Of The Media, By The Media And For The Media: India's Misplaced Controversy

05/09/2015 9:08 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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TV presenter holding a microphone close-up. Isolated on white background.

Despite promising to return to writing my book this weekend and not writing another piece until Monday, I feel compelled to do so.

I was asked in an interview recently about the sensational 'Murder of Sheena Bora' and whether we were going through a 'Trial by Media'. Okay, here goes.

I take full responsibility for how bad true scribes feel about what media has become in India. My apologies.

I have not been a professional journalist, but I can see how people who belong to the Fourth Estate feel violated by the thin line that actually no longer even separates journalism from opinion.

When I was setting up Star News for Mr Murdoch, I had the opportunity to learn a lot from the experts. Fortunately or unfortunately a lot of this 'learning' has seeped onto the Indian TV screen. Through me and despite me.

I was tutored by Don Hewitt, creator of 60 minutes, on what it took to produce the world's most respected investigative journalism news magazine on CBS. He taught me what I have since always taught my teams: If the visual is poor, its ok. You can still tell your story. If your audio is bad, you've lost the audience. The voice is king.

I had the opportunity of seeing Bill O'Reilly at Fox News create his brand equity by being confrontational and fearless. His team consisted of some of the most brilliant journalists and online producers I met in 2002. Nothing like that had ever been seen in India. His advantage was always that he knew the answer before he had even asked the question. The tremors in the newsroom could be felt even before he was on air.

I met Rina Golden at CNN from whom I learned how grooming and presentation skills can make or break an anchor. I also learned from her the difference between a newsreader and an anchor or a host.

At Sky News in London, I was amazed at the strong journalistic sense of the online promos and creative graphics teams, whose job it was everyday to provide promotion and on screen design and identity to the news brands and turn 3D visuals and 20 second teasers into essential journalistically sound tools required to tell the story.

There were more, but that's enough example. Indian news television has evolved on these basic principles ever since.

We do in India as the Indians do. We think through our ears and we are influenced by bang and bling. We believe what we see and we see what we believe.

I woke up this morning to find thinly veiled criticism by fellow media walas about the way the media was covering the murder investigation. And soon discovered even more flimsily muslined jibes at why the likes of me appeared on TV debates and gave interviews on the subject. Why not let the police do their job? Why are 'we' turning judge and juror? Had we professionals become so 'small' in stature that we needed to partake of this senseless sensationalism. How could we take part in Trial by Media? Tut.Tut.

I was taken aback. I thought 'Trial by Media' meant the kind of coverage CNN did on the OJ Simpson trial. 'Trial' being the operative word. We are nowhere near a trial in this case.

More mature and more trusted media communities the world over are also not above resorting to gossip and sensationalism to feed the insatiable appetite of 24 hour news coverage. Case in point, the OJ Simpson trial or even the legal controversy over the death of Michael Jackson. Courtroom publicity has always played a key role in high profile cases. Media exposure in these cases are agreeably both harmful and critical.

The 'Trial by Media' being referred to here is more like a 'Trial by Media of the Media by the Media'.

I have researched the term dry. The way it is perceived in India, it is more a comment on the presentation style of constant rolling news, dotted with news breaks and stings, sensational music underscores, high pitched opinion and 'guest' voices on the possibilities of the case, debates, high decibel promos, in-your-face graphics, legal opinions before there is a charge sheet and most importantly, news of the police investigation being reported without proper police briefings.

One small thing: It's impossible to know what the police are doing if they don't want you to know it.

This misplaced and judgemental term is also a reflection of jealousy and competition within the media circles here.

If someone has had more impact than you, fellow journalists, even those I hold in the highest esteem, suddenly develop great amounts of morality whilst secretly wishing he or she could have themselves done better. I am sure there are exceptions to this, and I'll be glad if there are. But I see no evidence of it on air or in my ear. Judging from the harsh reactions I see all around.

There isn't a single platform in most media industries today who haven't diluted their journalistic standards to serve a commercial end, be they consumer facing brands or trade sites and papers being funded for the 'news'. How can you possibly critique a shoddy show on an entertainment channel that is bloated with marketing and PR budgets, or take on fat cat corporations, and hope to get advertiser money from them if you are a commercially dependent news channel, newspaper or a trade site?

Now that's a question no one has ever asked. Or dared to answer.

And to question the motive or wisdom of fellow scribes or professionals who speak up when asked direct questions is frankly a reflection of just this.

Perhaps those of us who speak or write openly and without fear or shame have nothing to lose. And definitely nothing to gain. We have drawn the line between being professional and being in business.

If Sheena Bora walked onto Prime Time, hale and hearty, no one would be happier than me.

But the fact is, she may never. And we don't know whodunit. Yet. And we as a public don't understand how justice is done in India, let alone 'seen to be done'. And we need our media to tell us the stories that inform us about how our world works.

Despite what everyone calls irresponsible and unacceptable intervention by the press, we have high profile cases still lying unsolved.

If the media was so capable of conducting a trial, wouldn't the success rate be better?

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