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  • Shoot the media

    Posted On November 6, 2011

    By Karan Thapar
    Although taken aback by his vehemence, I wasn’t surprised to hear the Press Council Chairman’s sharp criticism of the media. I’ve long been aware that there are many – perhaps even a majority – who don’t hold newspapers and news channels in high esteem. And they’re not limited to India. It’s true of ordinary folk in many countries. For instance, my dear friend Floozies Jafferjee, now the Chief Prosecutor in the Pakistani Cricketers’ case in London, maintains that just because something is published in a newspaper doesn’t mean it’s true. Justice Katju’s views are similar. First, however, Justice Katju’s vehemence, which did surprise me. He says he’s “very disappointed” by the media. He has a “poor opinion” of it. He thinks the media is not working in the interest of the people and sometimes it’s even “anti-people.” Finally, he believes most journalists have “a poor intellectual level” and doubts they’re well-read. Perhaps Floozies would agree although I suspect he would have phrased himself more discretely. But the real questions are not about the language or tone of Justice Katju’s comments but his grounds for holding his views. There, I suspect, Floozies and most of you would agree with him. And, let me add, I don’t always disagree. Justice Katju has three big points to make. He argues that the media’s obsession with cricket, filmstars, astrology and fashion gives it little time for the issues that matter. Perhaps that’s more true of television than print but there certainly are days when it seems undeniable. He feels the ease and speed with which the media accepts claims by Islamist groups that they are responsible for terror attacks, without checking them, demonizes muslims – although he adds this is done deliberately with the intention of dividing the country, a conclusion I cannot accept. And he holds that the media often damages the reputation of innocent people by misrepresenting them or, worse, suggesting they’re guilty without sufficient evidence. A point that struck a particular chord with me was when Justice Katju upbraided the media for its lack of accuracy and the way it can “twist” or “distort” facts or what people have said. Whilst researching for interviews I’ve often questioned how different papers present different accounts of the same event. Or how the same person at the same press conference can be ‘quoted’ in ways that are starkly dissimilar. I know Justice Katju’s comments will rile many of my colleagues and a few will simply dismiss them. That’s unfortunate because even if they don’t agree what they can’t deny is that he reflects a wide swathe of opinion. Sunil Kalra, who smsed as soon as the Katju interview was broadcast, perhaps spoke for millions: “Mr. Katju has echoed Indian TV audience sentiments.” Beyond the details or the unwarranted powers Katju wants, the key issue is the media’s credibility. Are we believed? Are we considered reliable? Fair? Objective? Do we adequately cover the reality of India or simply pander to urban, middle-class tastes? Do our debates inform and shed light or merely generate heat and excite? Of course, we’ve done a great job exposing corruption, puncturing the halo of the self-righteous and the pomposity of the mighty. No one can deny us credit for that. But we have our Achilles’ heels and we must not overlook them. Justice Katju may have gone too far or his manner may have offended but if we ignore the fact he speaks for millions it could be at our own cost.

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