The release of senior journalist Nalin Mehta’s book and the discussions that followed have revealed the deep contradictions held by Indian journalists and also the crisis that engulfs the media profession.
Mehta’s Behind a Million Billion Screens: What Television Tells Us About Modern India was launched at a special event in Delhi on May 8. Other senior journalists such as Consulting Editor of Headlines Today Rajdeep Sardesai, author and media critic Vanita Kohli-Khandekar and Chief Executive Officer of Prasar Bharti (PB) Jawhar Sircar were invited to speak.
At the book launch, the debate focused on the status of television media in India, within the framework of which Prasar Bharti was also discussed.
A senior journalist, who was present at the event and who wishes to remain anonymous, said that the conversation that followed was heated but neither Sircar nor Sardesai said anything new, and a number of hard questions were put to them both.
When questions were raised about why Doordarshan could not be fixed, Sircar said that PB had tried very hard to reform, but that bureaucrats often stalled any improvement. He maintained that Doordarshan was still relevant today.
On the other hand, Sardesai said that Indian television was dying and that Mehta’s book was its “obituary”.
Although both of them were deeply self-critical – Sircar about the quagmire that is the public broadcaster, and Sardesai about the abysmal credibility of private television news – they appeared to be offended when their respective media backgrounds were criticised by others and by each other.
One point in particular that may have irked Sircar was a solution to improve the ailing PB. Sardesai proposed that the only way to save Doordarshan was to contract out a portion of programming to the best journalists and others.
According to the senior journalist, Sardesai also remarked that Doordarshan had the opportunity to be a good-quality news broadcaster in 90s but failed to do so.
Following the event however the discussion continued on social media and morphed into personalised criticism of individuals bordering on one-upmanship.
Peeved by the debate and Sardesai’s comments, Sircar on May 12 put up a Facebook post saying that the “passionate defence of India’s plurality is not a monopoly of some media crusaders”.
Although he spoke to Sardesai and “other media friends” presumably in the private sector, his post was also a defence of Prasar Bharti and the role of its employees (including himself) who were “still fight(ing) every day against powerful forces, for our non-negotiable values”.
The next few sentences seemed to suggest anger at having to face pressure from within the government, and be then held responsible by well-known journalists in private television for all that is wrong with the public broadcaster.
Criticising Sardesai and “other well-off media friends” who have “made it big and have acquired the comfort of the solvency of several crores”, Sircar challenged them to put themselves in the shoes of a government employee who earns a salary of Rs 59,000 a month with some perks.
“Try managing 30,000 government employees with unions and sarkari work culture, along with some 20,000 other casual hands?” Sircar wrote, adding that as the head of Prasar Bharti, he had “thousands of installations to manage and be responsible for, not one fancy studio”.
Sircar finished by saying that he “refuse(d) to be target practice for their arrows, for the sins of other crafty babus who are wrecking the country… These nefarious babus do so in broad daylight, irrespective of which political party is in power: they can suck up to any. And they are richer than Rajdeeps! So, please try to earn your living in the media by exposing rotten elements in government as (sic) stay away from the fury of the upright.”
Sircar was not available for comment as he is currently in China on official business, but this turn of events is particularly significant given the current disquiet within the journalistic community over falling standards of reportage and the erosion of the credibility of the media in the public’s eyes.
To the senior journalist, it appeared that “All these fights are a reflection of the immense pressure that everyone is under. They are a symptom of how unhappy people are with the current state of affairs (in Indian journalism).”
(Note: The story initially stated that the Facebook post was put up by Sircar on May 10. It has been changed to May 12, after the error came to light.)