THE INDIAN MEDIA IS LIKE pliable dough. It can be kneaded, punched, stretched and rolled in all directions. If overworked, it turns rubbery, dense and inert. And if the hands that knead it are dirty, it becomes impossible to separate the grime from the good. External pressures and internal pollutants jointly compromise the loaf.
In the past two years, there have been a number of examples of our institutions and politicians overworking the press. The union information and broadcasting minister officially advised journalists on how to cover the prime minister. The minister for telecom constituted a body to curtail press freedoms on the internet. The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate warned journalists to blindly toe a chauvinistic line. A Silchar court in the north-east and a Pune court in the west issued ex-parte injunction orders forcing media companies to remove journalistic content from websites. A Karnataka court tried a woman journalist under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for exposing police corruption. A Tamil Nadu court barred the publication of a reported biography of a chief minister, since it displeased her. And a Delhi court blocked the release of a movie that “contains sex and vulgarity” that hurt religious sentiments.
Within the media industry, there was plenty of grime. Media owners bargained with the government to secure lucrative licenses to mine coal blocks in return for their power to influence the public. Editors got caught on tape striking deals with lobbyists, but remained arrogantly unapologetic. Owners fired political editors who wrote about politics independently. Many reporters—as an article in this issue on the glamorous national security beat demonstrates—increasingly peddle lies as news. And as I write this, the news breaking about Tehelka founder Tarun Tejpal’s alleged sexual assault of his colleague reminds us that many male editors habitually harass their female staff, ensuring that newsrooms are no safer than the streets for women. The dough is destroyed from the exterior and the interior.
Having thought through some of the specific instances of the external punches on the media and the ugly impairments inside the media, large questions bog my mind. Why is our journalism so pliable? What gives external forces the temerity to shape the media to their own ends? What is it in our democratic culture that makes the media subordinate itself to the legislature, executive, judiciary and corporations—making it susceptible to inappropriate influence? (See the cover story on Network18 for an incident in which Forbes India pulled a story off the press because it irked the finance ministry.) And looking inward, why don’t we have the sense of duty in our media culture that compels us to say no to influence?
We don’t have—like a few democracies do, and like all democracies ought to—a well-articulated philosophical framework by which to think about the media, that would define to all—politicians, judges, bureaucrats, police, academics, media owners, editors and reporters—what the rules of the game are. As a society, our readings of the roles and responsibilities of the press are so diverse that, if the 30 sitting Supreme Court judges were asked individually about where a citizen’s fundamental right of speech and expression ends and our innumerable laws on telegraphs, defamation, official secrets, sedition, and public safety—all of which have clauses that clash with fundamental rights—take over, the chances are you would get 30 different opinions.