The news business in India is broken

News is not about putting out content without filters. It is about editorial diligence. It is about credibility. It Is about public interest

Harini CalamurUpdated: Monday, July 18, 2022, 02:15 AM IST
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Towards the end of May, on a televised live debate on a leading news channel owned by a leading news conglomerate, former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma made a comment about the Prophet Muhammad that echoed across the globe. With a hashtag of #ShivlingDamagedClaim, the TV panel gathered a bunch of people with the sole intention of attracting eyeballs through acrimony. Factchecker and co-founder of Alt News Mohammed Zubair called out the broadcast.

Since that comment by Nupur Sharma, and tweet by Mohammed Zubair, the Republic of India has been in the unenviable position of having to soothe ruffled feathers and sentiments across the Islamic world. Nupur Sharma was dropped like a hot potato by the party for doing what she was hired to do. The Supreme Court of India has accused her ‘loose tongue’ of ‘setting India on fire. And she is under police protection and in hiding, after a number of offended Islamists called for her head. There have been two murders of people who shared social media posts supporting Sharma, by affronted Islamists. At the same time, Mohammed Zubair is paying for this through a series of cases filed against him by offended ‘citizens,’ who have been affronted by his describing those who called for rape and murder as ‘hatemongers.’ As of the time of writing, a Delhi court has agreed to bail for Zubair, and a UP court has not.

In all this, while different sides revile and support Mohammed Zubair and Nupur Sharma, holding the other as the villain of the piece, the question that needs to be asked is – what of news broadcast and platform responsibility? In a world where we talk about assigning intermediary status to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to reduce hate, how do we look at news channels that use their power and reach to cause strife?

News, as an organised activity, is probably less than two centuries old. And for the longest time news was not a profit model. It was run by those who had the money – news barons – to put out their opinion to influence government policy. For countries like India, struggling under the yoke of colonialism, fair few papers were started by political leaders to spread the message of independence – from Kesari by Tilak, to Bande Mataram by Aurobindo Ghose, to the Harijan by Gandhi and the Hindustan Dainik by Madan Mohan Malviya – many of them in local languages; many of them taking forward ideas and opinions of liberty and freedom. Of course, the British responded with severe censorship, including the application of the sedition law. And there was strict action taken against papers who reported on stories that the Raj did not want – for example, the Bengal Famine. However, brave news editors found a way around this censorship.

Even in the post-WWIIera, the role of news was primarily seen as a public service. The expectations of profit were minimal. The idea was that the ownership of a media house will give you power and influence far beyond monetary terms. The new barons still ran news. The big change took place with the coming in of satellite television and the ability of commercial organisations to run efficient, profitable news operations. Starting with CNN, the skies across the world bloomed with news channels. Nowhere in the world is that more evident than in India.

At last count there are close to 400 satellite news channels, most of them in regional languages. This does not include the cable channels that may run their own variation of ‘news’ in hyperlocal areas. While the satellite channels come under the purview of the ministry of information and broadcasting, most cable channels fall into a no-man’s land of regulation. Most of these channels are run for a variety of reasons, generally to have to do with political clout and leverage.

The news business is expensive to run. It is estimated that to do a competent job at a state level, it would cost you over a crore plus in just newsgathering costs. This is assuming you want to run news – that is, looking at issues that impact the public. For example, looking at the state of public health before a pandemic (not when thousands are stricken); or looking at shelters for homeless. However, this kind of reportage is not just time-consuming, it is expensive. And often it does not get the same kind of attention that the sight of two people screaming at each other on some obscure issue does. Producing news shows where a bunch of motivated people are delivering a prepared script with full emotion, however, is not particularly expensive to produce. And it possibly attracts more eyeballs than a well-researched piece of reportage.

Much of TV news is about screaming people. Because obnoxious, abrasive, and divisive drama makes for good viewing. It is the same reason we watch a serialised television drama, and why the villains of the show are big hits. There is something about our normally polite and boring lives that craves ugliness. News television provides us with that. Of course, in a democracy, the businesses have full right to provide us with our nightly entertainment of gladiatorial contestants scoring points off each other. But is it news?

Much of the protection and status accorded to news is that it acts in public interest. In a world where news media is more focused on a star child’s potty training, or getting political spokespeople into battle with each other, should organisations that curate social media feeds and curate guest lists of screaming spokespeople be accorded the same status and respect as organisations gathering and reporting news? Right now, self-regulation for news is broken beyond belief. It is a ‘you scratch my back; I scratch yours’ policy on news blunders. And that is something that needs to be relooked at. Self-regulation is not working. And, while government regulation is a bad idea, there needs to be a focus on effective regulation. So, while Zubair and Sharma are going through the process of Indian justice, with cases filed across the board, with threat to life and liberty – the news channel that lit the fire, the news anchor that poured kerosene on the issue, have had zero accountability. News is not about putting out content without filters. It is about editorial diligence. It is about credibility. It Is about public interest. Unfortunately, none of those have been on display in this whole sorry incident. And, while others pay the price for this, the news corporation will not. And that needs to change.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur

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