Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is a journalist and an educator. His works cuts across different media: print, radio, television and documentary cinema. He has worked in various media organizations
including in companies bringing out publications such as Business India, BusinessWorld, The Telegraph, India Today and The Pioneer. He worked with Television Eighteen India Limited for almost six years. During this period between 1995 and 2001, he anchored a daily interview and discussion programme called “India Talks” on the CNBC-India television channel. . He is the founder director of the School of Convergence (SoC), a unique educational institution that had for the first time in India combined the curricula of a journalism school, a film school and a management school. He has directed a number of documentary films. . He has written “Media Ethics: Truth, Fairness and Objectivity, Making and Breaking News” published by Oxford University Press India in February 2009.
VP: What do you think about the way in which Indian media covered the 26/11 terrorist attacks?
Paranjoy-I think India has a very dynamic Mass Media. We in India wouldn’t be able to describe ourselves as a democracy if it hadn’t been for the independence enjoyed by the newspapers, magazines, television channels and the radio. India is the only democracy in the world where until recently news and current affairs were a monopoly of the government. On the whole media did act in a responsible manner. However there were sections of the media who acted in a manner that was unethical and irresponsible. There have been other instances too where media hasn’t adhered to the basic norms of truthfulness, fairness and objectivity while reporting the events. It is unfortunate but true that given the intensification of competition in the Indian Media, it has led to the lowering of standards and not to the improvement of reporting standards. Therefore, there have been sections of the media who have sought to trivialize, sensationalize, exaggerate and have not placed facts in proper historical, social and political perspective. But in the desperation to grab eyeballs, to attract viewers, media have resorted to the lowest common denominator. Coming back to 26/11,it is not feasible in this age of live T.V. to have every single feed approved prior to the broadcast. But at the same time no private T.V. channel has a right to compromise the security of the country, to disclose any information, which could destroy the lives of citizens. Margaret Thatcher said, “Terrorists want the oxygen of publicity”. So, journalists have to be extra careful in covering terrorist attacks. On the whole the Indian news media has acquitted itself with a fair degree of responsibility including reporting of 26/11 attacks.
VP: Do you think that profit making and journalistic ethics coexist in the face of commercialization today?
Paranjoy: In most spheres of human endeavour where you see intensification of competition, the players tend to improve their standards, whereas here it is lowering of standards. India is the only country in the world with three dozen 24-hour news channels. Some may argue that they are not news and current affairs channel but they claim that they are. India is the only country in the world where 60,000 publications are registered.
It is a separate issue that only a few publications account for the overwhelming bulk of readers but there are many other players in the market also.
However all the vehicles of media print or electronic have certain responsibility towards the society in providing information that is factually correct, authentic, balanced and fair. But these media organizations are commercially driven and in a desire to maximize their profits, they are more concerned in reaching consumers through advertising rather than informing or educating the public. The bulk of the revenue of these organizations comes from advertisements. Therefore, there is a tendency to pander towards commercial interest. So we have a lot of competition and dumping down. This is not unique to India but happens the world over. When you have canned laughter in a comedy show, it is a way of dumbing down, a way of insulting the audience, telling them that this is the time they should be laughing as a joke has been cracked. On the whole media organizations are responsible but there are a few that periodically tend to cross the Laxman Rekha.
VP: Are there any provisions regulating the coverage of television news channels?
Paranjoy: For the print media, there is the Press Commission of India. For advertising, you have ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) which is a self-regulatory organization. For T.V. news channels you have a panel which has been set up by the News Broadcasters Association and is also a self regulatory organization. In countries like U.K. & U.S., there exist official regulatory bodies. In the U.S, you have the FCC (Federal Communication Commission) and in the UK you have OFCOM (Office Of Communication). Although they are government funded, they are headed by people who are supposed to act autonomously and their job is to act as a regulator and have powers to penalize those who overstep their limits of decency, obscenity or invade the privacy of people that is downright unethical. Let’s just accept one thing that journalists are not above the law of any land. They have certain responsibilities to adhere to the laws of the land and also certain special obligations.
In India, we do not have such bodies like FCC.Infact, whenever attempts have been made to establish such a body, mass media organizations have screamed murder as they see any such act as an attempt to curb the freedom of the media.
VP: How do you see the future of Indian Media?
Paranjoy: Indian media has a very bright future ahead. They are presently in the process of churning. Until recently as 1991, T.V. viewers had access to only one channel i.e. is DD, but today they have access to hundreds of channels in hundreds of languages. This change has been sudden and dramatic. There is a whole story that goes of how media works. When dog bites man, it is not news unless a man bites a dog. However if the dog bites the PM or Aishwarya, it becomes big news. Taking this analogy further, journalists are supposed to be the watchdogs of the society and not the lapdogs of those who are in a position of power. Many believe journalists to be guide dogs, who can guide the visually challenged. Taking this canine analogy to the extreme, we can say that dogs will be dogs.
So there are good journalists and not-so-good journalists. Journalists are part of the society and in our Indian society we have corruption and unethical doings. The fraternity of journalists and the media tribe cannot be completely isolated from the society. So a certain amount of corruption has crept into the media also. But I do believe that good will prevail over evil. But on the whole, we will be proud of our free and independent media despite the fact that certain journalists will cover themselves with glory if they had it. But some are worse than this. They are liars and cheats, even murderers and rapists. But the very nature of their work demands to expose this corruption to create a transparent society. Journalists criticize everybody but they are a little reluctant when they are being criticized. They need to accept criticism and the fact that within their mix, they are not such good guys, blackmailers, racketeers. But despite the pressures of the market place, there would be quality journalism. If advertisers dictated everything what people should buy, then we will have young people eating only potato chips, ice creams and colas. But even in advanced capitalist societies like US where corporate pressures are very strong it will happen that certain parts will get more prominence than other parts. So even in a democracy like ours, we have a place for that small public action or voice. There is a place for the voices of the marginalized sections of the society and they will find expression. A wardrobe malfunction of a model will perhaps get more prominence than a farmer committing suicide but at the end of the day the latter is more important. Until and unless the story about the farmer is not completely blanked out, that is what is important.