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Millennium Post

Pen pushers as deal makers

The confessions of the chairman of the now bankrupt Saradha group of chit fund propelled companies made a compulsive reading. This was the first time that somebody had managed to put together the upheavals the world of media has been facing on account of opening up of the economy, coming of new technologies and also a Supreme Court order which allowed private channels to enter the forbidden area of news telecast.

It’s stating the obvious that the 1990s would go down in the Indian history as the period, which metamorphosed our society from a controlled economy to a liberal state. Its ramifications have been felt not just in the behaviour of the sensitive index of the share market but the psychosocial changes which we have been witnessing. We are taking a huge leap from a conservative social scenario to post-modernist times almost overnight. This high speed of change has to be accident-prone and it has manifested itself from time to time.

In the early 1990s was the case of Harshad Mehta and later Ketan Parekh, who manipulated the newly de-controlled share market. In the political arena, there was the case of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha members of parliament accepting gratification in their bank accounts for supporting the PV Narasimha Rao government at the centre during a vote of confidence. Materialistic consideration came to dominate our social milieu in such a manner that standard social practices and institutions began to perish.

The materialistic ascent, boom in technology and the opening up of the media happened more or less concurrently. This provided a never before opportunity to the journalists from the non-English regional language press to give a full play to their vision and ambition, which on most of the occasions ran amok. Unlike their counterparts from the English press, the journalists from the vernacular, as they were contemptuously referred till the arrival of the news channels, treated their profession very much as part of a political mission.

Not that the reporters and editors from the English press did not have their friends in politics and industry but to their credit they believed in wearing the cloak of objectivity with certain alacrity. Probably MJ Akbar’s was the first case of a respected English newspaper editor deciding to wield the megaphone for a political party, when he contested the 1989 Lok Sabha polls on the Congress ticket from Kishanganj seat in Bihar.

However, much before Akbar took the bait, several journalists from the vernacular press doubled up as political activist as well as a press person with no qualms about their reportage facing the charge of bias and lack of objectivity. Since Hindi and other regional language newspapers did never measure up to their English counterparts in matters of news impact, probably this flaw in their character did not hamper their overall image make-up. It’s also true that most of these activist vernacular journalists were on most of the occasion pitted against the establishment (read Congress) to invite least scorn for their political affiliation.

In addition to above social factors, technological advancement in the past two decades has given a great spurt to the Indian newspaper and television industry. The use of computer softwares for page-making, transmission of documents and information through internet and printing on most-modern high-speed printing presses, which did away with the cumbersome process ‘photo-type-setting,’ played a humongous role in the expansion of print media. The benefits of technological advancement were harvested by the vernacular media. No wonder that city-centric newspapers like Dainik Jagran (Kanpur), Dainik Bhaskar
(Bhopal) and Amar Ujjala (Agra) became multi-edition national brands. Same success stories were repeated in all such states which had presence of strong regional language brands and readership.   

In addition to opening of the economy and media, the coming of the coalition governments marked another dimension to the change which the turn of the millennium brought. The scope for a journalist to play a wheeler-dealer increased like never before. This also coincided with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the helm at the centre. Leaders from the party showed absolute disdain for the cloak of objectivity which the Indian journalists had worn till now and encouraged their participation in policy making. Whether a venerable Arun Shourie was politics’ gain is debatable but his exit was certainly journalism’s loss.   

Their role did not remain limited to that of being party ideologues but their active participation was sought in matters of legislative and ministerial business too. The six-year reign of Atal Bihari Vajpayee government would indeed get credited for opening floodgates for newspaper editors and reporters to join, as Amitabh Bachchan once famously said, ‘the cesspool of politics.’

This rush to be a legislator and political office bearer came to diminish the long assigned role of fourth estate to the media organisations. The patronising practice of accommodating condescending newspersons caught on to the other political parties too, thus paving the way for the rise of Kunal Ghosh as a powerful member of parliament in the Trinamool Congress. There are several from the vernacular press who have made it to hallowed portals of the legislator or the plush offices of the political parties, piggy-riding on patronage of their political masters.

The supporters of this module could put up the defence of the need to create sustainability in media projects. Saradha case shows that while the progenitors of such modules do find personal sustainability, the participants (employees) end up becoming the guinea pigs, no less exploited than the gullible depositors of the chit funds.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor,
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