Some observations by Subho Maitro on the hostile take-over of NDTV by Adani group.
It is a journalist’s nightmare to write about something, which has already been stamped in the mind of the reader as an incident they presume to know beforehand and draw conclusions about it, according to their own understanding. The NDTV takeover incident is an example of that. Is it some marker to find out which-side-you-are-on of Indian democracy, or is it a mere hoopla to die down like many things which happen in the media on a regular basis? This debate will go on, and honestly no one knows the answer. But there are definitely a few things to ponder about and some questions arise in mind of individuals like me, who have worked in 24×7 audio-visual news media for years.
24×7 news in this country was relatively new unlike the print media, and was born post liberalisation in the nineties, and thus it has an uncanny similarity with the history of that period itself. The state controlled DD news was a far cry from what an independent news media can be and it was evident that a new private owned network would come soon. Like the era of License Raj, we bid adieu to the monopoly of Doordarshan and welcomed the entry of private TV channels. Satellite technology made it possible. And there came Pronoy Roy and NDTV. Mind it, it was still a far cry from being a national phenomenon, as NDTV, with all its journalistic skills, was nothing but an English speaking news channel, catering to the upper middle class of the country. To be very frank, in their attire and attitude, they were brown-sahibs, the poor brother and sisters of CNN or BBC. Yet they caught our attention because they were good at the business of audio-visual, way ahead of the government controlled DD. News for the first time came fresh, fast, and unbiased in our drawing-room; even if the language was English, we were watching and enjoying it.
The liberalisation of the nineties created an aspiring class. We from a middle class suburban background could think of an alternative career other than getting pushed into civil-service, engineering, government clerkship and sitting for bizarre kinds of job-examinations. Yes, working in Television could be respectable too, and it could be a ‘job’, a proper job, not an excuse of dabbling in art and culture, smoking weed or guzzling rum as freebie. NDTV gave us that dream. And this dream fanned out to the small towns too, so much that even a Bengali soap on TV has a woman lead character who wants to be a TV journalist. Still it was not for all, and also not in vernacular languages. In the field of Hindi or other regional languages, the credit goes to Star News and its phenomenal head Uday Shankar or even to Aaj Tak. But here I’m not writing history of Indian Television news media, so not going into details of that.
So where the shoe pinches for someone like me about this hostile take-over? A mere change of ownership cannot bamboozle us, it is the paradigm shift which is fearsome and bewitching. I can vouch for a few things as an ex-professional journalist and student of journalism as well, this shift is not conducive to journalism itself even if we keep aside the political-ideological aspect. It may sound a little perplexing, that is why I’m upholding Legacy Media instead of New Media albeit in a New Media itself, and I will come to that later, but first thing first. We as a student of journalism and as a rookie journalist learnt that dissemination of information is the numero uno, whatever the media, print or television, this was a standard on which a news media stands. There was a term called infotainment which suggested that news had to have some entertainment value to attract more viewers but still the business was about ‘news’, the bone of contention was who disseminated news ‘fast’ and ‘first’. Fight between news channels was about that, and to each new journalist that was a learning experience. There was a distinct difference between opinion and news, and whatever the pressure was from outside and inside, this aspect was not totally lost. Yes, it was a constant struggle to put all the sides of a news story in an unbiased manner, but this struggle was not new in the media houses. An individual journalist’s struggle was to deliver that, interestingly, according to our constitution, a journalist in this country, as an individual citizen, also enjoys the right to free speech – and the challenge was to keep it as ‘free’ as possible. It was not only a few big national names in media but there were many senior journalists, who diligently worked and disseminated the skills also to the next generation, the juniors and trainees, who would carry forward the mantle.
Even though the-then news media created a few celebrated journalists, but behind every Barkha Dutt and a Rajdeep Sardesai, there were many unknown, unnamed reporters, photojournalists, desk persons, news producers etc., who toiled hard and respectfully earned their living. And I mean a decent amount of money, a pay-scale not to be ashamed of, which is an eye-shore to certain activists and armed-chaired ideologues, till to date. Journalism was not looked upon as a low-paid political or ideological work. Any proper profession needs skill development and journalism too needs that, only zeal and ideology don’t suffice. And in an advanced technological environment in which we belong, the media operation has also become complicated. Most people still imagine newsroom as an cigarette smoke-filled, type-writer clunking room, full of intellectuals, which it is not – it has morphed into something like a machine and computer infested place, more out of a Kubrick’s science fiction than the All The President’s Men set. So Television Media, from its onset, could not become a small-investment alternative venture, it was a big capital game. There is no escape from this fact. Even Ravish Kumar, the most celebrated journalist of NDTV, accepted this reality in a show called News Laundry Ramble. Though he defended himself in his brilliant oratory style, many journalists have realised this from the beginning of their career – the ownership of the media house will be individual, big capitalist or a corporate – and one has to work within that setup. The challenge is to do unbiased dissemination of information to viewers even inside that framework. In current times, NDTV was an aberration, they enjoyed greater liberty and independence, but financially it was unviable, one day or other, it would have been what it is now.
Takeovers, even hostile takeover, are not peculiar in the corporate world. Whoever has the largest share will be the owner of a company, this is nothing new. But the takeover of NDTV is not as simple as it seems. Especially, when a media house, known for its virulent criticism of the ruling regime in power in India is suddenly taken over by an industrialist group, whose chief is closest to the supreme ruler. Certainly, there will be many questions about the reasons for this move, gagging the voice of NDTV is the first that comes to mind. But will takeover of NDTV alone achieve the purpose? Or the design is to change the nature of journalism itself, mutating it to something beyond recognition?
We must look at the media scenario of the contemporary time. After the Information and Technology revolution, the world economy has changed and so has the media. The concept of news media itself has changed drastically. With the spread of cheap internet connections and smart-phones, a new category of media has emerged, challenging the old Legacy Media – the erstwhile traditional media consisting of newspaper, radio and television. We are seeing the emergence of internet based new online media, with numerous web based news-portals, social media platforms, E-zines, Podcasts etc. Legacy or traditional media is especially coming under severe criticism – that it has become a lackey of crony capitalism in this country. It is also being said that this was an inherent problem of legacy media, and that it was bound to fall prey to the crony capitalists and cater to their political friends’ unscrupulous and authoritarian designs. The speech I referred to earlier of Ravish Kumar, who has now become a far bigger icon of independent journalism by resigning than by his shows in NDTV, also suggested this. The point raised by Ravish Kumar has merit, but the problem is what are the options? The profession of journalism evolved with these Legacy media. For years, it created a certain standard such as the basics of gathering information, the checks and balances, the method of dissemination of information, the skills of editing including visual editing. All these skills developed over years by working in news houses. No doubt, corporate-owned Legacy media in the hand of crony-capitalists hamper the basics of journalism itself, but that doesn’t tantamount to saying that the legacy media itself has an inherent vice. India since independence had capitalist controlled media, and individual journalists worked within that system knowing the pros and cons of it. And they enjoyed a certain degree of freedom, and even in the times of Emergency, they saw eye-to-eye with the authoritarian and anti-democratic establishment. The owners of these media houses were not revolutionary ones but businessmen too, yet it were journalists who decided about news content. This practice existed even in the worst times during the Emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
And it is a test of a bourgeois democracy too, albeit the capitalist system, that in a democracy the media should have the freedom to criticise and not become a lackey of the government. The failure in doing so, which we see now in India, doesn’t mean the existence of big Media is in itself an evil, rather it shows the capitalist system has become corrupt, the neo-liberal capitalism has degraded into a crony one. And we see ‘news’ being replaced by ‘propaganda’.
NDTV may be the last one to fall but nearly all the national TV news channels, in the last decade, lost all credential of a neutral media and became propaganda machine of the rightwing Hindu-ultra-nationalistic regime of the BJP. This regime hates liberal democratic ideas, it’s based on an authoritarian crony-capitalist model. It is not surprising to see that instead of competition, a crony- capitalist cartel is taking control over the entire economy and the resources of the country. Media- business, like any other, naturally fell into their hands, and over the last decade, we saw how it slow-poisoned to death, the profession of journalism itself. The TV channel newsroom became a place where every evening ‘shows’ happen, which are actually a kangaroo court, where big-mouth anchors in the garb of journalists issue fatwa against whoever stood up and questioned the regime. Slowly in place of news, biassed views became the selling point. Objective news, even in a liberal bourgeois sense, is simply not there.
‘Views instead of News’ is one cardinal sin in journalism, it’s a virus which kills media from within. Today, we are saying that the New Media is a better alternative. Instead of finding an antidote to the virus, to challenge regime-sponsored narratives and views, we are falling for counter propaganda against the regime, but that doesn’t make it ‘news’. Even the poster boy liberal media, Ravish Kumar, is falling into this trap. News disseminated through multinational corporate owned social media platforms like YouTube, Podcast channels of his too will become a platform for airing opinion. And I fear this will be the end of the thing called News. One Ravish Kumar may survive but what about thousands of aspiring-journalists who sincerely and honestly want to do journalism. Sadly these New media platforms, which are now being held as the messiah of independence, are more prone to the virus I mentioned. It can reach and mould opinion faster, but lacks authenticity, it has no superior firewall or filter than the legacy media. This is the same mistake we are making, when after globalisation we kept faith in the corporate TV media and thought of them as the champions of democracy. And this time the danger is bigger and stakes are high. The champion of democracy or not, channels like NDTV did fair business of disseminating information, bringing news to people, but as globalisation and liberal mask of capitalism tattered, we saw all is not well.
Many news-business models emerged – like that of airing ‘positive news’ and ‘news one can use’. Both are basically tools to destroy news from within and make it a commodity of conspicuous consumption. While positive news means news about the tinsel town, sports, to anything under the sun which will be enjoyed by people like soap operas; ‘news of use’ is related to business, financial and stock markets etc.
New digital media are more susceptible to these trends than mass based TV. The battle of TRP has given way to the battle of ‘Reach’, and the way to get increased ‘reach’ is more dangerous than TRP. We see the amount of garbage the digital media produces to get this ‘reach’, and that too with zero accountability. Apart from this, there exists a niche segment publishing serious stuff for ‘people-like-us’, with a chance in a million, to become mass media.
The takeover of NDTV by Adani Group can be seen as the end of the liberal-democratic era of Television Media, if not the whole of Mass Media in India. The question of how badly the business was run by NDTV or how it couldn’t find any viable financial model is inconsequential, if it was so, why would someone in a sane mind take over a failing business? The question is of control, the snuffing out of journalism that even a democratic bourgeois state allows. The comparison to the U.S or European liberal States are meaningless, rather media day by day will become like the South American one, as the political system worldwide veer more towards rightwing authoritarianism with democracy getting weaker.
Can digital media take up the mantle? It is not tested yet and odds are against it. For practitioners as well as researchers of journalism it is a wait & watch situation. But one thing should be kept in mind: it is not the system alone but the people working in it that also matters, journalists for long have found ways to fight the odds and keep the profession going. Be it Legacy media or New Media, this is the only option left for journalists, it always was and always will be.
( Subho Maitro is an ex- journalist and author)