Photograph of VT Joshi

Author - VT Joshi

The role of the media in public affairs in a free society has long been a matter of animated debate but without tangible results. In the recent past the media itself is in the news, and appears to be at crossroads. There are so many ticklish aspects which it needs to sit up and think.

The biggest casualty of the market-dominated media is the steady erosion of the institution of editors. There is a surfeit of fanciful, variegated designations - like associate editor, executive editor, managing editor, executive managing editor but no EDITOR.

According to a prominent ex-editor of a national daily of India, the editor is sandwiched between two "executioners" - the vice-president of the publishing company and the executive editor. Of late a third element has taken over - "The marketeer". Together they are like the three musketeers of the modern media, so to say. This trinity of media gods has systematically diluted the authority of the editor to virtual nullity by diffusing the focus of his authority. In its list of fifty "powerful persons" India Today names the chairman of the country's biggest and oldest publishing company whose sole claim to fame rests on his feat of making "the editor irrelevant". What an achievement indeed! No wonder his paper is rumoured to be actively contemplating the obliteration of the editorial page altogether. The long line of illustrious editors the paper had must be turning in their graves.

With every passing day media's terror manifests itself in the tyranny of advertisements, publicity blurbs and pictures of pin up girls. A few years ago one national daily clubbed itself with a popular foreign brand of soft drink company in its traditional front page box on the first day of January to wish its readers the customary "happy new year". It dropped its serious book review page for want of a "sponsor" for it. Media gimmicks match in no small measure the dimensions of the latest scourge.

Irresponsible terror of media has over the years acquired the status of a new creed, a new self-centered "ism" that can well be called "mediaterrorism".

The cruel dilemma of the media, both electronic and print variety, is how much to inform and educate, how much to scare and how much to keep the viewers and readers in the dark. In a candid conversation sometime back a college principal remarked somewhat sarcastically: "Truth is dangerous. People must be protected from it"!

The daily quota of exposures on the TV screen of mangled bodies in an accident, of heavily bandaged wounded patients groaning in pain yet goaded to speak out from hospital beds, of mutilated murder victims, and such like gory viewing is not exactly calculated to enhance the knowledge of the truth but in fact only to mangle it further. Such images in the name of providing "visuals" only help to desensitize the viewers and not to enhance their sensitivities and sensibilities much less to galvanize them into appropriate public interest action.

In recent years, for instance, the role of the electronic media was as DISASTROUS as the events it sought to cover: like the Kandahar plane hijacking, Agra summit, Godhra outrage and its aftermath, and poor Sunita Rani's ordeal of dope test till she got back her coveted gold with honour. The Indo-Pak Agra summit was virtually sabotaged by the electronic media, unwittingly or otherwise, through its coverage like that of a cricket match, ball by ball, ludicrously basing half baked, immature observations and conclusions on the so-called "Body Language", and pontificating on serious, delicate issues that were under discussion at the highest levels of the two countries.

At the same time there is widespread recourse to soft pornography by both the print and electronic media, reveling in the display of bare bosoms and barely clad female form. Semi-nude figures have become their staple fare. And, in defence, it is raised to the status of great art. Protagonists cite the examples of Khjuraho and Konarak frescoes. Surely there is a difference between erotic images in stone and their visual replication in live shows on the fast proliferating TV channels beaming into the drawing rooms of most homes round the clock. Abysmally unhealthy for the young and old alike in all families, soft porn is evident all over the media much to the agony and chagrin of sensitive, sensible, discerning viewers and readers.

It is pertinent to note that some thoughtless articles by self-styled intellectual jokers in the print media cause the maximum harm and frustrate the incipient efforts of some people to restore a semblance of sanity and decency in a fast degenerating society. A society fed on "fashion- parade" culture reveling in silly, senseless, semi-nude ad-models and TV serials extolling promiscuity, infidelity, divorce, murder and mayhem. The result is that even six and seven year old children have suddenly become full-blooded adults and adolescents, prematurely missing the real joys and pleasures of both childhood and adulthood. They are being taught the crass, crude benefits of condoms instead of the virtues of abstinence to ward off AIDs!

What is being witnessed and eulogized is the vulgarization aptly summed up as "condomisation" of the society, as the heading of an article in a prominent national newspaper put it recently. It is however futile to expect self-correction and self-regulation from the media itself, plagued by the fierce competition in a market oriented economy and the compulsions of keeping the show going on the crazy, twenty- four-hour news and entertainment channels.

Whenever some attempts are initiated through authoritative external regulation they are lampooned and phrases like "moral police" are invented by those very people who make millions by sponsoring the no-holds-barred, permissive culture in the name of "freedom of expression." Only a well coordinated body of concerned viewers and readers can stem the rot through concerted action snowballing into a sustained public movement.

The media has to be saved from itself. A new approach is needed for the treatment of development stories. By common consent between the editors and market managers at least a quarter of the front page should be reserved and devoted every day to well studied, credible "brighter side" of things. It would be a tremendous morale booster not only for the readers but also through them for the society and nation as a whole. Such a practice would lift their spirits from the otherwise daily fare of depressing stories like murder and mayhem, rapes and riots, factional fights fratricidal strife, political polarization and the like.

Steady exposure to truthfulbrighter side of individual and collective national life would be an effective antidote to the widespread skepticism and apprehension of anti-national notions and sentiments prevailing in the society and help instil a modicum of national self assurance. The absence of "national pride" is mourned by politicians every now and then without their realizing that their own contribution to the general deterioration and decay is by no means mean. But that is another story. At the moment, let us think seriously about saving the country from the media and the media from itself.

VT Joshi

25 March 2003

VT JOSHI (1925-2008) worked for more than fifty years as a journalist. He retired from THE TIMES OF INDIA in 1989. During 1985-89 he was the Special Correspondent of THE TIMES OF INDIA in Pakistan. His books "PAKISTAN: ZIA TO BENAZIR" and "INDIA AT CROSS ROADS" (co-author GG Puri) were widely reviewed in both India and Pakistan.

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