of course. The tell-tale Talk on your hands is a product of twin realizations, pulling from two ends: That the readers will be reluctant to pay for news any longer, what with technology keeping them updated by the minute and newspaper economics simply cannot afford a virtual free paper every day. Reason why we trouble you only once a week. So that we do not trouble ourselves too much! Hail the truly free press!

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