Monday, February 7, 2011

Quality of Indian journalism hits a new low

It's appalling to see how far the quality of journalism has plummetted in India. In addition, there is clear political alignment with one party or the other. And the same media that has been taking the high moral ground in exposing one scam after another has forgotten to inform the readers about their interests and alignments. Readers are subjected to distorted, agenda-driven opinions without even the hint of a warning. And then of course, the tendency and habit to sensationalise everything.

Lets take a few examples:
1) 2G scam - stake sale in Unitech and Swan telecom: Media made a sensational claim that after acquiring licenses cheap, the promoters of these companies sold part of their stake and made a financial killing. The motivation for media: Suggest a big scam and grab the reader's attention. Put the govt on the mat. The real truth: as clarified by Montek Singh Ahluwalia and not challenged by anyone since: The money that the foreign players paid came INTO the company. It did not go to the original promoters. The promoters took out NOTHING. Now anyone in business knows that this is the most common way to get FDI. If the money stays within the company, it is used to develop the business with all its concomittant risks and rewards. If the business prospers, all stake holders do well. But if it does poorly (a vast majority of cos do poorly), then all stake holders lose money. Its the same with Swan and Telecom. They brought the license at some $350 million. That was their contribution to the business. But no value is created by just having the license. They needed technology and expertise in telecom. So they issued fresh shares diluting their own stake (by 45% in Swan's case and 60% in Unitech's) to a foreign company and brought in capital and technology to develop the business. Remember, all this is just investment. There are no profits. No money taken away by the promoters. If the joint ventures fail, no one makes money. So the original promoters of Swan and Unitech could lose money. This is the truth. But what did media do? They pronounced (without even understanding the issue) that the promoters of these two companies had ALREADY MADE MONEY. If this is not shallow journalism, what is?
2. The mess in Karnataka has been underplayed by media. The charges against the CM there are more serious than the charges against Ashok Chavan in Maharashtra were. Yet the media forced the Congress to remove Ashok Chavan till the investigations could be completed. No such pressure was mounted by the media on the BJP. Media chose to put Karnataka on the inside pages (if at all) and Maharashtra on the front page. Do you smell an agenda here?
3. 2G scam - extent of scam: Consider this basic data point. The CAG has said that the 2G scam could be of the order of Rs 70K to Rs 176K crores. Now ideally, media should have debated the findings of the CAG. It should have presented all points of view to the readers and viewers. Was the methodology used by CAG fair? Is it not government's prerogative whether they want to maximize revenues or focus rather on cheap roll-outs? Media did none of this. At the very minimum, good journalism would have dictated that whenever they reported figures, they would report both the lower and upper range? But what does media do? Without an exception, media has called it a scam of Rs 1.76 lac crores. Media finds it more useful to report only the highest number. Is this just poor quality of journalism, or is this a case of political agenda?
4. The S-band scam un-earthed today: Again, media fails to mention that the S-band is a band used for a thousand innocuous (and hardly worth the amount it is made out to be) applications like Amateur radio and TV broadcasts, cordless phones, radars etc. Its even used in microwave ovens! More recently, a part of it is being used for mobile broadband. None of this is explained. Media zeroes in on the sensational part.....Again media ignores to highlight the part that the Department of Space itself was looking into the matter. It mentions it only in passing. This is pure sensationalism.
5. Government not revealing names of Swiss bank account holders: Did the media highlight the reality of international agreements that bind the government's hands in this matter? Media chose to ignore this reality. It was more interested in suggesting a lack of willingness of the government. Instead, it should have confronted reality.....and keeping this reality in mind, it should have suggested options that were available to the government. Again, a case of shallow reporting

In all of this, media has chosen to acquire certain partners. The opposition parties are obviously good allies to have. Opposition parties quite naturally like to grill the government. By the way, I believe its fair for the opposition parties to have an agenda against the government. That's their job. They can even level accusations against the government. They are only allegations.....not proven. But what about media? Dont we need more responsibility and accountability with media? Can media be allowed to behave like opposition parties? The other partner is the judiciary. There is a clear case of judicial activism in some cases. Yet media ignores it. There is really attrocious behavior from some judges (driven by a desire for fame) to use intemperate language in describing their peers in government. Media puts such stories on the front page. A partner of late has been the CAG. Now anyone who has run a company knows that any internal auditor gives the management a chance to explain their point of view. It does not "expose" its findings to the audit committee. The internal auditor also has to verify if its a policy matter (that rests with the management and the Board) or a process failure (that rests with the audit committee). But the CAG prefers to first go to media before giving the government a chance to explain. But media defends its partner in this.

It's often said that if the 3 arms of the government - the legislative, executive and judiciary - get too cosy with each other, its bad news for the country. What happens when the 4th estate - media - gets too cosy with any one of these? Its even worse news for the country. Because media has the power to brainwash people. To make or break reputations of people. To build opinions for or against someone. If it does not exercise this power with utmost discretion, it can cause permanent and irreparable damage to the nation.

The real truth is that media has lost its standards. Journalists and media owners have agendas to pursue. The power that they command has corrupted most of them. Exposing corruption is not about un-earthing the truth anymore; its about asserting power. Today, the governance of this country is at the mercy of media. Government decisions are taken not keeping public interest but media opinions in mind. Not everyone is corrupt. There are some great civil servants and politicians out there. But instead of making them partners and giving them support, media chooses to ignore their contribution. Its a real sad commentary on the state of affairs of Indian media.

1 comment:

  1. Indian TV or print media is mostly interested in movies and making quick money. They have a very shallow understanding of matters and untrained or poorly trained journalists.