Stars in their eyes

Markandey Katju,
Chairman, Press Council of India

Bol ki labh azaad hain tere
bol zabaan ab tak teri hain
(Speak out for your lips are free,
Speak out for your tongue is still yours)
                                  --Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Recently, a journalist asked me about my opinion on journalists in India. Instead of asking me, I told her, she should ask people selected at random the same question without disclosing that she herself was a member of the tribe. The truth is, the majority of opinions may not be very palatable to journalists. In a panel discussion on television, the senior journalist Madhu Kishwar said that journalists in the country are "bribable" and "manipulable" through freebies involving land, accommodation, etc. I don't agree entirely with Madhu. There are many honourable journalists doing their job excellently. But there is a different public perception about many journalists.

Traditionally, there were two roles of the media: one, to inform the public and two: to entertain. In the transitional "feudal to modern" period India is presently passing through, there is a third role of the media--to provide leadership in the realm of ideas. When it comes to the first two roles, the media, no doubt, should inform and entertain. But when 90% of its coverage goes into the entertainment zone and only 10% pertains to real, socio-economic issues, clearly the media is found to have lost its sense of proportion.

Some 80% of Indians are still living in horrible poverty with massive problems of unemployment, inflation and healthcare, education and housing shortages. Social evils such as "honour killings" and dowry deaths have not been wiped off. Yet 90% of media coverage, especially the television media, obsesses about filmstars, fashion parades, music, reality shows, cricket etc. If I had not raised a hue and cry earlier, I am quite sure that the recent birth of a filmstar's child would have been front page headlines in every paper instead of being relegated to the inside pages. 

Millions of farmers lose their livelihoods and flee to cities for jobs that are not there. In Britain during the Industrial Revolution, the displaced peasants got jobs in the newly arising industries. In India, in recent years, there has been a manufacturing decline and many factories have turned to real estate. Many of these displaced peasants end up as domestic servants, hawkers, criminals, beggars and prostitutes. Farmer suicides due to indebtedness have crossed a quarter million over the past 15 years; 860 million Indians are living on Rs. 25 a day and 47% of our children are malnourished, a much higher percentage than in sub-Saharan African countries like Ethiopia and Somalia. The gulf between the rich and the poor has been dramatically widened in India in the last 20 years.

This being the sordid picture, is the media justified in devoting most of its coverage to flimsy issues? Is the media not deliberately seeking to divert the attention of the people from the real issues facing the nation? Is the Indian media not being like the Marie Antoniette, telling people to eat cake if they don't have bread? By promoting superstitious bunkum like astrology, instead of rational and scientific ideas, is the media not playing an anti-people role? As regards to the media providing leadership to the people in the realm of ideas, this is almost missing. During the European Enlightenment, the media had played a glorious historical role and helped in the transition from feudalism to a modern society. Great writers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Junius and John Wilkes attacked feudal ideas such as religious bigotry and despotism and propagated the (then) revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity and religious freedom. I would like the Indian media to play the same glorious role in today's India.

Some people say that the media should supply the people what they want. I disagree. The media is not an ordinary business that deals in commodities. It deals with ideas. Hence instead of pandering to the lowest tastes of the masses, who are still very backward and steeped in casteism, communalism and superstitions, the media should try to uplift their mental level by spreading rational and scientific ideas and thus make the Indian masses part of an enlightened India. This will win the respect of the Indian people for the media.


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