For the Indian media, the past year 2010 has been almost Dickensian: it's been the best of times, but also possibly the worst. A Chief Minister resigning due to media pressure, a Union Minister stepping down, senior politicians being raided: when was the last time the Indian media could claim so many "victories" in a single year? Yet, just as we were rejoicing at the return of hard, uncompromising whistle-blower journalism, along came the Niira Radia tapes to throw journalism into a new spin. A couple of months ago prior to the year end, the media was being congratulated for taking on the political establishments. Now, it is being accused of cosying up and being co-opted by the power elite. The truth, as often is the case, lies somewhere in between.
In a sense, the rise and fall of the Indian media was almost inevitable. Over the past two decades, the Indian media has grown exponentially. In 2000, the government cleared just one news channel. Today, there are now more than 500 channels being beamed into several homes across the country, one third of which are news channels, with over a hundred more waiting for permission. Add over a 100 million newspaper copies that are sold on a daily basis, more than 8 million Internet users and the image of a news-driven society is complete. When consumption reaches such mammoth proportions, the media is bound to play a larger-than-life role in our lives.
At a public discussion with a veteran journalist two weeks ago, a student from a rather angry audience: "Do you people in the media think you're God?" The senior journalist hastened to emphasize his mortality, but realized that he had little chance. At one level, the viewers expect the media to solve problems plaguing the nation today: from uprooting corruption, ending terrorism, to even clearing the garbage in the neighbourhood. At another level, the same media is being asked to be a little more humble, less opinionated and less caught up in their new-found celebrity status. A new God of the masses or a faceless slave to the vast multitudes of news viewers? That's the uneasy choice which is being thrown at the new generation of media today.
Some journalists have fallen into the trap which these contrasting expectations now pose. Every night, it is not unusual for television news anchors to play judge, jury and executioners. From being neutral and detached observers of the news, journalists have arrogated to themselves the right to speak for the "nation", never mind if there are others who might have differing views. The guru of chat shows, Larry King, put the new mantra of television news rather succinctly: "If you look at the media now, all the hosts of these other shows are interviewing themselves. You see, the guests are a prop for the anchors."
Once the media wears the garb of self righteousness and begins speaking from the news pulpit, then the media is asking for trouble. For when the "media-as-God" fails to deliver, then a backlash is inevitable. Which is precisely what has happened in the aftermath of the Niira Radia tapes. The anger one senses in the blogsphere and beyond is partly a sense of feeling let down by those who were seen to be the conscience-keepers of the nation. After all, if the media is speaking for the anonymous masses, then the same audience believes it has the right to hold the media accountable. No matter then that most of us would be embarrassed in varying degrees if our private conversations were made public. The media, which holds the rest of the society to a higher standard of accountability, is expected to adhere to those same rigorous standards.
In a way, this is a positive development. During the media revolution in the past decade, there is little doubt that rules and norms of journalism have been cast aside amid the frenzied competition. Loose allegations, often made without even basic verification, are broadcast and published with little fear of defamation. When today's news is the next hour's history, then truth can lose out to sensationalism with worrying consequences for media credibility.
We sometimes need a media trial, if only to shake a corrupt system out of its deep slumber. But if the media trial becomes an end in itself, if news becomes an expression of personal biases and reversing the basic jurisprudential principle of being innocent till proven guilty, then we again run the risk of shrinking our long-term professional integrity.
Which is why some of the criticism of the media that has followed the publication of the Niira Radia tapes forces a course correction then we must welcome it. The rise of the media has almost made us starry-eyed and disconnected with ground realities. The media even forgot their institutional responsibility: that they are nothing but servants of the institutions known as the free press and they exist to further its cause, not their individual ones and certainly not those of political or corporate India.
Yet in this connection it is very important to note that although there are several ills that can be laid at the media's door, the media as a whole must not be judged by the flawed behaviour of a few. The media is made up of hundreds of committed journalists, reporters and news gatherers all of whom do a tough honest day's job in bringing the news to the ordinary Indian without fear or favour. It is they who have brought down the mighty 2010 and it is these unknown faceless people who uphold the spirit of journalism.
Post Script: A recent poll conducted by the Hindustan Times-Cfore survey suggested that 97% of those polled did not trust journalists in the aftermath of the Niira Radia tapes. Another poll conducted by The Week ranked the media just above real estate agents and politicians in the trust factor. Restoring the trust deficit must become our new year resolution for the year ahead.