When the new chairman of the Press Council of India says he has a low opinion of the media and journalists are of "poor intellectual level", you can just hear the hurrahs from the cheap seats.
With the finesse of a pugilist, Justice Markandey Katju delivered his observations to Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN. He then went over the same points in The Hindu: the media are "anti-people" because they focus on such "non-issues" as filmstars and cricket instead of honour killings and poverty. Self-regulation doesn't work. The council must have more teeth or at least a big stick that would include suspension of licenses in ‘extreme' cases.
Over-the-top, over-generalised and over-combative, these are views that nonetheless find resonance with many people, including those in the media. Who can dispute that there is not enough research/too many hand-outs; not enough accountability/too much bias; not enough of the big issues/too much fluff? Who can dispute that a Council cannot be limited to print and must include TV? Don't we all believe that more accountability is warranted? So regardless of the indelicacy of his manners, Katju does get the big picture right — more or less.
The problem begins when the former Supreme Court judge reaches sweeping conclusions, perhaps oblivious to the fact that many issues that make him queasy (sensationalism, celebrity journalism and paid news) make most journalists queasy too. Perhaps he needs to meet more journalists.
Problem No. 2 lies with Katju's idealised notion of the media's role in society. Indian journalism has come a long way from the 1980s when magazines (Sunday, India Today) and newspapers like The Indian Express did investigative stories ranging from the Bhagalpur blindings to the massacre at Nellie. These were milestones that inspired a generation of journalists hungry to work for low wages and dreams of a better world. Today's media exists in a marketplace where TRPs and circulation figures are hard facts in every democratic country where a free Press exists. But Katju would have us go further back, to the Age of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe. How devoid is this of any understanding of economics and competition and the need to run media outlets as professional organisations with a code of conduct and standards, not as balladeers of someone's ideal world?
Katju's selective indignation chooses easy targets — astrological shows and poor quality TV debates. But to ignore the huge amount of first-rate journalism on TV and print — exposes on 2G corruption, campaigns on hunger and infant deaths — is disingenuous. It is true, as he says, that self-regulation isn't working but external regulation is a bad and dangerous idea that will compromise the free working of media. What we need is a debate not a wagging finger harangue. Unfortunately, Katju just queered the pitch.
Equally unfortunate is the media's response. While the Editor's Guild has ‘deplored' these views, the Broadcast Editors' Association baffling reaction came in the form of a 10-point diktat on how Aishwarya Bachchan's delivery should be covered (no declaration of ‘breaking news', no astrological predictions, etc etc). All that is left for Katju to say: I rest my case.
Journalists do not inhabit some remote planet. We are products of our environment, just as judges and politicians and bureaucrats are. You cannot have declining standards everywhere and yet expect media to rise above.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.