"Wading neck deep in a swamp, your revolver is neither use nor ornament until you have had time to clean it" Mary H. Kingsley (1897)

Slow erosion of India’s trust in the news

By Mark Tully

Ranchi, Jharkhand

The reputation of India’s media as a watchdog, exposing corruption and other wrongdoing, has taken a battering following allegations that some publications and broadcasters were being paid to print favourable stories during the 2009 general election.

Bumping along potholed cart tracks, standing in the back of an open jeep alongside a candidate driving to an election meeting, I asked him whether he had been asked to pay for coverage.

The candidate replied forcefully: “I was asked to pay for what the journalists call ‘packages’.

“That is a deal guaranteeing you a certain amount of coverage. It’s all set out in detail. I didn’t buy a package, so they haven’t covered my campaign.”

In the office of a candidate in a different constituency, I found a member of his staff writing a report for a paper. When I asked whether the paper had been paid he said: “Of course, what do you think?”

One of India’s best-known crusading journalists P Sainath wrote: “The political class did not, as some imagine, go out and seduce the media.

“The media went out and sought package deals with them whereby they forked out huge sums of money.”

Losing public trust

The revelations about paid news have cast the proprietors and managers in the role of villains, but journalists themselves have not been above suspicion.

The income tax department tapped conversations of a political lobbyist which seemed to indicate that some journalists are receiving cash to lobby politicians.

Most newspaper and television channels did not report the tapped conversations which led to the accusation that journalists were very keen to expose the misdeeds of others, but not so keen on bringing questions about their own community to the public’s attention.

One of the members of the press council’s team said: “The common man still has faith in the media, but the credibility is fast eroding.”

The popularity of a satirical film last year here indicates how fast it is eroding.

The main character in Peepli Live is a farmer who cannot repay his debt.

The bank is about to take over his land. His brother persuades him that the only way out is to join the thousands of indebted farmers who have taken their own lives in India over recent years.

If he does that, the family will be able to claim compensation.

When news that the farmer is considering taking his own life reaches a national television channel, the Delhi press corps descends on Peepli.

The will he, won’t he take his own life story becomes national breaking news with live coverage dominating the television bulletins.

The farmer flees from the press and is accidentally burnt alive.

Politicians and civil servants come out badly from Peepli Live, but there is no doubt that the main target of the film’s scorn is the television reporters and their frantic efforts to outdo each other in sensationalising the story.

But there are other villains too. The television executives who urge their journalists on to ever-more incredible feats of fantasy in order to scoop their rivals and get the best audience figures and consequently the most lucrative advertising.

‘Infotainment industry’

Now a few weeks ago, I came across a remarkable Hindi newspaper in Ranchi the capital of Jharkhand, a small, backward, central Indian state, which has shown that business considerations need not drive journalism.

The editor of the paper, a short and stocky middle-aged man called Harivansh came to Ranchi to take over a local newspaper called Prabhat Khabar, or Morning News, which was on its deathbed.

That was 20 years ago. Now the paper has the largest circulation in Jharkhand, in spite of competition from national papers with plenty of money to spend on obliterating their small opponents.

Harivansh said to me: “We report on issues which matter to people and we have shown that a newspaper doesn’t have to be seen as a product of the infotainment industry.”

One reason for Prabhat Khabar’s popularity is its courage in taking on the government. When villagers died of starvation in one of the districts of Jharkhand, Prabhat Khabar was the only paper to carry the story.

The rest of the press were intimidated by government threats to charge them with publishing what it called “misleading facts”.

The day after I met Harivansh, I was passing through a village outside Ranchi when I noticed someone reading Prabhat Khabar.

I stopped to ask him why he had chosen that paper. He replied, “because it reports on what matters to us living here. The other papers just give the news as the local contractor wants it given.”

Perhaps the glee with which Indians have watched the humiliation of journalists in Peepli Live and the answer that Jharkhand villager gave me show that the media moguls have got it wrong.

Maybe Indians want information not infotainment. They certainly want to know when the news they are getting has been paid for.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

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Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2011/02/10 15:17:54 GMT

© BBC 2011

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