Can India have a media, which is distinctly its own? By definition, media connects people with the country and the country with the rest of the world. Indian media cannot cut itself off from the rest of the world for if it does, it will be failing in its duty of keeping the people fully informed. But while being connected with the world, it can retain its own distinct – and positive – characteristics.
For example, Indian media, like the global media, is fast adopting the online social media, as well as the media that one carries in the mobile phone. In fact, the mobile communication in the country is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. But unlike the Western media, Indian print media, particularly in the vernacular languages, is growing as well. Circulation in Western print media houses have fallen drastically (and some have gone out of business) but not in India. This is distinctly an Indian media characteristic because of its growing first generation literates and learners.
Like India, China has a growing literate population but its media is wholly controlled by the government. This is a distinct characteristic of the Chinese media that India, hopefully, would not try to emulate, though there are tendencies within the Indian government to control the media; and some of the big houses, either wilfully or are being arm-twisted to toe the line. The Western media, too, often face this problem of the government trying to arm-twist the media to fall in line. But collectively they are strong enough to withstand government interference. Western media (especially the US media) generally follow the government line in foreign affairs, though they vociferously criticise their government in internal policies and misdeeds. That’s a distinctive mark of the US media.
In the continent, however, BBC stands tall and the institution, along with The Economist and the Financial Times, has so far managed to follow a more or less conservative – and objective – stand, though there have been times when the government has tried to ‘teach BBC a lesson’ by meddling through the trust, which runs the organisation.
To stand up like an institution like the BBC or The New York Times, the Indian media has a long way to go. The Akashvani and the Doordarshan were modelled on the BBC but they could never come anywhere near it in quality because the government never dared to create an independent trust like the BBC where it could manage its own business, staff salaries and of course it independent editorial policies. Prasar Bharati is a later development and is complete eyewash. The government still pays the salaries of the staff (and many of the staff prefer job security to independence of speech) and holds full control of the programmes broadcast.
Media as a ‘fourth estate’ is not a constitutional position in India. Though Article 19 ensures ‘freedom of speech’ for the media, it does not guarantee non-interference of the government as does the First Amendment of the US constitution for the US media. The Indian Constitution allows only an ‘indirect’ freedom speech for the media.
Both the professional media houses and the universities and institutions teaching media in India must work together to create a respectable “Indian media” to be considered seriously in the world. In Indian universities, it is still generally treated as ‘skills training course’ rather than an academic discipline. The professional media houses, in their run for more revenue, have given up the rigour and in the process, the credibility. They need to arise and unite in order to regain their self-respect.