Media's trust deficit

By Rajdeep Sardesai
08 January 2011 21:30 IST

2010 for the Indian media 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 came 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. 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 realized 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 neighborhood. 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 to 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 amidst the frenzied competition. Loose allegations, often made without even the 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 per cent 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.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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Previous Comments

India is booming and there is a huge change as well. Everyone wants a piece of the pie. No one can blame anyone, it's a free-for-all. There were some institutions like say journalism, teaching, which were not appealing, because there was not much money in them. Things have changed for the better and for worse. Everyone has learnt to be part of the change and become glamorous.

In such a situation it has become diifficult even to believe in one's grandmother.

- Ludovico, Old-Goa | 10 th January 2011 16:23

 

Introspection is always welcome! The media is said to be the 4th pillar of democracy! But is it really so in India? How can this be so- when most of it is owned by industrialists and corrupt politicians who have their hidden agenda and their own interests to promote?

Free press is always very appealing and every patriotic citizen would pray to the God for the freedom of the press -to write freely and fearlessly in the interest of the Nation and it's masses-without any prejudices and hidden agenda!

But do you find this in practice? The answer would be a certain no!

That is the reason why the poll suggests that 97 percent who polled do not trust journalists and the journalists are ranked just above the real estate agents and politicians!

This has to be so because journalist cant not isolate themselves from the omnipresent degeneration which we see today in our every democratic institution! Of course some times you exceptionally discover an honest official but he finds it very difficult to stick to his principles and continue- in the system overcrowded with corrupt and sycophants!

Of late there is some hope because some channels and some media men have shown the courage to expose the corrupt and powerful without any fear of the consequences! May be when this trend spreads in the whole media- the media will truly function as the 4th pillar of democracy and the politicians in power will think twice before looting the public funds with impunity!

- vishwas prabhudesai, loliem | 09 th January 2011 19:59

 

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