Once upon a time, newspapers were tame animals. They only doled out news items that were fed to them by news agencies. Newspapers from different business houses published identical news items sourced from PTI for domestic news and Reuters for international news. Sarkari news was distributed by the Press Information Bureau run by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Most big ads, especially Tender notices came from the Government which also controlled newsprint allotment. The government control was complete. News conferences were very rare. There were very few reporters. There was little investigative journalism and even less sensational scoops. Some exceptions were the Bofors deal that was assiduously pursued by the Hindu. Another spicy scandal was the Reliance one that was dished out by the Indian Express.
News Scoops were the specialty of weekly tabloids like Blitz and Current. The two had positioned themselves with diametrically opposite political stances. These tabloids did not command the same respect or credibility. Blitz’s marketing gimmick was to publish the pin up of a starlet or model on the last page. Occasionally there were rumours that their owners now and then planted imaginary scandals and were used by the government to target and tarnish uncooperative or inconvenient bureaucrats and politicians.
Then came the new era of glossy news magazines, led by India Today and others like Frontline and Outlook. Since routine news reporting was done by the dailies, such magazines had to do something more original. Their format was designed by copying or emulating Time or Newsweek. They vigorously introduced sensational investigative stories about corruption, moral turpitude, film news etc.
It is astonishing how much transformation the media has undergone today. Newspapers have become more dynamic and are now and then exposing scandals and digging out news items from the farthest corners of the country and even overseas. They have a large number of stringers doing the rounds of courts and government offices. Together with the visual media, they have exposed several mega scandals. The vociferous print media, ably backed by the TV news channels, exposed the corruption ridden Manmohan Government in the last few years leading to the election of the BJP Government in 2014.
Lately, news reporting has become a rat race. TV channels are constantly vying with each other flashing ‘Breaking News’ and are engaged in a dog fight for TRPs. Every evening their moderators hold durbars at which political parties are pitted against each other and tried through no holds barred slanging matches mildly called debates. Even simple issues are sensationalised. Every channel declares that it is the most watched channel. Every paper claims that it is the most preferred paper. In the good old days, oil Companies shared common storage facilities and sold the same oil. Yet constantly they ran high pitched sales campaign bragging ‘My oil is better than yours’. Media is now following the same gimmick.
Media has extended its active presence even in court rooms thanks to its power of publicity. Formerly court proceedings were aptly called hearings. Judges would only attentively listen to arguments advanced by the counsels and observe the demeanour and body language of witnesses to assess their veracity. Occasionally they would seek clarifications or pose questions to help their understanding. None attending the proceedings could easily hazard a guess which way the judgement would go. Judges always kept a guarded neutral stance.
To a layman it appears that nowadays, even the judiciary seems to have caught the same infection that afflicts the print and news media. Judges are no more silent listeners. Court hearings are interspersed with acidic comments by judges that reach TV media even as the proceedings continue in the court room. Judges at the highest level are making dramatic observations in open court castigating the accused or the government. Lawyers explain that these are only simple observations not to be confused with findings or interpreted as judgement.
At the Coalgate case hearing, a learned judge called CBI a ‘caged bird’. It was a very apt observation. It found a prominent place in the TV and newspapers immediately and CBI virtually became an object of public ridicule. The Apex court also received a lot of publicity and kudos. Since then the court has been making frequent observations in various cases, not amounting to judgement. Obviously their lordships are exercising their fundamental right of expression.
Media’s influence is growing day by day. Its business model too has changed beyond recognition. Perhaps not all of it is positive. Like it or not, the belligerent and raucous paparazzi media is here to stay.
Prof N Natarajan