In all the primal breast-beating over the new Press Council chairman’s sweeping generalisations, few journalists have tried to sanely dissect Justice Markandey Katju‘s remarks. Indeed, as a tweet ironically noted: “Most of the articles opposing Justice Katju’s interview actually end up proving whatever he said about the media there.”
By SIDHARTH BHATIA
Anyone who is concerned about the Indian media scene today, whether he is connected to it as a practitioner or as a consumer, would probably agree with many of the comments made by Justice Markandey Katju, the new chairman of the Press Council.
In an interview to Karan Thapar — who chose to play just a straightforward questioner rather than a provocateur — Justice Katju was sharply critical of the media; among other things, he called it obsessed with frivolous matters (filmstars etc), invidious in its approach and anti-people.
These are harsh words and sweeping generalisations but cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Justice Katju has a very poor opinion of the Indian media. He lists three ways in which it is not serving the interests of Indian society: it diverts the attention of the Indian people from real problems (economic issues) by over-focussing on trivia, cricket, Bollywood and the like; it divides the people by highlighting, without evidence, the connection of organisations like the Indian Mujahideen moments after a bomb blast, which subtly conveys the message that all Muslims are terrorists; and instead of enlightening citizens, it propagated superstitions, astrology and the like.
Justice Katju does not mince words in the interview: “The majority (of people in the media), I’m sorry to say, are of a very poor intellectual level… I doubt whether they have any idea of economic theory or political science, philosophy, literature. I have grave doubts whether they are well read in all this, which they should be.”
This is strong language coming from anyone, and when they come from the man who will preside over the Press Council, which often hears complaints against the media, they assume an extra edge. They clearly set the tone of what his tenure will be like.
Those who have been used to the Press Council being a generally benign, even toothless body, would do well to pay attention to what he thinks.
Now much of what Justice Katju says is not new.
In media circles, the falling standards of the profession have been a subject of discussion for a very long time. For example, it is almost universally admitted that younger journalists joining newspapers, magazines or television channels are much less aware of Indian history, politics and society than their counterparts a few decades ago.
This can partly be blamed on the education system, which relies more on rote learning than on genuine enquiry. A system where students can and do get 99 per cent marks can only be an assembly line where talent and intellect is measured by grades which reflect a good memory and little else.
To cater to the demand for journalists, colleges have eagerly taken to offering media courses at the bachelors level, but without the requisite faculty; a lot of the output of these courses is, to put in bluntly, rubbish. But such is the need in a sector that has grown exponentially over the last decade and more, that almost everyone lands a job soon enough, writing or thinking skills be damned.
There are scores of channels and hundreds of publications looking for staff and the general tendency is to just take what you can get and then hope that they will learn something on the job.
The bigger question is, what of the job itself?
Regrettably, Justice Katju’s remarks about the frivolous nature of the media are not wide of the mark. Though it is wrong to paint the entire media scene with one brush — the “media” can include the serious as well as the trashy channels, the quality papers as well as the rags — the perception is that TV channels are about hyperbole and the newspapers are dumbing down news.
The person holding the remote control sees either panellists shouting at each other, film songs, filmstars airing their views on everything, cricket and astrology. And this is on news, not entertainment channels. One often hears viewers ask — why do correspondents get so breathless while reporting, why do anchors shout so much? Bollywood stories make it on the front pages and the supplements are of course full of glamour.
But this is not the whole truth.
There are sober anchors as well as serious and competent reporters (and good journalism too). Many TV channels give us top quality stories on the “real issues”, many newspapers write on important matters that concern the polity. But, as any mediaperson will tell you, perception triumphs reality and Justice Katju is articulating the common perception.
As a judge and as an erudite and analytical mind, one only wishes he had taken a more balanced and nuanced view instead of blindly hitting out at the profession.
The Editors’ Guild has come out with a condemnation of Justice Katju’s remarks. Media practitioners also need to point out to Justice Katju and other critics that such broad brushstroke criticism does not do justice to the many thousands of journalists who do a good and honest job.
The average journalist is not on television, not a columnist with his or her picture in the papers, not someone who regularly hobnobs with the rich and powerful at seminars or parties. Tucked away in small papers (and big too) are journalists who do their work with great competence and sincerity. They do know about history, economic theory, literature and poetry and do understand the role of the media in a democratic and changing society. They do not hanker after sarkari titles or parliamentary seats or even television panel discussions.
Justice Katju wants stronger powers for the Press Council, which he wants to rechristen the Media Council so that television can be brought under its purview. In extreme cases, he wants to suspend licences of publications and channels. This may sound wonderful and path-breaking but is not the silver bullet that will change things overnight. Journalists are not going to become smarter, wiser or more mature.
The media is not going to shed its so-called obsession with trivia.
What is more, managements, who too have some responsibility at the state of affairs, are not likely to mend their ways. All it will do is to set up an antagonistic relationship between the media and the council; the early signs that this will happen are already visible.
Any attempt to “reform” the media and make it more professional will have to be a long drawn, process-driven affair. As chairman of the Press Council, Justice Katju can definitely contribute to that transition, but not if he is holding onto his prejudices and carrying a danda.
(This piece was originally published in the Asian Age and is reproduced here with permission)