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Indian media's credibility crisis

Soutik Biswas | 14:11 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Indian news TV channels
"Indian journalists are fixers!" shouted a young lady in the audience during a play I attended in Mumbai last week. She even took the name of one of the country's leading news presenters to demonstrate her point. The play was about to begin, and one of the actors was engaging in casual banter with the audience. "Do you think news is unbiased in our country?" he asked.
Many in the audience guffawed, and the lady spoke up in outrage. At that moment it struck me how much the controversy over leaked phone conversations between some senior Indian journalists and a prominent lobbyist had enraged people. It is, clearly, the Indian media's biggest crisis of credibility.

To cut a long story short, transcripts of the leaked tapes, published in two magazines, reveal some journalists in conversation with a corporate lobbyist, who also owns a public relations company. Nothing wrong with that - journalists routinely speak to a range of people for information. In the leaked tapes, some of the reporters trade vicious gossip. Others "promise" to pass on sensitive political messages and information. Still others give the lobbyist tips on how to organise a scripted media interview with a business baron. The journalists have said in their defence that they have neither received any favours or relayed any information or fixed things as a result of these conversations.

People don't buy it entirely. A recent poll after the tapes were released showed that 86% of people felt let down by journalists. Also, 66% said that the media was protecting its own tribe by not reporting on the tapes adequately. Let's face it - the stock of journalists has hit a new low in India.

After last year's general elections, independent investigations revealed how "paid news" had become commonplace in many Indian papers and news channels - politicians were paying them to publish favourable stories. But the leaked tapes have cast a cloud over the credibility of some of the country's top journalists.

Whether the allegations of fixing and lobbying are true or not, we will possibly never know. But critics believe the tapes point to a bigger crisis in the media. The cosying up to politicians and businessmen is just one issue. Many point to an increasing lack of grace and dignity among many leading journalists, and the crass self-promotion that threatens to turn news into purely entertainment. My friend and editor Kai Friese says the mainstream media in India is "driven by compulsions of grand narcissism and greed".

Night after night, on India's news TV, top journalists, often fawning and self-righteous, conduct interviews and talk shows. It all sounds very noisy and rather contrived. They claim every other story as an exclusive, even when it isn't. Top film critics are paid off by producers to write glowing reviews - the Bollywood publicity machine has effectively muzzled most film criticism in India. Portions of an editor's letter to readers in a top magazine are plagiarised from a leading American online publication, then blamed on jet lag. Another big worry is how the public relations industry has subsumed a lot of journalism, mostly because journalists have been happy to play along.

Possibly, it had to happen in a country where institutions are weak and corruption is rife. It is an environment where the media can wield extraordinary power - and many a time this is used responsibly to expose and explore India's many ills. It is also an environment where journalists can lose their heads easily and suffer from delusions of grandeur because of easy access to politicians and businessmen. The fact that India remains an intensely hierarchical society also reflects the way journalists behave and interact with powerful politicians and businessmen - it is almost never a professional relationship between equals.
Most Indian media owners need a new covenant with their journalists. For too long and far too often, they have been seen to hire journalists to do their dirty work - negotiating with politicians, businessmen, public relations executives and lobbyists. It is an open secret that many editors and senior journalists are part-time reporters - and full-time fixers for their owners.

Critics say that many owners have emasculated editors so much that they have become faceless and supine, only too willing to roll over for the powers that be and facilitate deals. With some 60,000 newspapers and 500 news channels, India has one of the world's most vibrant and competitive media environments. It is now time to take a reality check and ask whether all is well with it.


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  • 1. At 3:41pm on 30 Nov 2010, Jay wrote:
    India's news media hardly have any credibility. I personally check Indian media because reputed international media like BBC, CNN, NPR/PBS etc do not cover India as I like them to (of course I understand their point). I gather the info/data, but do not rely on Indian media for analysis.
    All informed people know that it is a routine practice to offer a bottle of Johnny Walker Whiskey with crisp tandoori chicken in a decent restaurant is enough to get any personal or business advertisement published as "news" in many mainstream newspaper/electronic media in India. Majority (if not all) of Indian news media is sponsored/owned by either political parties or big industries.
    It is a great opportunity for Indian democracy that international media (cable/satellite TV) and internet is making rapid inroad to Indian homes. Indians no longer solely rely on what their political masters say or what Indian (purchased) media advertise. Now they are more open to access different views and express their own views in many websites (where server is outside India), media forums like this one.
  • 2. At 3:45pm on 30 Nov 2010, Jay wrote:
    We need to remember that journalists are also coming from the same pool of people that supply our politicians, police, lawyers, judges, "scientists", bureaucrats and other government babus, etc.
    Sense of justice, morality, ethics and accountability is the thing of past. It will be unfair to told journalists alone on fire.
  • 3. At 3:49pm on 30 Nov 2010, Manjunatha wrote:
    Many state governments allot prime plots to journalists. So, journalists especially in metros and big cities do not want to antagonize the government in power. Also, some of the news media are controlled by politicians (generally at regional level) themselves. To top it all, a recent survey found teachers and journalists have very low self-esteem among professionals of India.
  • 4. At 4:12pm on 30 Nov 2010, roopeshk wrote:
    I can understadn the fact that you need to be an insider to be 'in the game' and therefore report correctly, in the larger good but I wonder how Barkha Dutt and Mr Sanghvi justify NOT reporting what they knew to the public.

    There is also the issue that there are other tapes with the same lobbyists discussing spectrum allocations with the likes of Ratan Tata/ Anil Ambani and Sunil Bharti Mittal, and influencing the ministers decisions.

    One can understand (if not agree) the need to secure business against competition, the corollary to which is that you have to use dirty means if the competition is doing it - but I would have thought that the top corporate houses should be asked to lead the way in cleaning up and not to actively perpetuate it.

    Surely Mr Tata can call the PM and ask for a transparent bidding process if he sees something like this occuring ?
  • 5. At 4:32pm on 30 Nov 2010, ashishuk wrote:
    It is rare to see a responsible and well informed media comments in our country. PEEPLI LIVE is exact image of 99% of Inidan media. After watching/reading repitative NEWS of ''total waste of time'' from majority of our channels, I have decided not to do so.
    I am not requesting them atleast see/read what they are posting/broadcasting because its not about their reputation but for a nation's
  • 6. At 5:20pm on 30 Nov 2010, RahulC wrote:
    Sautik, great start but u r still too far away, the way you have very very delicately used words against Barkha2G, tells that you too are sacared that if out of BBC, u might have to go to NDTV and then no one might touch you based on the artciles you have written.
    You must go back and read your own articles and see how stark your critisim has been on various other issues, hell your last article on a poor man trying to capatilize on his daughter's fame was very harsh, compared to this very soft worded mention of what goes on openly.
    I am pretty sure Barkha wont get time to read this, since she is busy defending herself on her OWN channel, what an apathy, the lady who went to kargil than faught mercilessly against Modi, only to be caught in corruption, how bizare how bizare !!!
    Sautik, r u from the same creed as Barkha, r u still afraid to talk of the underbelly of Indian Politicians, still scared of talking about TRUTH ? I guess BBC made a mistake in taking you on board....scared arent you?
  • 7. At 5:39pm on 30 Nov 2010, Jay wrote:
    That media problem is not limited to India. Countries like USA is no exception. here most of the mainstream media is controlled and/or influenced by political parties and big corporate houses. In US, Fox news is highly influenced by conservative, Republican party (and so sane person watch Fox in US) while NBC is controlled by GE (General Electric) subsidiary. All such media dishes out "news" that advertise its corporate/political interest and hurt its rivals.

    The best possible solution is to have a truly autonomous, public funded media in line of BBC or PBS/NPR. In that sense, Akashvani and Doordarshan is the answer, provided they are truly autonomous (free from ruling party or Government influence).
    Lately I am realizing that corporate handling of many important issues that have severe implications on general public should not be handed over to corporates. Now I am shifting my bank accounts from ICICI, HDFC type private banks to Government banks like SBI. For small and marginal investors SBI is safe (in the long run) and less prone to cheat.
  • 8. At 5:43pm on 30 Nov 2010, Jay wrote:
    It is not only individual journalists but the whole system of media reporting need to be analysed. In some rare cases, few courageous journalists do make reports against powerful political or industry lobby but the final decision to publish it in its entirety lies on the editorial board and then higher management (if too controversial or potentially hurt big interests). They definitely suppress such reports. After all it IS a business for them and they make most of their money from advertisement (both government and private).
  • 9. At 5:50pm on 30 Nov 2010, b d khabar wrote:
    It was pathetic seeing Ms Barkha Dutt trying to defend herself on ND Tv tonight. She was reluctant to admit her mistake and when she did she qualified her admission in so many ways that the whole ting looked too loose to believed. The problem is that she does not realise, or worse knows but doen't admit it, that what she claims in her defence, *and ND TV ran an entire program to allow her to defend herself* (how many of us would get that?), she denies to those whom sshe harangues on TV and tries to look superior. It's cliched but let me say it: If you live in a glass house, Ms Dutt, don't throw stones at others.
  • 10. At 6:02pm on 30 Nov 2010, Jay wrote:
    Interesting report in BBC: "How TV news is distorting India's media" :

    As the BBC bureau chief in South Asia I have had to deal with several cases of people pretending to be offering authentic BBC training courses.
    Young and not so young hopefuls cough up their cash to the "man from the BBC" and then he is never seen again.

    When dodgy qualifications are not enough, some people offer other incentives for potential employers.
    One young woman described herself in the opening line of her CV to my office as being "young and vivacious".

    There's no hard evidence yet of the casting couch being wheeled into the nation's newsrooms. But the scourge of the modern Indian TV channel, the website, is full of accusations of sexual harassment of young women by more senior staff.

    For more, read the whole story in BBC.
  • 11. At 6:35pm on 30 Nov 2010, essen wrote:
    How patronizing can this blog get? Are all British journalists lily white?
    We know how British media went over the top during the unfortunate death of Princess Diana.

    Aside: What I find interesting about this text editor is that patronise shows up as a spell check error. Has BBC succumbed to American spellings?
  • 12. At 7:44pm on 30 Nov 2010, Pras_n_Srini wrote:
    @essen (#11), check your browser settings (especially if you are using Firefox--which you can set to UK English instead of US).
  • 13. At 8:02pm on 30 Nov 2010, Jay wrote:
    These days media is earing its profit and/or survival mainly, and many times- ONLY, from advertisements, rather than public sales. In such a situation it is becoming more and more susceptible to corporate and political/government pressure. But it probably will change in near future as internet based news portals like BBC, CNN will take over the major chunk of news distribution. People will dump those news media and/or internet portals if they lose trust on them, as is happening in developed countries where penetration of internet is deeper in the society. TV is more like for entertainment, rather than information in western countries.
    But India has a long way to go, as many impoverished and middle class families rely mainly on TV (and print media) for information. More such media shift to advertisements to generate its revenue, more it will lose its neutrality and unbiased news analysis. On top of that over all level of corruption will put more pressure on few remaining honest journalists and news media managements.
  • 14. At 00:05am on 01 Dec 2010, Indisch46 wrote:
    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain
  • 15. At 00:08am on 01 Dec 2010, Indisch46 wrote:
    Could someone please throw light on how to send information to the editor, rather than just making a comment ??
  • 16. At 01:06am on 01 Dec 2010, Essar wrote:
    In addition to many maladies of Indian media mentioned here, it also suffers from other afflictions. Indian media often sensationalizes and exaggerates - sometimes even publishes wildly inaccurate information that can be easily verified for accuracy. This reader has found many such problems with websites of some of the most famous Indian newspapers. When reported to their editors, never there is any retraction or even an acknowledgement.

    A very easy way to compare qualities, all one needs to do is view such websites of India newspapers and some better known sites such as BBC. The home pages of Indian newspapers are filled with links for Bollywood trash and never ending saga of India cricketers.

    If the newspapers and their websites are bad, one should view the various TV channels in India. When this reader visits Calcutta or any such major city in India and wants to view TV, a huge majority of TV channels (and there are so many) are peddling what can be very politely termed as trash.

    Unless Indian media becomes credible and mature, it CANNOT be an effective societal change agent - which India badly needs.
  • 17. At 01:36am on 01 Dec 2010, Jay wrote:
    Yes, you are right (#16). Even in comment sections ((e.g Tavleen Singh's column in Indian Express) they generally do not publish any adverse comment. "Letters to the editor" section is more stringent and to publish a honest article as a free lancer is almost impossible if you do not know anyone from inside.

    It is almost impossible to have a neutral discussion/debate in any Indian news channel or news websites or social forums. The conclusions are fixed long before it actually start, just like Indian "investigations" by any commission or CBI. People who depend on such "expert" comments on TV or radio or Indian news portals/forums get a totally biased/wrong view and so keep on fighting among themselves.
  • 18. At 03:41am on 01 Dec 2010, Meharaj wrote:
    There is no Liberal or Right Wing Media... It's Just Corporate Media....
    He who owns the media, controls the media. With such powerful platforms they are able to drown out independent media and control public opinion and government policy. There can be no freedom without freedom of the press and there can be no freedom of the press if only a few powerful corporations are allowed to own it.
    Check the link
    BTW one of the recent news which even BBC failed to report was when China and Russia Dump Dollar in Mutual Trade was it no No Big Deal????
  • 19. At 06:35am on 01 Dec 2010, kolkatatheke wrote:
    Journalism and the media in most countries are biased, be it CNN or NDTV. Barkha Dutt has been a fixer for some time now and I was amazed to learn from a group of well informed friends that her Kargil report was a charade and as true as the Americans landing on the moon.
    Theatrics has long become the main stay of news reporting. A great example for journalism for sale even at lesser places is the Bengali news channel Star Ananda in Calcutta. It is part of the large conglomerate of media companies owned by a powerful media tycoon and are hell bent of being biased in favour of the opposition party in the state of WB.
    You have to watch their news cast and understand how they distort news and present it in a way sometimes absolutely different from reality.
    Lastly Vir Sanghvi is visiting Spas on TLC, guess all that lobbying is stressful!
    If I may also have a PS request at the end, can BBC Panorama do a investigation into the 2G Scam in India...
  • 20. At 10:12am on 01 Dec 2010, BakedBeans wrote:
    BBc is not biased and it is not a political arm of UK :)
  • 21. At 10:13am on 01 Dec 2010, WannaBeWesterner wrote:
    Thank you Soutik for this blog. Indian Media, isn't it an Oxymoron term? The biggest slap in the collective media face is when Jurnos from Pakistan accuses Indian Jurnos and Medias to be Anti-People(Indian) and Pro-Govt.(politicians from all hue and color). Also your blog has also provided some of us to read/talk about 'This Leak' (getting tired of hearing people discuss WikiLeak and the U.S. Govt. policy, even here in India). By the way, have you ever thought of plying your trade here in India and give us more transparent news?
  • 22. At 11:16am on 01 Dec 2010, Habib wrote:
    The article is well written by Biswas. Indian media is a house in complete mess. Journalists are doing whatever they can to get the stories for their bosses. In election time most of the pages of so called ubiased pages of the news papers are devoted to certatain political parties.
    India being the largest democracy in the world, depends upon its unbiased press for its true meaning and it is very disheartening to see the TV channels reporting the silly stories of crime day and night. A press should report and make its viewers and readers aware of what is going on so that they can make their own viewpoint. But when the stories like this come up, the whole thing becomes a big question mark.
  • 23. At 2:00pm on 01 Dec 2010, skayptic wrote:
    Post independence, most successful Indian institutions have been built due to brilliance of individuals who could stand up against the establishment. However, the same can't be said about journalism. There are handful honest journalist and can be counted on fingers.
    Regarding Ms. Dutt, someone who became a darling of the nation during Kargil war, has clearly lost her objectivity and perhaps succumbed to galore of high life. Due to her apparent 'connections' to politicians she may have become indispensible for NDTV as well.
    Perhaps this is the time for pioneers like Mr Roy to be counted and perhaps secure his true legacy and be counted among post independent Indian greats like TN Seshan, K Rao, MS Swaminathan, JP Narayan etc.
  • 24. At 4:56pm on 01 Dec 2010, mohandoss wrote:
    i am very much disturbed to see many scams are surfacing every day in india,involving lakhs of crores,we need a strong leader with high integrity to rule india atleast for some years
  • 25. At 7:23pm on 01 Dec 2010, Dave Makkar wrote:
    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.
  • 26. At 8:55pm on 01 Dec 2010, RaniV wrote:
    Of course all media everywhere is biased to a greater or lesser extent. Much of the media is international, so the term Indian Media is misleading.There is no clarity on the percentage that is owned by Mr Rupert Murdoch, that promotes rampant capitalism and consumerism.
    The cases of BDutt and V Sanghvi are deplorable. It is self evident what Nehru DynastyTV stands for.
  • 27. At 04:32am on 02 Dec 2010, Ananya78 wrote:
    Something is clearly rotten with the media in India. We have all suspected it so far, but now the muck and filth has begun to rise. I think people like Barkha Dutt have lost their moral right to interview people who have committed wrong and grill them about their actions. India's top presenter has offered no apology for her conversations and continues to do shows and grab prime time space in the channels. This can only happen in India - this brazen show of arrogance, tips picked up from politicians and businessmen to be sure. The only way to set things right is for viewers to boycott channels who have shady journalists. But that is easier said than done.
  • 28. At 08:55am on 02 Dec 2010, Krishnan wrote:
    Is the Indian Media under a cloud?

    This is a million dollar question today.

    The leak of Radia’s tapes has tainted, besides business tycoons and politicians, a few of the hitherto respected Media persons also.

    Most of the Politicians are corrupt and dishonest. However the contrary is the case with the Media, Most of the Media persons are honest, upright and fearless and so there is no threat as yet to the foundation of the institution called the “Fourth Estate”.

    Ratan Tata, instead of proving that he is above suspicion, has done the mistake of filing a case in SC for preventing further leaks of the tape citing erosion of his privacy. If unfortunately SC bans further leaks of the tape ( though the chances are bleak), many truths may not come out at all, compromising the entire nation’s economic interests. May be he was inspired by NDTV to do it. Please note that it was NDTV which interviewed him on this. Uniting the aggrieved !

    While Hindustan Times has been non committal about Vir Sanghvi, NDTV has announced its complete support to whatever Barkha Dutt has done ( and may be doing).

    Even if media persons linked to the tape- conversations ultimately are found guilty of power-brokering, (certainly for some consideration! So far it seems like that, unless proven otherwise), these few black spots in the media will not affect the entire institution which stands erect and will stand erect for years to come.

    It is very important that the rest of the media should not try to protect the persons under cloud. Let those who are accused, themselves prove to the world that they have had no axe to grind or at least apologise that they indeed went off the right path.

  • 29. At 09:44am on 02 Dec 2010, bakhtawar wrote:
    One Malevolence leads to another. Right from 1947 Indian media has been busy portraying concocted tales about kashmir while pushing army's misdeeds under carpet. I am sure the tragedy is similar for entire North East part of India. As the old adage puts it 'When character is lost, everything is lost'
  • 30. At 10:47am on 02 Dec 2010, Krishnan wrote:
    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.
  • 31. At 10:57am on 02 Dec 2010, Vernon Ram wrote:
    Soutik Biswas has had his say. To this I'd like to add the following, postscript: every country winds up with the media "practitioners" it deserves!
  • 32. At 1:48pm on 02 Dec 2010, Jay wrote:
    Can any one tell a SINGLE entity in Indian society today which still maintain unquestionable trust of (informed) people? I do not think so. It starts from education, to research, to judiciary, to political leadership, to bureaucracy, to corporate governance, to media, to police. That rot has now spread over to Indian armed forces as well. I will be really happy to know at least one such institution where ethics and morality rule.

    It is really becoming harder to remain optimistic about Indian society day by day.
    I agree with Bakhtawar (#29) that 'When character is lost, everything is lost'.
    And most unfortunately, we always blame OTHERS but never look at ourselves! Be it media or police or politician or Supreme Court judges. We think we can do anything to serve OUR interest but others must do their duties with full honesty and dedication!!!

    How many of us have the guts to oppose corruption, unethical behavior in our own work places and homes? How many of us bring up our own kids with a strong backbone and teach them to oppose corruption? Not many I think. Media, politics, industries, govt babus all are just part of us. They ARE us. We need to change ourselves to expect anything different in India or anywhere else in the world.
  • 33. At 2:05pm on 02 Dec 2010, Jay wrote:
    Very few Indians have any sense of justice. Our system does not teach us that from the very childhood. I have seen many, even established, old professors in USA Universities, or high profile Industry managers/professionals, migrated from India who is morally bankrupt, ethically corrupt; talks useless lies, besides "essential" ones even for minor reasons). Many of their behaviors advertise their feudal upbringing and lack of any sense of justice and lack of proper education.
    Probably less privileged, illiterate people have better sense of ethics and justice compared to "educated" people with "exposure", because they still face punishment for doing something wrong or even without doing any wrong to save someone more powerful. That is a very routine in India, not any exception anymore.
    The cumulative result is very frightening, as we can see now. Fast spread of extremism (Naxal or otherwise), widespread breakdown of almost all democratic institutions. Most frightening is people is fast losing trust on almost anything, and are showing higher tendency to take laws into their own hands. How can we blame them?
  • 34. At 2:23pm on 02 Dec 2010, Anil Kohli wrote:
    It would be too simplistic to continue to focus on just a few named in the tapes. The rot is much deeper. Implications are far graver than we can imagine. Monarchy in the guise of democracy is being practiced at the cost of common people.

    Thank to social media and world WWW that our voices are not totally stifled. This trend started in 2002, it has achieved a status that most of are unable to fathom completely. Every news and discussion has been subsumed to serve one party and its promoters.

    The young Indians have been at the receiving end of a media blitz for last 8years 24 X 7 which has steadily deprived him of his ability to think objectively and independently. This outrage is towards that. Sense of betrayal of having been sold hook line and sinker on what ever was presented by these self proclaimed and appointed conscience keeper of Modern India.

    Role of media and politics has been an area of special interest to me. Have blogged consistently rebutting many of the claims that have been made in the print medium by individuals from Electronic and print media.

    1. Vir Sanghvi's bad karma at play.
    2. From The Dizzy Heights of Kargil to Despairing Depths of Oblivion
    3. Mirror Mirror on the wall expose this face before all.
    4. Face The Nation Sagarika Will You??
    Hope this would enlighten the readers a little more about the challenges that we are confronted with.
  • 35. At 2:45pm on 02 Dec 2010, indus wrote:
    The whole country, from the top to the bottom, is corrupt to the core, not just the idiotic journalists.
  • 36. At 3:10pm on 02 Dec 2010, Anil Kohli wrote:

    Fine we know that what are doing about it is what should concern us. ranting is not going to get us anywhere.

    The least one can do is condemn it and express views which are positive and compel other to follow suit.

    Please read this the link is
    "Why would a journalist seek refuge and retribution from the laws of the land?"

    Lets join hands and work to cleanse the system. All contributions of ideas small & large will make a difference.
  • 37. At 8:29pm on 02 Dec 2010, Jay wrote:
    The very basic of our society has gone wrong. The priorities of "educated" and "successful" people are too narrow and self-centered these days. We often forget that, "Economic prosperity vs social disparity- dictates quality of life" .
    We all will face the consequences. Our previous generations accepted corruption as a part of our lives. And if we do not do anything now, our next generation will face much worse situation after sometime.