The DD Kosambi Festival of Ideas 2009 opened at the Kala Academy Dinanath Mangueshkar indoor auditorium this evening.

It was meant to start at 5 pm, and got delayed in true bureaucratic fashion (no surprises here) as the “chief guests” (fill in the name of the usual suspects, and you’ll be right) took their time to appear. This time they were just 20 minutes behind schedule.

The auditorium was already filling up as I got there, and it rapidly got to standing-room-only, and the ushers were a tad overzealous in getting seats occupied.

The introductory speeches followed (yawn), but the star attraction beyond a shadow of doubt was the keynote speaker, Rajdeep Sardesai. He made the perfunctory references to his Goanness, about how he was a “bad” Goan, and quoted Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, paraphrasing him to say that there’s a part of him that would be forever Goan.

His talk covered at first the positive impact of the media explosion (The Glass Half-Full), then its downside (Glass Half-Empty), and touched upon the future. This was followed by a freewheeling Q&A session.

Glass Half-Full: RS brought home the point that the media has succeeded in wresting monopoly of the news from the Government, something that was unheard of just a few decades ago. He related an incident exactly 14 years ago, when a private news channel was about to air its inauguratory episode of “News Tonight”, when at 5 pm, their office got an irate call from PBRK Prasad, Secretary to the then-PM, PV Narasimha Rao. “Who gave you permission to broadcast such a feature? Don’t you know that news is the domain of the Government?!!” After several frantic calls to several people in high places, a compromise was reached, which had shades of Yes, Minister to it: the show would be aired, but it would be called just “Tonight”, not “News Tonight” (as it couldn’t be news, as News was the domain of the Govt, blah, blah..), and it would be considered a feature of Current Affairs, not News (same reason).

Contrast this with 460 registered channels nationwide in November 2008.

However we are still probably the only country in the Free World with an Information and Broadcasting Ministry, a throwback to Stalin or Goebbels.

The media of the past was more or less owned by the ruling party, the Government, and could manipulate it to suit their own ends.  RS cited the example of the VP Singh election in Allahabad, where the media created the impression that Mr Singh was losing, when in fact he went on to win by over 2 lakh votes.

We are still governed by archaic laws such as the Indian Telegraph Act (1885).

RS went on to compare coverage of seminal events in our history (1984 anti-Sikh riots New Delhi vs Gujarat 2002; Latur earthquake 1993 vs Tsunami 2004); he even stuck his neck out to say that the Babri Masjid (1992) possibly may not have been demolished had in happened in this electronic age. He argued that the presence of cameras and crew would have served as a deterrent. I’m not quite sure I agree.

News coverage, especially TV coverage, as effectively become a First Information Report (FIR), for better or for worse.

He quoted VC Shukla being quizzed by a journalist during the Hawala scandal, “Kya app paise liye the?” RS feels that today’s journalists would have gone for the jugular even more, and been competitive about it, in their quest for a “scoop”. Journalism therefore as taken on an adversarial, combative edge, an interrogative spirit.

Glass Half-Empty: Quantity doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality. Look at the bloodthirsty chase for TRPs (target rating points). The truth often gets manipulated (a few anti-reservation protesters were magnified into a mass movement, when actually the pro-reservation demonstrations had far greater mass support). The mantra today is “shock and awe”; sensationalism scores over substance; the politician of substance is encouraged to give way to the politician of the sound bite.

News gets trivialised, anything qualifies for “breaking news”. The media is obsessed with the 3Cs: Crime, Cinema, Cricket.

The media have become metrofied. The big city scores over the village and rural India in general; the bigger state triumphs in its coverage over the smaller ones.  The “national” media is therefore not truly so.

Page 3 trivia is creeping onto Page 1, and although the number of newspapers, periodicals, magazines, etc has mushroomed, the space for debate, dissent, has shrunk further and further.

The media today are more feared than before, but less respected than before.

In some ways, investigative journalism of 20 years ago had more of a cutting edge than that of today. Corporate India can get away with almost anything. Big fish never get caught in a sting op.

Politicians control the media, either directly or through the cable operators. There is less and less tolerance of criticism.

RS went on to state that Pakistan’s non=governmental media were far more ethical, more professional, and far less jingoistic than our own.

The media is a carnivorous beast; secularism doesn’t sell; communalism does; scientific temper doesn’t sell, pseudospiritualism does.

The Future: RS’ Ideal was that there should be just 2-3 networks nationwide, with regional branches, all competing for quality, not TRPs.

It’s time the media focused on a 4th C, Conscience.

The ideal would be that each journalist self-regulated, but in practical terms there should be a News Broadcasters’ Regulatory Framework. along the lines of the UK’s OFCOM. Anyone deviating from the Framework gets taken off the air or from circulation, licenses should be revoked. no questions asked. Such a regulatory body should necessarily be nongovernmental, and break from the tired old practice of getting retired IAS officers (who invariably continue to be connected to seats of power and influence, and cannot therefore be impartial), and inject more dynamic people instead. RS suggested the name of Prannoy Roy. 

The media should be able to distinguish between what is IN the public interest, and not merely what is OF public interest. There should be more responsible journalism.

He also defended the media from unnecessary criticism; he maintained that the media were expected to be all things to all people. They were expected to be partisan, not neutral. The media needs to get its act together, but the public needs to become more mature in its expectations too.

RS came across as extremely relaxed, and although he seemed to be checking his notes from time to time, they seemed to served more to focus on the structure of the talk, rather than a prompt. 

One may not agree with all his points of view, but there’s no denying that India needs more journalists like him. His views were forthright, and fearless.

May his tribe increase.