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Vivian Fernandes
Sunday , October 14, 2012 at 20 : 07

The perils of India's lazy journalism


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Greedy owners and cataract-ic managers have hollowed out Indian journalism from within, but it is self-obsessing editors with yacht-size lifestyles that have inflicted the most damage, says Uday Shankar, chief executive officer of Star India, and a key man in Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp media empire.

When the owner of India's most profitable media group says 'we are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business,' when a top sales manager of the same group reportedly says that 'no matter what crap you write I will sell it,' when editors spend more time in television studios preening themselves rather than in newsrooms building brands and leading editorial teams, journalism is indeed imperilled.

Shankar was giving a peer talk on 'The perils of India's lazy journalism,' at the Press Club of India in New Delhi on Saturday 13 October. He was chosen as speaker for his practice of over two decades in several newspapers and channels, during which he made Aajtak a truly breaking news channel and took the high-risk (and rewarding) decision to put Satyameva Jayate, a strip-searching show of such ugly Indian practices as wife beating and girl killing, prime time on an entertainment channel. Under his charge Star News, now part of Anand Patrika group, saw clients withhold advertising for stories not withheld. It also swung the other way towards the bhoot-pret genre, feeding superstition (commenting non-stop, for example, when Shani or Saturn was closest to earth in a rare planetary configuration) and prurience as when it gloated over actor Karisma Kapoor's divorce - coverage that sits uneasily on Shankar.

The talk was organized by the Foundation for Media Professionals a non-profit devoted to upholding media freedom and promoting quality journalism. Presiding over 40 entertainment channels in eight languages with a claimed reach of 400 million, Star India competes with the Network 18 group, which includes this website.

Shankar admitted that media organizations had to be profitable to produce high quality journalism but that did not warrant Times of India group managing director, Vineet Jain's remark to the New Yorker, even if made facetiously to underscore a point, that editorial content was just a ploy to part advertisers of their money. If a newspaper was in the advertising business, then BMW should be in the luggage business, because it also sells boot space, and Apple should be regarded as a packaging company. You cannot produce a great product if you do not believe in it. Such attitudes 'disrobe' the vocation of journalism, he said.

The extent of laziness in Indian journalism hit him, Shankar said, when as jury chairman of exchange4media.com's news broadcasting awards, he found a sizeable number of entries for coverage of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign in Delhi. The credit for making corruption, hitherto regarded as acceptable, a central issue should go to Hazare. His movement shows the change that individuals can make. Why should news channels seek applause for relaying pictures of the campaign into homes? If it is about 'connecting people,' telecom companies can do the job, Shankar said.

Why did the media not follow up last year's Economic Times report on the lucrative property deals of Robert Vadra, the Congress President's son-in law, till anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal flaunted them? In every area of reporting, whether cricket, films, politics or business, we have people who are off-limits. 'By virtue of those exceptions we have taken virtue out of our profession,' Shankar said. Journalists have become cheerleaders. They are not the first to cast the stone. The Maharashtra irrigation scandal was unearthed by a doctor whose land was being acquired. The media ignored a Bharatiya Janata Party lawmaker's cawing on the coalmining scandal till Parliament's auditor said he was right.

Laziness is of two kinds. There is the laziness of behaviour, which Shankar described as the 'monotony of continuity' or a 'deep satisfaction with things as they are.' There is the laziness of morality and ethics, which manifests itself in paid advertising masquerading as news, and the exchange of positive editorial coverage about a business for a share in its profits. All this comes from a laziness of vision, a failure to see journalism as a superior calling for the betterment of society.

This is the reason why the news budgets of television channels are shrinking, even allowing for the fact that they are economically challenged because of massive under-reporting of subscription revenue by cable operators. (According to Shankar Indian households pay Rs 20,000 cr a year but television channels get only five per cent of it. Newspapers are so under-priced that they get very little revenue from readers; so they ignore them).

But quality journalism does not hinge only on money. It also requires effort, patience and competence. If editors do not care for the daily editorial meeting, if they do not bother to set direction and build teams, if they are busy hobnobbing and aggrandizing, journalism will suffer. While holding the present system of television ratings responsible for the slide, which compulsory digitization (reception of television signals only through set top boxes) might arrest, Shankar said editors should not behave like drug peddlers, only selling the fix that viewers crave. Like the Pied Piper, they can set the agenda and wean the viewer on healthier food.

Shankar said it was important for the post of the editor to regain the halo it had. As editor of the Times of India, Dileep Padgaonkar was mocked for calling his the 'second most important job in the country.' Shankar found Padgaonkar's 'exalted pomposity' any day preferable to the attitude that the editor's is a job like any other.


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More about Vivian Fernandes

Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
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