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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Media Scene Today

Thursday 3 January 2013, by Kuldip Nayar

How soon does time fly away? Mainstream is fifty years old. Yet it seems only yesterday when Nikhil Chakarvartty founded the magazine. He wanted to give the intelligentsia a mainstream where streams of different thoughts would pour in. His belief was that every idea, however conservative or parochial, was worth debating.

The contributor had every right to place his or her viewpoint freely and independently so that there was an interplay of ideas for a consensus to emerge. Even if there was none, the society would have a pool of ideas for sharpening the intellect and thinking of the society.

True, Mainstream is a magazine but it is also a platform available to all those who have something to say, a facility which other maga-zines and newspapers do not offer. It is a manthan which will throw out the poison.

Nikhil was ideologically Left but he never used the magazine, as is the proprietor’s tendency, to propagate his belief. In fact, he was harsh in judging the Left. He did not spare it, particularly, the Communist Party of India, when it did not rise to the occasion during the Emergency (1975-77) and challenge Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule. On his part, he suspended the publication of Mainstream because he did not want to submit the subject matter of his magazine to the censors. Democracy and censorship do not bed together, Nikhil would often say. Mainstream has been guided by that principle for the past five decades. It is a different kind of journalism which has no sacred cows. It challenges the establishment on the one hand and the political parties on the other. While doing so, it provokes thoughts and throws up new ideas and introduces liberation to the country’s body politic.

The media cannot and should not have cosy relations with the establishment. The task is quite the opposite of the press and TV channels. In a free society the media has a duty to inform the public without fear or favour. At times it’s an unpleasant job but it has to be performed because a free society is founded on free information. If the press were to disseminate only the establishment’s point of view or official statements, there would be none to pin-point lapses, deficiencies or mistakes. In fact, the truth is that the media is already too niminy-piminy, too nice, altogether too refined, too ready to leave out. The government should not ask for more.

Somehow those who occupy high positions in the ruling party and the government labour under the belief that they—and they alone—know what the nation should be told and when. And they get annoyed if any news, which they do not like, appears in the print. Their first attempt is to contradict it and dub it as mischievous. Later, when it is realised that a mere denial will not convince even the most gullible, a lame explanation is offered that things have not been put “in proper perspective”. Probably, at that time, the government gets away with its version of the story.
But what is not realised is that such tactics only decrease the credibility of official assertions. Even honest claims of the government begin to be questioned. In a democracy, where faith stirs the people’s response, the government cannot afford to have even an iota of doubt raised about what it says or does. Somehow, New Delhi is not conscious of this fact.

However, the thoughts of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were different. At the All India Newspaper Editors’ Conference in December 1950, he said: “I have no doubt that even if the government dislikes the liberties taken by the press and considers them dange-rous, it is wrong to interfere with the freedom of the press. By imposing restrictions you do not change anything. You merely suppress the manifestation of certain things, thereby causing the idea and the thought underlying them to spread further. Therefore, I would have a com-pletely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press.”

Such enunciations put more responsibility on the shoulders of the media. Unfortunately, even the best of papers and TV channels indulge in sensationalism and what has come to be characterised as ‘paid news’. News columns used to be sacred but today in the name of interpretative reporting they are used to include what should be part of editorials. In fact you find many a time news in editorials and editorials in news. Obviously, some pressures are working behind the scenes to influence the media. The major pressure is either by the political mafia or the money bags. The govern-ment, especially the one in the State, is no less guilty. There seems to be a nexus among all the three.

The Press Council of India which was founded to guard the press freedom has been a failure. If at all there was any utility in the beginning, it has outlived its use. The Council today is different in complexion from the first one when only editors were its members. Now trade unionism and the proprietors’ say have reduced the Council in stature and influence. It is too docile and too accommodative. Not long ago, the Council had to adopt a compromise report on ‘paid news’ because the owners were as much involved in the corrupt practice as were the journalists. The demand is for teeth. By giving statutory powers to the Councils the government would be defeating the original purpose. The Council is a moral authority and peers judge the peers. The Council is not a law court but, alas, this is not being realised, particularly by the Council’s Chairman.

Self-regulation is the best way out. True, the experience shows that neither newspapers nor the TV channels have any restrain when they smell a scam and hold a media trial. They give their judgment even before the chargesheet is submitted in the Court. This is an unfair practice but the media insists on following it for more visibility—and—advertisements.

Where the media has failed the country most is in the neglect to cover violations of human rights as well as the destitution of more than 400 million people. Seldom does a story of agitation at the grassroots appear in the press. Reports on poverty are a taboo. A leading news-paper, when asked about such a omission, said: our customers do not want to read stories of suffering or poverty at their breakfast table.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com

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