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The media in India -

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HideRichard Aedy: Hello. I’m Richard Aedy. You’re on RN. Welcome to the Media Report.

Today we’re all Indian all the time, except for one bit, which is Mark Colvin, the man giving this year’s Andrew Olle lecture. He’s coming up later. Let’s get weaving.

India has more than 1.2 billion people. The only country with more is China but it isn’t a democracy and it doesn’t have India’s vibrant media tradition—which goes back by the way, to 1780.

Much of what you’ve heard on the Media Report this year has been about the problems of newspapers. Indian newspapers for the most part do not have those problems. There are about 82,000 different publications and more than 100 million copies are sold every day. It’s the biggest newspaper market in the world. But that doesn’t begin to explain the diversity and complexity of the Indian media according to the Director General of the country’s Institute of Mass Communication Sunit Tandon.

Sunit Tandon: You see all technologies exist in India simultaneously. So you see a lot of people bringing out little sheets on letterpress, would you believe it, in various parts of the country? I mean, for instance in Aizawl which is in Mizoram in the North East of India, the part of India which is beyond Bangladesh—we’ve set up a branch of our institute there recently. There I was amazed to find that there are about 30 or 40 local papers in a small town which is hardly…can barely be called a city by any standards. But most of them are single-sheeters brought off on letterpress in the local language. And these kind of papers persist everywhere. India has a huge number of small and medium newspapers, which are done with very low technology. But there has been over the last few years a consolidation, an expansion of the sort of corporate media houses. That will continue I’m sure, because with more investment coming in the bigger chains are expanding and they’re reaching out to more and more markets. They’re opening up new editions all over the place. So I think that print expansion is going to continue for at least another 15 to 20 years. It may in the English language start seeing a hiving off, a falling down in the next 5 to 10 years I suspect. But other than that I think that the print journalism has a very healthy future.

As far as television is concerned, I think we reached a kind of saturation level with a number of channels. We have 800 channels approximately, in India, of which about 70-80 or maybe close to 100, are news channels—of course in different languages and serving different regions and different markets. So most of these channels do not earn back their money. It’s as simple as that, and they’re being propped up by other business interests or other interests let’s put it that way.

Richard Aedy: Or they’re acting as a kind of propaganda arm of a wider concern.

Sunit Tandon: Absolutely; it might be a corporate interest, it might be political, but that’s what they are.

Richard Aedy: What about radio? How much of a player is that?

Sunit Tandon: Now radio is a very interesting position in India because in all this discussion we haven’t mentioned the state player which is, you know, Prasar Bharati Corporation which has two arms: All India Radio which is the radio wing and they have radio stations all over the country, in all languages; they have the news. And we have Doordarshan, which is the television arm. But as far as radio’s concerned privatisation was allowed but it was only allowed for entertainment—for music and so on.

To date, radio stations are not allowed to broadcast news and current affairs in India. It’s a strange dichotomy. Television is, radio is not. They’ve been told that if they want to do news and current affairs they have to take it off All India Radio and they have to…they can re-broadcast that news. So that is the position as far as journalism on radio’s concerned. But at the same time radio stations are expanding. We’re going to have another round of auctioning of FM radio licenses. So this has been in the…it’s been on the cards for a long time. And it’s going to be happening any time now. So suddenly we’ll see an increase in radio stations by another maybe 600 more stations coming up in the next two or three years.

Richard Aedy: Can I ask you—because you said before, something really interesting, which was that all technologies exist in India at the same time, from the essentially, almost the hand-cranked-out pamphlet to, I imagine to, in the larger places, broadband—how much internet access of news is going on now?

Sunit Tandon: It’s increasing, particularly with the English language but also with the other bigger linguistic groups like Tamil and Hindi and so on. I believe the latest figures are something like about 100 million people with internet access. That’s not necessarily broadband; that’s internet access. And I was reading a recent report that somebody who should know has predicted that by 2020 we’ll have about 600 million internet users in India. So it is expanding. Not as fast as China but it is growing. And people are beginning to access news much more online.

Richard Aedy: What are the most pressing concerns facing the Indian media from your perspective?

Sunit Tandon: The most intense debate that is going on in the Indian media nowadays—and amongst media watchers particularly—is that of content regulation, and having some kind of watchdog, particularly for the electronic media. For the print media we do have something called the Press Council of India, which is supposed to defend press freedom as well as chastise those who transgress borders or limits. But it doesn’t have much by the way of powers to punish. It does have a kind of recommendatory role, some kind of moral authority.

As far as the television, electronic media’s concerned there is nothing. And there’s a huge debate, the channels want to have some kind of self-regulation. They’ve tried to set up something but it’s proving not to be very effective. The credibility of media, because it’s very free, is a bit at stake. And we’ve had major reports in India, you may be aware of them, that during the last elections there were cases where newspapers were being paid to publish stories favourable to various candidates. So this, what we call, the paid news phenomenon, is something that is of great concern to people at the moment.

Richard Aedy: Yes. That is corruption by any other name isn’t it?

Sunit Tandon: Absolutely. There is no doubt about it. And the fact that it’s been highlighted in recent times means that the credibility of the media is under doubt.

Richard Aedy: What about wider corruption? Because in the last figures that we saw from Transparency International, the NGO that concerns itself with corruption, India had slipped down the list a bit and is now regarded as the 95th least corrupt country in the world. Corruption’s, I would imagine, a big news story. How well is it being covered?

Sunit Tandon: It’s being covered extensively. We’ve had, I’m sure you’re aware, recently many exposés of really multi-million if not billion dollar scams. And these are being investigated. They are having tremendous political fallout as well. And you can’t escape from reporting on these scams and the corruption.

Richard Aedy: I suppose I wondered because there is an extent to which media outlets are owned by companies or families that also have extensive other interests. And you can imagine it would be very easy for there to be a conflict of interest within the one concern.

Sunit Tandon: Well you’ve put your finger on it because on the surface the media is very free. And the hidden agendas of the media are not always apparent, because the business interests of the people who own the media do certainly have an effect on what is reported. But on the whole, given the fact that different media groups have different interests, I would say that you do get a fairly, fair reporting, balanced reporting, if you look at the larger picture.

Richard Aedy: How well do you believe the news media is serving ordinary citizens in India? I ask because John Lloyd of the Financial Times and the Reuters Institute for Journalism did a piece recently in which he argued that the Indian news media does pretty well for the middle-class, the people with some money, but not nearly so well for the many many more who are struggling.

Sunit Tandon: I haven’t read that particular piece but I wouldn’t argue with that. The fact is that any newspaper or media enterprise does well by its readers, by its consumers. It is an industry after all. And the fact is that the people that are not so well represented in the readership or the viewership, their interests are not so largely reflected in the media. That’s in the nature of the beast. But having said that, it’s not true to say that the bottom half of the population is totally ignored. There are many many publications which do devote some space to reporting on issues which concern rural life, the villagers, the schemes that are going on at the ground. So it’s not completely unreported or completely ignored.

Richard Aedy: He was saying that for many people the diet that is served up to them in the papers that they read is essentially celebrities and cricket and not much more than that.

Sunit Tandon: That is true, and films. You forgot to mention films.

Richard Aedy: Oh that’s right.

Sunit Tandon: And fashion is becoming big as well…Yes. Bollywood. Also called Bollywood or whatever wood it might be, because you have different woods in different parts of the country. But then that is the nature of the middle-class.

Richard Aedy: But you would argue that there are enough publications that report well on the enormously complicated and diverse country going through some big changes, pretty well.

Sunit Tandon: There are. But you have to look for them in the sense that you…if you’re interested in finding out about those stories you will find them. There are some serious publications; there is very small…but now suddenly, it’s emerging as a fairly significant strand of long-form journalism. There are a couple of magazines, if not two or three, which do in-depth reporting on various issues, and a few newspapers which are still very serious about reporting serious issues.

Richard Aedy: Sunit Tandon heads the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. And he’s in Australia because he wants to turn the institute into a university; he’s talking to people in Melbourne about that at the moment.

This is the Media Report on RN. I’m Richard Aedy.

Sunit Tandon
Indian Institute of Mass Communication
New Delhi
(Twitter: @standon1)