The formal institutions of Indian democracy are not especially marked by the capacity for self-correction and self-criticism. One fact should make this clear - that no senior politician, civil servant, or judge has ever been successfully convicted for corruption or abuse of power. What then of that great informal institution of Indian democracy, the press? Is there a mechanism by which we can understand, and correct, the errors, biases, and malpractices of newspapers and television channels?
This question is prompted by a recent discussion on the website of the South Asian Journalists Association. It was initiated by James Mutti, an American Fulbright scholar, who had spent time studying the functioning of the press in northern India. Mutti found that "there is an inherent tension between India's much-hyped economic growth and its deepening democracy". The media was partly to blame for this. For it "abdicates its role as an educator in favor of being an entertainer". Those who consume the news were a willing accomplice in this abdication. For "more people want to find out about the new iPod than Indian foreign policy". And "those who read papers and watch TV are often more interested in Bollywood stars than rural poverty".
Mutti arrived at this less than cheering conclusion: "In India today, the media is big business - relying on corporate advertising and the spending of the middle class - and it is hard to claim that it is a public good that reaches most citizens."
The website published a range of responses to Mutti's article. One correspondent, while endorsing the visitor's verdict, thought the state of the Indian media was a product merely of "immaturity". "We haven't had the media around for very long," he wrote. "Certainly not half as long as the Americans have." "The US media is extremely conscious of its role as primary sources of information to the rulers and the ruled alike," wrote another contributor to the debate: "They know they trade in information. In the business plan of the Indian media, news is only the space that needs to be filled, so that advertisements can be carried."
One commentator, the respected media analyst Sevanti Ninan, thought that the data on the ground did not justify the article's "sweeping conclusion". Mutti, she suggested, had based himself largely on a reading of the English press. On the other hand, the regional press often did cover issues of interest to the less-than-affluent classes. In newspapers published in state capitals and district towns, she wrote, "the state of roads, schools and hospitals in rural and urban India get far more attention now than ever before because there are many more pages to fill at the local level. When accountability increases even the poor benefit."
However, in so far as the English language press is concerned, Mutti's criticisms may in fact have understated the problem. He speaks of the focus on glamour and celebrity and the neglect of the lives of ordinary Indians. This, he suggests, was a consequence of the press's wooing of the consuming classes, who are a large (and massively revenue-generating) world unto themselves. It may be that because he is an American he mentioned Bollywood rather than cricket. But, as the manic coverage of the IPL has demonstrated, this game has contributed even more to the dumbing down of the media.
At other times, the seductions are not commercial but political. Some proprietors, and more than some writers, are so closely allied to individual politicians or parties as to be less than objective about them. This phenomenon is particularly common among editors and columnists based in New Delhi. But it is not unknown in the state capitals, and even in district towns. For the local papers depend as heavily on advertisements supplied by the government (for tenders and suchlike) as their metropolitan counterparts do on patronage by the private sector. It can become hard, and even impossible, for small-town editors or journalists to openly challenge the misconduct of a district magistrate or a member of the legislative assembly.
Finally, there has been a decline in the quality and depth of reportage. The press appears to have become lazier in the past few decades. Once, even senior editors would make extended field trips to research a story, travelling in the interior and speaking to a cross-section of the public. Now, if they leave New Delhi, it is usually to accompany the prime minister to Beijing or Washington. But even some younger reporters have become prey to 'hand-out journalism', to stringing together stories on the basis of press releases, supplemented by the odd quote.
To be sure, there are dissenters. But these often write in a sanctimonious and self-righteous tone, setting themselves up as the lonely voice of conscience amidst a horde of unthinking cheerleaders for globalisation and liberalisation. They are also noticeably partisan, focusing on poverty and suffering in states (or nations) ruled by parties other than the communists.
There remain some honest editors and many good reporters. But I think it fair to say that within the English press in India there is much room for improvement. Let me offer an illustration of the kind of story we should but do not often see. For the last year and more, Sharad Pawar has simultaneously served both as the Union minister of agriculture and the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. That is to say, Pawar is in charge of the destiny of India's most numerous social class as well of India's greatest popular passion. He has held these posts at a time of a serious agrarian crisis on the one hand, and a massive reshaping of the cricket world on the other. How does he do these two jobs at the same time? What is his daily or weekly or monthly schedule of meetings and journeys? My own suspicion is that one sector under his watch must surely be suffering, and I think I can guess which one. But this (possibly widely-shared) suspicion awaits testing against the hard evidence of reportage. However, the sectors are each so important that a man who presumes to take charge of both surely needs to be subjected to far greater scrutiny that he has thus far been.
Other readers will have their own list of unexplored themes. Thus one contributor to the Saja debate writes that while "everyone knows about the fraud committed by [the] godmen of India", "no main line papers would like to take up this kind of subject". (Both Pawar's daily schedule and the doings of godmen, by the way, are subjects amenable to investigation through print as well as television.)
We hear, rightly and often, of the need to make the legislature and the executive more accountable. The press is expected to play a vanguard role in making this happen. But who will watch the watchdog? This is a question that is asked less frequently. However, if we are lucky, the rise of the internet will perhaps compel the press to look within, thus to check against the corruptions and complacencies to which it, like any other human institution, is prone.