Prasun Sonwalkar in London
Indo-Asian News Service
Daya Kishan Thussu, the first professor of Indian origin in the field of media and cultural studies in any British university, is worried about the future of public service broadcasting in India.
Thussu feels that despite access to information from a wide variety of sources the news networks in India tend to go for what he calls the three Cs - celebrities, criminals and cricket.
He is a professor of international communication at the University of Westminster, London, which is ranked highly for its research and teaching in the theory and practice of journalism, media and cultural studies.
Speaking to IANS on key questions facing the Indian media today, he said: 'Not just the future of public service broadcasting but public media in general worries me.
'I think it is important to distinguish between public service and state media. In India we had the latter, although we deserved the former.'
Thussu holds a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. A former journalist, he has published extensive research on the Indian media in academic journals, edited collections and books.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: You have worked on the thesis of `infotainment`. How do you view the editorial content in the Indian media today - particularly television news?
A: The concept of infotainment is a relatively new one, which emanates from recent changes in broadcasting ecology around the world. This is manifest in the way broadcasting has moved from public to private, where the private is privileged at the expense of public media.
This also reflects the way the audience is perceived within the broadcasting industry - people tend to be seen increasingly as consumers rather than citizens. As elsewhere, this is visible in Indian media too, with a range of programmes about consumerism, often driven by ratings and circulation battles.
Q: The Indian press has a long history of service to society. What is the contribution of television to Indian society?
A: Unlike the private and professional press, the electronic media, almost from its inception in India has rarely been little more than a mouthpiece for the government. Successive governments have used the electronic mass media, especially television, to promote their agenda.
Mrs Indira Gandhi was on record as saying that unlike her counterparts in other developing countries, she did not own a newspaper and therefore needed to have control on the airwaves to publicise her government`s policies.
Indeed, under her stewardship the idea of using the visual media to educate the poor was taken seriously - just think of the amount of money the government spent on creating a satellite infrastructure in India. Satellite television came to India 10 years before it was available in Europe.
Q: What do you see as the drawbacks in India`s news culture?
A: Given the size, complexity and diversity of the Indian news media, it is not easy to speak of India`s news culture. Traditionally, we tended to follow the Western European (or more specifically the British) model of journalism. This was not surprising given the evolution of journalism in India.
However, there was also strong anti-colonial ethos within the media in general. Many stalwarts of journalism had participated or were deeply affected by the anti-colonial movement. This also made them close to the political establishment in India.
The government owned the electronic media and exerted influence over print media through control of newsprint and public sector advertising, thus making most media companies toe the official line, particularly on issues that had significant geo-political implications.
In addition, the so-called Brahmanical press had a very urban, metropolitan bias, often ignoring the hinterland where most of India lives. The India vs. Bharat distinction could also be detected in the way the elite media covered real India.
Q: What future does public service broadcasting have in India?
A: Not just the future of public service broadcasting but public media in general worries me. I think it is important to distinguish between public service and state media.
In India we had the latter, although we deserved the former. The idea of a public service broadcaster, as against the dominant American model of market-driven commercial broadcaster, is of utmost importance for a fast developing country in the world.
Doordarshan is the world`s second largest terrestrial television network after China`s CCTV. It needs to be nurtured and seen not just as a political mouthpiece but a key part of Indian cultural diplomacy. We should learn from the Chinese who have launched an English language international channel CCTV-9.
India has the professional expertise, especially in English - the language of global communication and commerce - and legitimate aspirations to be taken seriously among the comity of nations.
The government needs to take its public diplomacy more seriously. Public television needs professional people, not Mandi House mandarins to promote public service ethos within the country and a channel for the global Indian as well as an authentic voice of India, the emerging IT power, in the 21st century.
Q: If globalisation has accelerated in recent decades, how has it impacted on the Indian media?
A: The opening up of the media sector has profoundly affected Indian journalism. This is most visible in television - where we have come a long way from a state monopoly to the era of multi-channel viewing with many dedicated news networks, and not just in English and Hindi but in India`s other major languages.
At the very least, this has created a television industry, which did not exist before 1991. We are indeed living in the age of media plenty. There are many more jobs for broadcast journalists. The information revolution - satellite TV and the Internet - have made journalists much more connected with the outside world.
However, quantity does not necessarily translate into quality. With some exceptions, television news in India today is veering towards infotainment. Despite access to information from a wide variety of sources and heavy investment in the news sector as well as a more liberal regulatory environment, the news networks tend to go for what I may call the three Cs - celebrities, criminals and cricket.
There is far too much on Bollywood in the news and far too little on what is actually happening in the country and indeed in the world at large.
Q: How would you compare the professionalism of Indian journalists with that of their counterparts in the west?
A: The press in India is comparable with the best in the world. This is not an empty boast but the professionalism of Indian journalists is out there for all to see. We produce some of the most professional news magazines.
What distinguishes Indian journalists from others, especially in the developing world and I think this is important to emphasise -why should we compare Indian journalism with that of Britain or the US, which is what we often do.
A more appropriate comparison would be with Brazil, China, Egypt, Indonesia or Turkey and I have no hesitation in saying that Indian journalism is streets ahead in comparison to these countries. And the primary reason for that is India is the world`s largest and most vigorous democracy.
Q: To what extent can Indian citizens rely on the media for a faithful news discourse so that they may make rational choices on politics and policies of the day?
A: I think Indian citizens are very media savvy and they also tend to consume a range of media. Many, especially in rural India, are suspicious of journalists, viewing them as city folks who visit them only at the time of elections! However, I do think that media play a very important role in shaping public opinion and creating an active public sphere.
Q: How has the proliferation of television news channels influenced political communication in India?
A: There is obviously much more news to consume and increasingly the political establishment has recognised the value of visual communication in a country where even today nearly 40 percent of the population is illiterate.
Also, many political parties have invested in news channels to promote their viewpoints - this is happening more in a regional context but even the national and trans-national channels too have their political backers. This is making the political discourse, in many ways, much more interesting.
Q: How does India`s large language press relate to the influential English-language `national` press based in New Delhi?
A: The most exciting change in the Indian media scene is really in what has been traditionally called, without a trace of irony, as `vernacular` press. The press and broadcasting in Indian languages are thriving and are likely to make the elite press take notice.
Even trans-national operators such as Rupert Murdoch have recognised the value of localisation of content - STAR TV in India has gone almost completely native! The growth of the Indian language media is a welcome development, which demonstrates further democratisation of India.
Q: What are your views on allowing foreign participation in the Indian press and the media as a whole?
A: This question is increasingly becoming almost redundant. If you are allowing foreign investment in television networks, including news networks, why not in the press?
However, I do appreciate the apprehensions of many about foreign business interests coming to dominate media agenda. What is most dangerous for me is what I call `desi globalisation` - when foreign interests emphasise their native credentials to present a more acceptable face of globalisation.