Has the Indian media no shame?


I was in a Thanksgiving party in an American city recently, and some people there said they had heard in the Indian media of an Indian industrialist’s daughter’s forthcoming wedding on in Mumbai. The media had reported how fabulous and mind-blowing the wedding will be. It will be preceded by two days of festivities in Udaipur, where 200 chartered fights are expected to arrive.

After hearing all this for some time, and when I could stand it no longer, I said “Isn’t it the height of vulgarity to celebrate a wedding in such an extravagant manner when crores of Indian children do not get enough to eat?” I then mentioned that according to Global Hunger Index, 21% Indian children are ‘wasted’ i.e. their weight is too low relative to their height, which indicates acute malnutrition, and in fact 47% Indian children are malnourished. I also mentioned about the 300,000 farmers suicides in India, the massive unemployment, almost total lack of proper healthcare and good education for the masses, etc.

This retort apparently upset many of those present, who quickly moved to another room. I was reminded of the Sanskrit adage Na Bruyat Satyam Apriyam (Don’t speak an unpleasant truth). Unfortunately, habits die hard.

So I found it disgusting when a large section of the Indian media highlighted the spectacular weddings of Priyanka Chopra with Nick Jonas, and of Deepika Padikone with Ranveer Singh, as if these were important issues in India.

I also find it disgusting when the India media highlights the lives of Taimur, the son of Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan, and Aaradhya, the grand daughter of Amitabh Bachchan.

Many years back a leading English journal published on its front page an article about female breast enlargement surgery, and how affordable it has become now, costing only Rs 1.50 lakhs. I immediately wrote to the editor of that journal lodging a strong protest. I said that most Indian women were bravely toiling from morning till night running the household, feeding their families, and sometimes doing outdoor work in addition to earn a little money. It was, I argued, a cruel insult to them to talk of breast enlargement.

The Roman Emperors used to say “If you cannot give the people bread, give them circuses.” Queen Marie Antoinette said, “If people do not have bread give them cake.” The Indian state and the Indian media seem to follow these dicta. They try to divert public attention from the real issues facing the people, which are socio-economic, to entertainment like cricket, lives of film stars, babas, astrology, petty politics etc.

One would not have any objection to the media showing some entertainment, if it is not overdone. But when 90% of the Indian media’s coverage is devoted to entertainment (and I include Indian politics in that category) and very little to social issues like healthcare, malnourishment, education etc, there is surely something wrong with the Indian media.

Some time back, a Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai was covered by 512 accredited journalists. The models wore cotton dresses, while the farmers who grew that cotton were committing suicide an hour’s flight away in Vidarbha. No one told that story except one or two journalists locally.

At one time we had great journalists like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who in his journals Miratul Akhbar and Sambad Kaumudi wrote against sati, child marriage, purdah etc, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi who through his newspaper Pratap, fought against oppression and was killed by a mob while opposing communalism, and Nikhil Chakraborty, who highlighted the Bengal famine of 1943. Even today we have great journalists like P. Sainath who revealed the story of farmers suicides in rural India. But these are exceptions, and most Indian journalists of today appear to be sold out. The TRP driven electronic media are the worst culprits.

In England, the Leveson Committee report castigated the ‘sensationalism’ and ‘recklessness’ in the British media, and recommended an independent regulator. Perhaps the same is needed in India too. No freedom can be absolute, and neither can freedom of the press.

No doubt there is freedom in a democracy, but there is also accountability. Lawyers are in a free profression, but if they commit professional misconduct, their licence can be suspended/cancelled by the Bar Council, and a doctor’s licence can be suspended/cancelled by the Medical Council for medical misconduct. As a judge in the High Court and Supreme Court, I could function independently, but I could be impeached by Parliament for taking bribes. So everyone in society is accountable.

But media persons stoutly oppose any accountability, even by an independent regulator. They say they will do self regulation. In my opinion self regulation is an oxymoron. If there is to be self regulation, why should it be for the media alone? Why have laws against theft, rape or murder? Let everyone regulate himself.

I regret to say so, but in my opinion most media persons are totally superficial people having little knowledge of history, science, economics, literature, philosophy etc but pretending to be great ‘intellectuals’ who can discourse on everything under the sun.

And of course about their ethics the less said the better.

(Justice Markandey Katju is a former Supreme Court judge and ex-chairman of Press Council of India. Views expressed here are the author’s own.)

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