17/12/2015 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Ramnath Goenka Awards And The Crisis In Indian Media: An Opportunity Lost

Definition of journalism
Hemera Technologies via Getty Images
Definition of journalism

The Ramnath Goenka awards are arguably the most prestigious recognition given to journalists and writers working in print and broadcast media in India. The Express group instituted these awards to celebrate excellence in journalism and to recognise individuals who have displayed extraordinary courage in performing their duties as news reporters. The award ceremony usually attracts the who's who from the media and the political world, and naturally gets wide media coverage. The event is, therefore, an excellent platform for editors and journalists to debate issues affecting news media in the country, and to deliberate on some of the ways in which those concerns can be addressed. Instead, this opportunity was wasted over actor Aamir Khan's sensational statement on "intolerance" in the country, which by all assessments did nothing either to the cause of journalism or to the ongoing debate on the perceived growth of intolerance in India.

"[R]eluctance among journalist associations to openly debate allegations of corruption, paid news, breach of ethics and dilution of professional standards is clearly undermining the credibility of mainstream media."

Journalism in India is going through a serious crisis. While crony capitalism, cross-media monopoly and concentration of media ownership is killing the profession from within, reluctance among journalist associations to openly debate allegations of corruption, paid news, breach of ethics and dilution of professional standards is clearly undermining the credibility of news reporters and the mainstream media in the country.

India's mainstream news media is increasingly vested in the hands of a select few. All though from outside it appears as if the country has a "free media", in reality, the business interests of the media owners severely affects the fair coverage of news. In fact, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has raised serious concerns about increasing corporate media ownership, where news organisations are being bought by individuals with other business interests as a means to use news produced by their newspapers and TV channels to influence public policies. Naming 15 major media organisations as examples in its report, TRAI contends that uncontrolled media ownership could lead to irresponsible reporting and propagation of biased forecasts to suit other business interests of the owners.

The use of media ownership as a shield from being held accountable for financial irregularities has come under severe criticism from various sections of society. Very recently India's elite English news channel NDTV was served a show cause notice by the Enforcement Directorate for alleged tax evasions and money laundering. Earlier this year, T Venkattram Reddy, the owner of the Deccan Chronicle newspaper, known for his flamboyant lifestyle, was arrested over allegations of causing a loss of Rs 1,230 crore to Canara Bank. More recently, 33 television channels owned by the Kalanithi Maran-promoted Sun Network failed to obtain security clearance from the Home Ministry because the promoters are being probed by the CBI over their involvement in the Aircel-Maxis case.

Owners of several regional news channels are also embroiled in financial scandals. The properties of Jagati Publications that publishes the newspaper Sakshi and Sakshi TV owned by YSR Congress party president Jaganmohan Reddy, were attached by the Enforcement Directorate due to a money laundering case. In West Bengal, media tycoon Ramesh Gandhi was arrested in connection with the multi-crore Sharada Scam. Earlier this year, Central Excise, Customs and Service Taxes officials took Jamaluddin Farooqi, CEO of the Kochi-based Indiavison news channel, into their custody in connection with service tax evasion. Several studies by media scholars have (see here for example) shown that the involvement of businesspeople and politicians in regional news channels is principally directed by their desire to have a voice and to garner support for a particular political or economic agenda.

News reporting both at the national and regional level is severely affected by the political affiliation and business interests of media owners. Additionally, trivialisation of news under the pressure to garner high TRPs (television rating points), and increasingly blurring lines between news and advertorials, are fast eroding journalistic values that people like Ramnath Goenka strove to uphold. It would have been a fitting tribute to him if the organisers had taken advantage of the high-decibel media presence to discuss factors that are threatening professional values, journalistic autonomy, media ethics and public service reporting, instead of using it as another opportunity to invite a Bollywood star and reap mileage out of his controversial remarks.

In recent times, Indian media's news coverage has come under sharp criticism for its misplaced priorities, political and urban bias and insensitivity. A case in point is its much-derided coverage of the Nepal earthquake. Insensitive and "reality show"-type coverage particularly by our 24/7 news channels evoked angry responses from Nepalis. The hashtag #GohomeIndianmedia was trending on Twitter for three consecutive days.

"The award ceremony would have been a great place for journalists to discuss some of these criticisms, self-correct if need be, and design a code of conduct for themselves."

Yet another criticism of our media is of its political and urban bias. Both left and right wing activists accuse the media of bias in its news coverage. While the left accuses the media of not holding the Modi government accountable for its actions, the right accuses it of being anti-Hindu and anti-BJP. The award ceremony would have been a great place for journalists to discuss some of these criticisms, self-correct if need be, and design a code of conduct for themselves. The easiest thing to do of course is to condemn all the people questioning media coverage as "trolls", "aaptards", or "bhakts".

What's also troubling is some of the names chosen for the Goenka awards. While there's no denying that most of the winners are excellent reporters who have been doing a commendable job and certainly deserved this award, there are others such as Barkha Dutt and Sudhir Chaudhary whose professional conduct has come under severe public criticism in recent years. Some of these reporters were caught on tape lobbying for corporates and others are facing serious allegations of extorting money from big business groups. In fact, in March this year, M V Nikesh Kumar, an ex-Ramnath Goenka award winner, was arrested by the Central Board of Excise and Customs for evading service tax.

Agreed, the selection committee has no way of foreseeing the conduct of the journalists who are being considered for the awards, but it would be in the interest of both the Ramnath Goenka Foundation and the Indian journalist community that the Express group exercise caution and avoid choosing those who are already facing allegations of impropriety. More importantly, using the award ceremony as a platform to initiate a much-needed discussion on the dilution of professional values in India's newsrooms will be the most appropriate way to pay tribute to one of India's greatest newspaper publishers and a right step in the direction of restoring public faith in journalism.

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