State of the Media: Crisis in India's Fourth Estate

India is known for its rancorous free press. Driven by market pressures, the private media is ridiculed for its sensationalism, admired for its tenacity, feared for upsetting diplomatic photo-ops, begrudgingly applauded for its role as opinion maker, and criticized for its quick judgments in many breathless television trials. Yet it is widely acknowledged that, despite its relentless pursuit of readers and higher ratings, India's fourth estate largely does justice to its role as a critical observer.

Dust has settled on the infamous scandal known as the Radia tapes, where a few of the best know faces of Indian journalism were accused of "power-brokering" for corporate houses during the official telecom auction of 2G spectrum bands, allegedly incurring a loss of over $40 billion to the government exchequer. The numbers in kickbacks and misappropriation were beyond the comprehension of the average Indian.

But while the scandal shook the nation, the forgiving Indian viewer continues to tune into the 9 PM opinion debates on prime time. Surprisingly, trust in the news media hasn't wavered, according to surveys. The perception is that the media, despite its shortcomings, at least looks out for the common man by making officials accountable as scam after scam expose how the state goes about its business. The mainstream media may be crass, loud and relentless - but it does the job. It makes average Indians powerful in their living rooms.

The last few months, though, have been unsettling for the media. With budget crunches, tighter management control, editorial tussles, and mass layoffs, newsrooms are not looking good. Well-known editors have been replaced overnight, some casualties of the murky politics preceding the 2014 elections. But the punch in the gut has been the arrest of Tarun Tejpal, the founding editor of a radical investigative magazine, on allegations of sexual assault and attempted rape of a junior colleague. The Pandora's box has opened the lid on a deluge of problems that ail the Indian media.

The Tejpal scandal

The media has always chased issues of sexual assault with righteous indignation - politicians, corporate honchos, even Supreme Court judges have been questioned, cornered, and proverbially flogged under the spotlight. But when the can of worms was opened on one of the media's own last year, the discomfort was apparent. The arrest of Tarun Tejpal -- the founding editor of Tehelka, a magazine perceived as a radical news outlet and path breaker in investigative journalism -- sent shock waves through the industry. His open "letter of atonement," announcing that he was stepping down for six months to introspect on how he had "misread signs of friendly banter" as justification for allegedly forcing himself twice on a junior colleague, exposed the rampant hypocrisy that cuts across media houses in India today.

Many fumed with disgust and demanded the head of (now former) Managing Editor Shoma Choudhary for initially casting aside the victim's complaint letter as an "untoward incident." The trial by media left nothing to imagination -- the personal email of the victim was leaked and circulated, the humiliating anguish of the victim was recounted blow-by-blow across multi-media platforms and the double standards on protecting the identity of the victim were exposed by a voyeuristic witch-hunt. The incessant media attention once again raised the debate on the absence of effective sexual harassment laws protecting women in the workplace, but it did little to inspire many more to come forward.

Over a cup of coffee, my journalist friends recounted horror tales of many senior editors and colleagues who had gotten away with much worse. One of them said sadly, "What's the point? People will forget, these ‘b******* will get away, and women will end up losing careers they love, just like that poor girl." Such is the crisis of confidence in one of the most empowered career fields in the country. As of today, Tejpal is in judicial custody, the victim has resigned from Tehelka, and so have a slew of senior journalists. Mounting public pressure and criticism have forced the managing editor's exit too. The real loss, however, has been for journalism. Tehelka had built its brand as a cutting-edge investigative enterprise. The magazine has suffered a loss of trust that will be hard to regain.

Editors caught in political crossfire

It gets murkier. In the run-up to the 2014 election, political propaganda breached all codes of conduct, with a conspicuous intolerance of difference of opinion. The targets have been professional editors, sacrificed by their owners either for being  "too independent" or having been seen as "damaging larger business interests," according to their colleagues in the industry.

Take the case of Open magazine, which shot into public imagination with a daring exposé on the corporate lobbying nexus at the center of the Radia tapes. Today, the same magazine is embroiled in a legal battle with its former political editor, Hartosh Singh Bal, who was asked to leave overnight by the industrialist-owners for "misplaced editorial judgments." The development shocked the media community. Coincidentally (or not), Bal's last article was a critical piece on Congress heir apparent Rahul Gandhi. Bal has maintained on record that he has still not received a clear reason from the management for his termination, and attempts by other media organizations to get a clarification from the owners have also been met with limited success.

A former colleague of Bal's agreeing to speak under condition of anonymity says this decision was long in the brewing. The discomfort, he argues, "started since the breaking of the Radia tapes story in 2010. The owners were beginning to feel the heat as Bal's approach to political investigative journalism was making the political circle unhappy and affecting their other businesses."

Bal himself elaborates: "I have found over much of my time in journalism that owners preferred to have editors who had already shown a degree of pliability in their previous jobs. This keeps the editors' jobs circulating among a pool of largely pliant journalists. While all of the usual reasons hold - the ownership patterns in media, the lack of transparency in funding, the linkages between owners and politicians - for the current crisis in journalism, it also remains true that journalists entering the profession today have to make their compromises with ownership and management at a much earlier stage of their career because they have been largely deprived of the protective shield of a good editor." As this article goes to print, news has broken that the Bal's former colleague and editor-in-chief of Open magazine, Manu Joseph, has also put in his papers. The unease is growing; the intolerance to diversity of opinions in media coverage has never been more obvious.

This incident was preceded by another shocking exit. Siddharth Varadarajan, one of India's well-known journalists, was named the first professional editor of the 135-year-old-family-owned and -run Hindu newspaper in May 2011. Twenty months into his tenure, the decision was reversed, with the family wresting back editorial control as internal differences were reconciled. When the newspaper's board asked him to continue in the less central role of contributing editor and senior columnist, Varadarajan resigned.

His response to my question about what the episode says of the state of Indian journalism was telling. He says, "The problem with proprietor-editors, even if they are qualified, is that a modern newspaper cannot be run on feudal principles. Newsrooms need the cut and thrust of competing ideas and views. This isn't possible in a feudal set-up where decision-making is not delegated and even section heads have to go through courtiers in order to be able to communicate with the editor. Owner-editors cannot wax eloquent about the undesirability of dynasty in national politics and then run their own newspaper as a dynasty!"

Underlying this management tussle were rumors that Varadarajan had issued a memo to the news desk discouraging coverage of the opposition BJP's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi on page 1, a charge he has denied repeatedly. Varadarajan clarified, "My rule for Modi, Rahul [Gandhi], Sonia [Gandhi] and so on was: front page in the local edition, elsewhere only if newsworthy." When I questioned him on whether he thought editors were being specifically targeted for political decisions, he was wary of generalizations but made the point that, "it is true that in the run up to the general election, many proprietors have decided to back a particular individual as prime minister or are hedging their bets, and this means a signal does get sent to the editorial side on what is and what is not permissible."

A former colleague of Vardarajan's requesting anonymity rues that the loss was really for the Hindu. "This chaos has actually taken away the momentum from the professional transformation which was underway in the newsroom. You can see the clock going back now," he said. While the proprietors have defended their decision in many open fora, the incident points to a much-needed direction in the debate on the professionalization of newsrooms.

A worrisome future

If political pressure and management troubles were not enough, the economics of the business has brought the latest hurricane in the newsroom. Many believe that the increasing ownership of media outlets by corporate houses has greatly complicated matters. A series of layoffs have ailed the Indian media. Newsroom integration is the new mantra. In layman's terms, that means combining intra-group resources to trim budgets and staff. In this year alone, one of India's largest media conglomerates, the Network 18 group of broadcasters, laid off about 300 employees across their national, regional, and business news channels. Bloomberg India, even with a small staff of over 150, reportedly had to let go 30-40 employees due to tightened finances. Reports say that a large southern business group's plans to launch an English news channel with an already hired sitting staff are now uncertain. The pink-slip rush, media watchers say, has been triggered by the telecom regulator's recent decision to cut ad time down to 12 minutes per hour of programming. Fewer ads mean lower revenues and tighter financial constraints.

The Indian newspaper industry is in bigger trouble, says Vardarajan; it needs a new revenue model for its print offerings. Cover prices are absurdly low and advertising accounts for more than 90 percent of revenue. "If newspapers in the West are worrying about how to impose a pay wall for their websites, the problem in India is even more acute: When there is virtually no pay wall for the printed edition of the newspaper to begin with, how will you convince people to pay to read you online?" he said.

These financial conundrums are the Achilles heel of the entire system. Bal points out that media expansion in India since the 1990s has not been financially viable for most of the industry, apart from the odd media channel breaking even. "So the boom points to interests that go beyond business," he says. "Corruption lies at its heart and the lack of transparency in funding is becoming our biggest problem."

Industry veterans sum up what plagues the future of the Indian media with a round of disparagement: "more opinion less reportage," "no funds for real reportage," "paid news," "sensationalism and unprofessional reporting," "the celebrity syndrome," "business interests," "political interference," and "non-transparency in funding." Sigh.

Taking a stand

Under these circumstances, can we expect independent journalism to thrive? The future of journalism in India will depend on whether the Indian press has the ability to withstand external pressure and set its own house in order. It is perhaps time for introspection - about clamping down on lazy journalism, owning up to mistakes, re-evaluating our mindsets,  ethics and norms, and redefining what journalism needs to stand for and what determines success in the field. It is also perhaps time to rethink the economics of the business and make it viable enough to withstand the serious financial constraints on independent journalism. The slow rebellion ushered by digital journalism is not going unnoticed. Change seems to have gripped the political capital recently, with the ouster of incumbent politicians in the state elections and the rise of new blood. It may also be the right time for the Indian media to rewind and reprioritize.

Shruti Pandalai is a television journalist and foreign policy analyst currently working with IDSA, a New Delhi-based think tank. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent views of the institute. Follow her on Twitter: @shrutipandalai.

NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

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