‘Justice Katju’s remarks not wide of the mark’

In all the primal breast-beating over the new Press Council chairman’s sweeping generalisations, few journalists have tried to sanely dissect Justice Markandey Katju‘s remarks. Indeed, as a tweet ironically noted: “Most of the articles opposing Justice Katju’s interview actually end up proving whatever he said about the media there.”

Kumar Ketkar, the editor of the Marathi daily Divya Marathi, took on the pashas of political correctness on television but was shouted down. The veteran Bombay-based opinion writer Sidharth Bhatia attempts a more nuanced parsing of Justice Katju’s observations in today’s Asian Age.

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By SIDHARTH BHATIA

Anyone who is concerned about the Indian media scene today, whether he is connected to it as a practitioner or as a consumer, would probably agree with many of the comments made by Justice Markandey Katju, the new chairman of the Press Council.

In an interview to Karan Thapar — who chose to play just a straightforward questioner rather than a provocateur — Justice Katju was sharply critical of the media; among other things, he called it obsessed with frivolous matters (filmstars etc), invidious in its approach and anti-people.

These are harsh words and sweeping generalisations but cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Justice Katju has a very poor opinion of the Indian media. He lists three ways in which it is not serving the interests of Indian society: it diverts the attention of the Indian people from real problems (economic issues) by over-focussing on trivia, cricket, Bollywood and the like; it divides the people by highlighting, without evidence, the connection of organisations like the Indian Mujahideen moments after a bomb blast, which subtly conveys the message that all Muslims are terrorists; and instead of enlightening citizens, it propagated superstitions, astrology and the like.

Justice Katju does not mince words in the interview: “The majority (of people in the media), I’m sorry to say, are of a very poor intellectual level… I doubt whether they have any idea of economic theory or political science, philosophy, literature. I have grave doubts whether they are well read in all this, which they should be.”

This is strong language coming from anyone, and when they come from the man who will preside over the Press Council, which often hears complaints against the media, they assume an extra edge. They clearly set the tone of what his tenure will be like.

Those who have been used to the Press Council being a generally benign, even toothless body, would do well to pay attention to what he thinks.

Now much of what Justice Katju says is not new.

In media circles, the falling standards of the profession have been a subject of discussion for a very long time. For example, it is almost universally admitted that younger journalists joining newspapers, magazines or television channels are much less aware of Indian history, politics and society than their counterparts a few decades ago.

This can partly be blamed on the education system, which relies more on rote learning than on genuine enquiry. A system where students can and do get 99 per cent marks can only be an assembly line where talent and intellect is measured by grades which reflect a good memory and little else.

To cater to the demand for journalists, colleges have eagerly taken to offering media courses at the bachelors level, but without the requisite faculty; a lot of the output of these courses is, to put in bluntly, rubbish. But such is the need in a sector that has grown exponentially over the last decade and more, that almost everyone lands a job soon enough, writing or thinking skills be damned.

There are scores of channels and hundreds of publications looking for staff and the general tendency is to just take what you can get and then hope that they will learn something on the job.

The bigger question is, what of the job itself?

Regrettably, Justice Katju’s remarks about the frivolous nature of the media are not wide of the mark. Though it is wrong to paint the entire media scene with one brush — the “media” can include the serious as well as the trashy channels, the quality papers as well as the rags — the perception is that TV channels are about hyperbole and the newspapers are dumbing down news.

The person holding the remote control sees either panellists shouting at each other, film songs, filmstars airing their views on everything, cricket and astrology. And this is on news, not entertainment channels. One often hears viewers ask — why do correspondents get so breathless while reporting, why do anchors shout so much? Bollywood stories make it on the front pages and the supplements are of course full of glamour.

But this is not the whole truth.

There are sober anchors as well as serious and competent reporters (and good journalism too). Many TV channels give us top quality stories on the “real issues”, many newspapers write on important matters that concern the polity. But, as any mediaperson will tell you, perception triumphs reality and Justice Katju is articulating the common perception.

As a judge and as an erudite and analytical mind, one only wishes he had taken a more balanced and nuanced view instead of blindly hitting out at the profession.

The Editors’ Guild has come out with a condemnation of Justice Katju’s remarks. Media practitioners also need to point out to Justice Katju and other critics that such broad brushstroke criticism does not do justice to the many thousands of journalists who do a good and honest job.

The average journalist is not on television, not a columnist with his or her picture in the papers, not someone who regularly hobnobs with the rich and powerful at seminars or parties. Tucked away in small papers (and big too) are journalists who do their work with great competence and sincerity. They do know about history, economic theory, literature and poetry and do understand the role of the media in a democratic and changing society. They do not hanker after sarkari titles or parliamentary seats or even television panel discussions.

Justice Katju wants stronger powers for the Press Council, which he wants to rechristen the Media Council so that television can be brought under its purview. In extreme cases, he wants to suspend licences of publications and channels. This may sound wonderful and path-breaking but is not the silver bullet that will change things overnight. Journalists are not going to become smarter, wiser or more mature.

The media is not going to shed its so-called obsession with trivia.

What is more, managements, who too have some responsibility at the state of affairs, are not likely to mend their ways. All it will do is to set up an antagonistic relationship between the media and the council; the early signs that this will happen are already visible.

Any attempt to “reform” the media and make it more professional will have to be a long drawn, process-driven affair. As chairman of the Press Council, Justice Katju can definitely contribute to that transition, but not if he is holding onto his prejudices and carrying a danda.

(This piece was originally published in the Asian Age and is reproduced here with permission)

Also read: ‘I have a poor opinion of most media people’

Editors’ Guild of India takes on Press Council chief

TV news channel editors too blast PCI chief

Has Justice Katju been appointed by Josef Stalin?

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9 Responses to “‘Justice Katju’s remarks not wide of the mark’”

  1. S.Prakash Says:

    Remarks of the Justice Markendeya Kutju is timely and most welcome. Electronic media are behaving like hitler and whatever they report is true. Always the concentration of the media will be on the breaking news, local trivial issues which are fit to be reported in evening new papers.They glorify the pregnancy of a Star, what food they consumed in the party and their antics. Some channels reserve a slot to Filmy funda, to report about the antics of the stars and co-star, snapshots of the film that will hit the screen in the coming Friday etc., The media is least worried about the Man animal conflict, issues related to wild life,vanishing green, Key issues related to shortage of coal, soaring price of the fossil oil, why the RBI is raising repo rates once in a quarter, its impact, why inflation ? why the China is successful in all fronts, what is the secret behind.

    24 x7 hrs Regional news channels are worst in reporting price rise,accident. apart from showing the gruesome scenes, they interview the victims or relatives and pose silly questions and Air their own views. In September 2011,24X7 suvarna channel invited Two guests and organized question hour about the sudden power shortage. As if they were experts in the field they started giving their advice, suggestion. One Guest instead of discussing the subject, reverted to some projects that the BESCOM has handled.

    I feel, time has come to draw boundaries or to define self code of conduct to the Electronic media, as viewed by the Justice Kutju.

  2. Shrey Goyal (@ShreyGoyal) Says:

    I would like to add that development journalism in particular is largely ignored in India, and I see no major media house dedicating as much as a single team to this vast space. In fact, the most consistent, reliable, and compelling sources for news stories as well as insightful op-ed pieces on India’s social and environmental state, particularly on the rural front, are usually the Guardian, Wall Street Journal’s India-Real-Time portal, and Reuters, with the Hindu and LiveMint coming across as the only Indian publications that address these issues at all.

  3. pdk Says:

    Yet no one asks why this is so. Why are the channels/printed media dishing out the media-equivalent of fast food instead of wholesome fare? I’m sure there must be a lot of opinions about this, but I would point at the money motive. How else do they make money if not by giving the viewer/reader a easy to digest stuff/entertainment after a hard day’s work. The good old [X]ollywood mantra: we’re giving what the viewers want. At least that’s what they seem to think. I’m sure many have turned away from even news channels because of the substandard fare except for catching real breaking news like earthquakes/nuclear meltdowns/wars etc.. I for one have.

    But it was not supposed to work that way, was it. DD was captured. So when the private channels came up, they were supposed to fill a a real gap. And I think they did for a time. Then heavy competition as more people got on to the bandwagon and things went downhill. But competition is supposed to be good according to the free market theorists. Funny thing is, many have turned back to DD for the sober, substantive discussions.

  4. krishnan Says:

    Justice Katju’s observations are apt and timely. A look at any of the regional news channel panel discussions shows the poor quality of panellists and their awareness of various public issues. It is not uncommon to come across poorly informed editors and correspondents of publications speaking on each and every topic under the sun like scholars. Little surprise at the steep decline in the quality of special discussions on public issues.

  5. kris Says:

    Justice Katju has a fan in the media!

    http://www.indianexpress.com/news/does-the-media-need-controls/871389/0

    ….If the government uses its advertisements to coerce newspapers into printing only good news about the government, it amounts to press censorship….The Prime Minister is routinely reviled for his indecision and his lack of leadership but the family who gave him his job is treated as sacrosanct. Why?….When is the last time you saw a truly memorable bit of investigative journalism on Indian television?….reporters need basic training in the fundamentals of journalism before they are unleashed on our screens. And, some of our celebrated anchors need to remember that they do not speak for ‘the people of India’….

  6. maisuru Says:

    But the riposte by Justice Verma is quite different from the popular sentiment:

    Asked about Katju’s comments, he said “as far as the comments of (Katju) go, all irresponsible talk is best ignored.”

    “Public money is being spent on running the press council. I am deeply anguished with his (Katju’s) language which sounds authoritarian.”

    Verma said Katju’s comments constitute a case of the PCI chairperson exceeding his brief. “He should first put print media regulation in order and then comment on television news,” he added.

  7. Venkatarama Muthuswami Says:

    Katju’s remarks and observations on the Indian media are certainly not wholly untrue nor irrelevant. This is a country where news can be bought, sold and published for a price; some of the Indian media moghuls even openly pride themselves with treaty agreements with socalled big business – all for the sake of CSR!? My foot!
    The fact that some of our moneyed media suffers from extreme egotism and self-righteousness, or serve as lackeys to out-moded ideological outfits is known for many readers, incl. this writer.
    Again, Indian media as a whole seem to have unwritten bias toward the (duplicate) Gandhi dynasty (not the original Father of the Nation, whose family long forgotten) to the extend its members are held second only to Lord beyond any question and to be worshipped and praised even for unknown qualities..

  8. RR Says:

    @Maisuru:

    Your comment is somewhat misleading, in part due to our uniquely Indian habit of calling all former Judges “Justice”. More on that later, but the main point follows.

    If you check the reportage at http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_shut-down-ineffective-press-council-of-india-ex-chief-justice-js-verma_1607479 it is clear that Mr J. S. Verma is a former CJI who now heads the National Broadcasters’ Association (NBA) which claims to be a “self-regulatory” body (whatever that is supposed to mean!) of the broadcasters themselves. Obviously, Mr Verma is not here as an unbiased judge passing judgement but instead, as a party joining issue. In this context, allowing the former judge the “Justice” sobriquet is very misleading.

    (An aside: The practise of adding “Justice” title to former judges should be stopped, it is particularly an Indian colonial habit and other modern democracies don’t use such pompous titles. Even sitting judges can be addressed respectfully as Mr etc. But then in Indian pleadings even today we see wallow words like “I humbly pray” and “shall forever be indebted” which you can’t see in other English speaking courts elsewhere this day and age!).

  9. pdk Says:

    Revisiting this post after reading some related stuff today, it seems to me that criticising the TV news shows is missing the point. TV news are, like everything else on TV, ‘show’s. The purpose is to entertain. Everyone must look good, speak in soundbites, and the viewer should not be called on to think. Since TV now takes up so much of our free hours, in order to compete newspapers too need to be a bit like TV. That is the cue for TOI to enter, thus starting the decay till even staid DH starts behaving like TOI.

    All this was noted in 1984 in this speech by Neil Postman in this speech called “Amusing ourselves to death” (http://bit.ly/t9LVAL). As he explains there, Aldous Huxley had pretty accurately predicted all this in his 1932 book Brave New World.

    Same thing in a more TV-like form :-) here: http://bit.ly/unkj2t.

    Can we be different from the rest of the televised world? As of now, doesn’t look like it. And if govt cracks down, then what happens was in any case predicted by George Orwell in his 1984.

    A lose-lose situation if ever there was one.

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