Hold The Front Page


May 3 is World Press Freedom Day.  Ashis Ray,  the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent,says news media in India and Britain are facing challenges in both ethical and financial fronts. A Special Report for Asian Lite News

media-scan hold the front page mediaOn the one hand, the news media scenes in India and Britain are in sharp contrast to each other. On the other, there’s a common thread in that both are confronted by challenges, albeit of different kinds.

The concept of a newspaper was exported to India during British rule of India through the East India Company. Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, first published in Kolkata on 29 January 1780, was the first such product to enter the market.

Today the world’s largest selling English language daily is no longer the Sun. It is, in fact, the Times of India. Moreover, the circulation of morning papers in India continues to be on a steady upward curve – directly linked to the country’s rising literacy – whereas several print titles in the United Kingdom are in dire distress.

The multi-edition Hindustan Times and the Hindu also enjoy a wide presence. Even regional papers like the Tribune, the TelegraphDeccan ChronicleDeccan Herald and the Daily News & Analysis (DNA)respectably hold their own.

Circulation-wise, papers like Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar in the national language Hindi, do even better. Besides, Malayala Manorama in Malayali, Eenadu in Telegu, Daily Thanthi in Tamil and Anandabazar Patrika in Bengali, among others, also reach millions.

IndyThe Independent in the UK, such a refreshing broadsheet when it first launched in 1986, closed its hardcopy edition this month. The Guardian is said to be haemorrhaging £1 million a day. The once significant take-ups of the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times are on a sharp decline. The esteemed Financial Times, too, has suffered in the new age; and is now a part of Nikkei’s stable. Even the tabloids are a shadow of their former selves. The only masthead bucking the trend is the Daily Mail.

Publications in both countries have, of course, had to diversify into internet offerings. The readership for these have grown rapidly, not to mention their following on Facebook and Twitter. But advertising rates on these platforms are modest compared to the ones fetched in the salad days of print and, therefore, monetarily not yet a substitute.

Some, such as the UK’s Times and Sunday Times and FT, charge for access, which assists the coffers, but as yet not adequately.

The centrality of radio in British kitchens and bedside is not mirrored in India. Only state-controlled All India Radio is allowed to broadcast news and current affairs. In poor, remote, rural homes there is no alternative to absorbing this. Private stations are competitive in cities with their diet of popular music.

As for television, there are scores of 24-hour news channels in numerous languages in India, as compared to just BBC and SKY as corresponding British outputs. But most of the Indian services are low budget in the absence of subscription earnings.

Leading Hindi channels like AAJ TAK, ZEE NEWS and ABP NEWS reportedly enjoy a surplus. This may be true of a few others in regional languages, as well. But the efforts in English are said to be mostly in deficit.

Arnab 2The TV news business in India has gradually been gobbled up by powerful corporate houses with a vested interest in controlling the agenda, not to mention killing inconvenient news about themselves.

The other trend is of politicians and political parties controlling channels. In short, suitability, checks and balances are bypassed in approving licences or changes of ownership.

The explosive expansion in news media in India since the 1990s has meant training of journalists has failed to keep pace with the rapid enlargement. Consequently, clumsy reporting rules the roost whether it’s in newspapers or television. Indeed, some of the programmes on TV are not just journalistically unethical and ungrammatical, but distinctly unlawful.

Uncaring or unenlightened proprietors, only concerned about the bottom line, are believed to be engaged in dubious deals with unscrupulous political parties, state and central governments, not to mention major advertisers.

The net result is editorial freedom is under serious threat. Just as the hacking controversy in the UK is yet to materialise in a meaningful code of conduct, there is nothing in sight to restore accuracy and fairness in Indian news media.

Mr Ashis Ray
Mr Ashis Ray


(Ashis Ray is currently the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent, having uninterruptedly worked in this capacity for 39 years, mainly for BBC and CNN, but also for ITN, India’s Ananda Bazar Group and The Times of India)