Our reporting is mostly state-centric
Delhi-based Neelabh Mishra, Editor, Outlook Hindi, was in Pakistan recently, along with his friend Kavita Srivastava, a human rights activist, on the special invitation of the family of Dr Khalil Chishti, the 80-year-old Pakistani virologist who had been released from a jail in Ajmer, India, having served a life sentence. Mishra took time out to speak to The News on Sunday, during his brief stay in Lahore, following a busy schedule at the Chishti’s in Karachi. He wished he could go sightseeing, but the ‘reporting visa’ formalities “ate up our time.”
Still, Mishra said he had a fair taste of the city: “Late one night [in Karachi], we went for a walk and found that the people were awake and enjoying themselves. We had gol gappas from a roadside stall, even as we heard an occasional sound of gunshot in the distance. And, I thought to myself we get to see only one side of Pakistan in the Indian media.”
An MA in English Literature from Delhi University, Mishra has been associated with journalism for the past almost three decades now. He began with Bharat Times (of The Times of India group) as a reporter and went on to become the editor of Outlook Hindi four years back.
The News on Sunday: Tell us briefly about the trends in Indian media?
Neelabh Mishra: The most shameful trend is that of ‘paid news’. Today, you can actually buy column space in order to get a news item printed, and the paper will print it as a news item.
This is so ridiculous. I remember, during the last general election, a newspaper carried a lead, “Congress wins hands down in such-and-such constituency,” with a reporter’s byline. And, just below that item, there was a story by the same reporter on the same constituency; it said, “BJP is winning…”
This whole business of paid news started with the corruption of a few reporters. The newspaper owners saw big money in it and that’s how the trend picked up. Come to think of it, nothing is done under the table. You have rate cards. The reporters are given targets — as if they were company’s sales representatives.
Newspaper owners also sometimes prefer shares in real estate instead of hard cash, in exchange for a ‘news item’.
TNS: What about good old journalism?
NM: Well, our reporting is mostly only state-centric, instead of being people-centric. For instance, recently, when the foreign/home secretaries of India and Pakistan met and they decided to liberalise the visa regime between the two countries with effect from June 1, but it never happened, it led to a fierce blame game in the media. Here, we could’ve done better by carrying stories of the common people who go through the painstaking visa process. What are their issues? How are they affected by the state policy? The media could’ve spoken, for instance, about the World Social Forum [that didn’t allow visas to a lot of Pakistani journalists wanting to attend the event].
These are the kind of stories that the media should be looking at, instead of rattling off the policy laws of the state.
The electronic media, on the other hand, functions in its own way — it’s often guilty of dumbing down and looking at things in a very simplistic manner. At times, it also takes a jingoistic position. If an incident like the Mumbai attack happens, objectivity is the first casualty and the entire electronic media starts toeing a similar line. It’s a game of TRPs.
TNS: How is Pakistan projected in the Indian media in general?
NM: Pakistan does not feature regularly in the Indian media. And, when there is ‘sensational’ news from across the border, such as Rinkle Kumari’s case, the Indian media is not generally accepting of the fact that the news was covered in Pakistan first.
While in Karachi, we went to the office of a Sindhi-language newspaper that had done some brilliant reporting on Rinkle. They had covered the case from the human rights angle as well as that of the minorities, without any communal bias. But the Indian media had treated the story as if there was no support for Rinkle Kumari in Pakistan.
On Pak-India issues, the approach of Hindi media is strictly right-wing.
TNS: Are the Indian newspapers in the vernacular more daring and open than the mainstream media?
NM: Hindi newspapers have the largest circulation in the entire world. Denik Jagran, for instance, tops them all with a circulation of over a million. It is followed by Denik Bhaskar.
While it is of great advantage that you have big newspapers catering to a large section of population, this has also resulted in the fragmentation of news, because these are multi-edition newspapers. For instance, in the state of Rajasthan alone, Denik Bhaskar has around 17 editions. This means one part of Rajasthan will not be informed about what’s happening in the other parts of the state.
In other words, news is not treated as something which should be seen as a whole. We have newspapers focusing on really small local/regional affairs. In the Hindi media, this would mean losing out on perspective.
There are exceptions. The Bengali media is not as fragmented, perhaps because of the high literacy rate in the region. The Malayalam media is also more concerned with the world affairs.
TNS: How do the market forces impact your editorial content?
NM: Today, the newspapers in India don’t bank on circulation for revenue; they earn big through ads. And, because the economy is blooming, there are lots of advertisers. At times, the advertiser’s interest dominates.
Outlook is one media group where the editorial policy is laid down by the editors and not the publishers. In The Times of India, it’s not even the owners but professional ‘brand managers’, as we call them, who set the editorial policy. These managers decide what the readers want to read, what will sell, etc.
TNS: Is an average journalist in India well looked after?
NM: Look, financially, India is a skewed market. There are newspapers whose editors’ annual income is up to IR 30 millions. Journalists are hired on contract-basis, so you have individual salary negotiations.
On the other hand, in electronic media, you have very high salaries but also grades. A few TV channels dominate, but then because there is a media boom — it is one of the fastest growing sectors in the Indian economy — every businessman wants to open a TV channel.
TNS: In Pakistan, a lot of business tycoons have started their media groups, even though they don’t have any background in journalism. Is it the same in India?
NM: Well, it’s a two-sided phenomenon. Firstly, while the business tycoons are entering the media, the media tycoons are also becoming business magnates; they are acquiring companies and opening new enterprises. Again, I’ll quote the example of Denik Bhaskar whose owners recently launched into the power sector and acquired mines.
In south India, the political leaders are entering into the media business. In Tamil Nadu, you have every big political party or leader owning a TV channel and a newspaper — Chief Minister Karunanidhi has Sun TV, Jayalalitha owns Jaya TV. Besides, Kerali TV in Kerala is owned by a Congress politician. Communist parties also have their own media group.
TNS: Are these TV channels run professionally?
NM: The political figures in the south are very smart; they’ve got professionals to run their media outlets. But these are eventually propaganda channels. As a result, they end up having a niche market only. They don’t enjoy the kind of prestige a mainstream media group does.
TNS: What is the situation of trade unions in the newspaper industry?
NM: Till about 15 years back, the trade unions were a very strong entity; they would hold strikes etc. Today, their back has been broken thanks to the corporatisation of the media and the introduction of the contract system. Naturally, the journalists have no option but to comply. Though their independence is compromised at times, there’s no question of union activities.
TNS: Does the Indian media depend a lot on government advertisements?
NM: No. In fact, for the big media groups, government ads mean nothing at all; they are a waste of time. We only depend on corporate ads.
TNS: Is there a lot of support in India for the issue of visa liberalisation between the two neighbouring countries?
NM: If you ask the man in the street, he wouldn’t have an idea how the people in Pakistan live, what they wear, what they do for a living etc. One reason why I am for people-to-people contact is that this will remove a lot of misunderstandings about each other’s culture. This will also spare the media any misrepresentation.
TNS: Don’t you think allowing Pakistani TV channels into your territory will do the needful?
NM: There was a time when Pakistani TV shows were famously seen in India; this was in the pre-dish antenna days, till the 1980s. Later, the policy makers, under pressure from the right-wing, thought that the growing Islamic radicalisation in Pakistan was not suited to the common TV audience of India.
I personally don’t buy this. I believe our audiences are mature enough to decide what is right and what is wrong. Besides, if you have one such thing coming from Pakistan, there will be a lot of other positive things also.
TNS: What about allowing just the entertainment channels?
NM: Often the policy makers have funny arguments. They think coded messages of terrorist attacks will sneak in through the entertainment shows.
TNS: How faithfully does your media present the true picture of India? Or, is it just about ‘Incredible India’?
NM: Media, as it continues to grow, has already busted the myth that ‘dog cannot eat dog’ — i.e. the media will not criticise the media. In Outlook, for instance, we recently printed scripts of Nira Radia tapes that showed how corporate corruption had gotten into the media. As a result, a lot of media personalities were exposed.
Where paid news has become a common practice, a lot of editors and commentators are also writing against it. Presently, the matter is with the Election Commission.
So, if there is glorification, the media is also showing the true picture — stories of drought, hunger and poverty. But, you can say that these stories go in the background and images of unreal India dominate.
TNS: Do you think TV is journalism at all?
NM: It is journalism and at the same time it isn’t. It isn’t journalism because of the way it is being practised: it shows a staged reality. For instance, if you are doing a TV show on a certain topic, you will put an anchorperson together with a state representative and an activist, cut to random visuals, throw in frivolous comments here and there that only lead to a sparring match and preclude a serious discussion.
It seems the producers have decided beforehand what line they would take. The entire show then becomes an exercise in “manufacturing consent”, to use a Chomskyan phrase.