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News we can use

Following the publication of the Radia tapes, the public seems to have lost confidence in the media. Restoring the trust deficit should become our resolution for the New Year. Rajdeep Sardesai writes.

columns Updated: May 23, 2011 10:25 IST

For the Indian media, 2010 has been almost Dickensian: it’s been the best of times, but also possibly the worst. A chief minister resigning, a Union minister stepping down, senior politicians 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 news journalism, along come the Niira Radia tapes to throw journalism into a new spin. A couple of months ago, the media was being congratulated for taking on the political establishment. Now, its 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 last decade, the Indian news media has grown exponentially. In 2000, the government cleared just one news channel. Today, there are now more than 500 channels being beamed into homes across the country, a third of which are news channels, with over a hundred others waiting for permission. Add over a 100 million newspaper copies that are sold every day, 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 news seminar in Ahmedabad two weeks ago, I was asked by a member of a rather irate audience: “Do you people in the media think you are god?” I hastened to emphasise my mortality, but realised that I had little chance. At one level, the news consumer expects the media to solve the multiple problems of a nation: from banishing 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 multitude of news consumers? That’s the rather uneasy choice which is being thrown at the new generation media today.

Some of us have fallen into the trap which these contrasting expectations now pose. Every night, it is not unusual for news anchors to play judge, jury and executioner. From being ‘neutral’ and ‘detached’ observers of the news, we have arrogated to ourselves the right to speak for the ‘nation’, never mind if there are others who may have differing views. The guru of chat shows, Larry King, put the new mantra of news television rather succinctly: “If you look at media now, all the hosts of these other shows are interviewing themselves. The guests are a prop for the anchors”.

Once we wear the garb of self-righteousness and begin speaking from a news pulpit, then we are 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 blogosphere and beyond is partly a sense of feeling let down by those who were seen to be 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 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 of the last 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 corrupted system out of its 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 if some of the criticism of the media that has followed the publication of the Radia tapes forces a course correction then we must welcome it. The rise of the media almost made us starry-eyed and disconnected with the ground realities. We even forgot our institutional responsibility; that we are nothing but servants of the institution known as the free press and we exist to further its cause, not our own 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 you the news without fear or favour. It is they who have brought down the mighty in 2010, and it is they who uphold the spirit of journalism.

Post-script: a recent poll suggested that 97% of those polled did not trust journalists in the aftermath of the Radia tapes. Another poll 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 2011.

(Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network)

*The views expressed by the author are personal