Nov 122014

My column in the DNA on October 16th 2014

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” This quote is attributed to the great Albert Einstein in an attempt to explain the Theory of Relativity to someone in a simple and effective manner. And, like most general analogies, this holds true. It is just a few years ago that I joined the media, as a freshly minted graduate student, with stars in her eyes and the belief that the media can be used to bring about social change. And, lo and behold, before I realised it, it has been 20 years. And 20 years later I find myself just as excited about the media landscape as I was all those years ago – it is diverse, it is exciting, and one is working with one of the most interesting audiences in the world. The media in India has changed so rapidly and people have welcomed new technologies and formats with such open arms that it seems like one has managed to cram multiple lifetimes into one.

If you look back at the 20 years, it has been a time of momentous change in the media. The world of Indian television has moved from watching a single channel (Doordarshan) to an explosion of channels that cater to every interest, language, genre and format. The other big move has been attitudinal. India has moved from being a single TV household, where most members of the family congregated to watch their favourite show to being a world with multiple screens and personalised consumption. What is also fascinating about the media landscape is that while in more developed economies we can see the gradual sunset of certain forms of media and other forms of media gradually becoming all encompassing, in India different media seem to be engaged in mutual co-existence and are thriving. Print is doing well in India, as is television, radio, as is digital. The audience has never before had so much choice of content that is available on so many different types of media, for next-to-nothing prices.

Twenty years ago the market scenario was very different. This was before the era of 24-hour channels. There were no dedicated Indian news channels, in fact news was still the sole prerogative of the State broadcaster, Doordarshan. The three broadcasters would air 3-4 hours of original content per day. And, unlike today, where you see wall-to-wall content of a certain kind, television, in those days, would air a plethora of formats and types of content to keep the audiences hooked. The expansion of television media in the last two decades has been organic. At the end of 2014, the Ministry of Information andBroadcasting had given permission for 825 channels to broadcast in India. There are close to 90,000 newspapers in India and most of us have stopped counting the number ofwebsites aimed at Indian audiences.

With this entire diversity and choice, one problem still remains. Who pays for the content? This is a question we grappled with 20 years ago, when technology was still grappling with addressability and the ability to charge the consumer for content. Today we have the technology in place, but are faced with the reality that there is so much free (and good) content in the world, who will pay for the content that you produce? And, this is not just a problem we are facing in India — it seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.

For most Indians, we get content at next-to-nothing prices. The cost of content for the consumer on the Internet is the cost of their Internet connection. You are paying for delivery, not for content. If you look at TV, the situation improves marginally. Most households pay between Rs300-500 a month for their cable/DTH connection for 300-400 channels. That is between Re1 and Rs1.50 per channel per month. It doesn’t matter if you only watch 10 of these channels; the fact is that you get them all for what you pay. In contrast, print has the best deal of them all. Most of us pay between Rs90 and Rs150 per month (between Rs3-Rs5 per day) for newspaper subscription.

This is, incidentally, less than the cost of a cutting chai in Mumbai) But given that the cost of producing a single paper is upwards of Rs20 per day, once again the Indian audience is getting a really good deal. In each of these cases, the cost of consumption is very low and approaches zero.

Finally, let us look at the contentious issue of quality — the constant refrain that is heard across the board is that “the quality of content has gone down. The media is pandering to the lowest common denominator”. And, the answer then, as now, is that how do you create ‘quality’ ‘good content’ when people are not willing to pay for it? How do create content that highlights ‘culture’ when people don’t want to watch ‘culture’ and would rather watch the latest item number? Do we, as media, act as arbitrators of media consumption habits or do we give the audience what they want? Do we create content for an audience that doesn’t want ‘good’ content in enough numbers, and doesn’t want to pay for it, when it does? Or do we create content that people will consume no matter what, and let the advertiser pay for the content?

These are interesting questions for which there are no readymade answers. Each media outlet has to make its own choices regarding its options. But, more interesting would be the choices of the audience – if they want quality, they have to pay for it. Conversely, they can consume what is available for free – but those come with no guarantees. The next decade while the media and the audience negotiate over this, will be interesting times.

May 012012

Before I begin this post, a few of declarations :

a) post 26/11 I believed, and still do, that some news channels should have lost their licenses because I believed that they put lives at risk

b) post 26/11, my revulsion at private news channels was so great that I stopped watching TV news.

The National Broadcasters Association had come up with a code of conduct and those who watch television news will be best suited to talk about whether those are followed or not.


Over the last few days, the Indian Express has been carrying stories on Congress MP, Meenakshi Natarjan‘s private member bill on “Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, 2012“. I have tried to get a copy of the bill, but that is work in progress. The proposed bill calls for the creation of a body that can take suo moto action against media houses, confiscate their property, suspend their license to conduct business and gag them. As far as I know it hasn’t called for public flogging, but then I haven’t read the bill. AS i pointed out on twitter

Meenakshi Natarajan’s proposed bill makes Draconian seem like a soft liberal person who goes on candle light marches

I still don’t understand how such an unconstitutional bill even came to be drafted, especially by someone whose bio reads law graduate? I may understand the why of it, but not the how of it ? How can you have an authority that investigates without anyone complaining ?

According to the Bill, this Authority is exempt from the Right to Information Act and can even order the search and seizure of documents or records of a media organisation.

The Bill lays down standards which it says the media “must” follow. These include: “prohibition of reporting any news item based on unverified and dubious material”; “exercising due care while reporting news items related to judiciary and legislature,”; clearly segregating “opinion from facts,”; “maintaining complete transparency and impartiality in internal functioning” and “prohibition of reporting news items which are obscene, vulgar or offensive.”

It also lays down that the electronic media shall not “showcase clippings from entertainment programmes or from those aired on entertainment channels for more than 15 minutes of its daily broadcast time.”

This bill’s approach seems to be the same approach taken by eminent civil society members on corruption. there is a problem. let us hit that problem with a sledgehammer and the problem will go away. Unfortunately the world doesn’t work that way. You cannot have vague legislation ‘unverified or dubious material’. If you want verified news – go read a history book replete with multiple citations.

Laws exist, be they laws on defamation or laws on incitement that can handle any breach by the media. Those laws can and should be applied if required. I remember a TV news channel that falsely implicated a maths teacher of procurement (she was accused of pimping her students) losing its license for a given period, I cannot think of a single person who disagreed with that. channels have been fined, channels have been told to move shows to other times, channels have been requested not to carry troop movements – and channels have complied. There are laws that exist, and every business knows that they need to comply with the law. Why do you then need additional laws?  Meenakshi Natarajan’s proposed bill is in the same space as Jan Lok Pal. Instead of applying the laws that exist, you build one draconian monolith that has no  raison d’etre. 

I also believe that it is a wake up call for a media that has gone over the top.  It needs to self regulate. The role of the NBA needs to be strengthened, it needs to have teeth. Currently out of 400 odd news channels, it exerts authority on 10% of those channels. ( i am talking about TV news, because Print is less pervasive and more fragmented).   Also the Press as a whole needs to get its act in place. The kind of arm twisting that went into suppressing the paid news report and replacing it with a bland equivalent needs to stop. There needs to be a separation of powers between that part of the industry that monitors and that part that puts out content.

Also, the reason why the media has gone nuts is that is run for reasons other than profit. Stop political funding of news. Stop state funding of news. Have a TRP system that is more universal, which will tell advertisers and clients exactly what they are paying for (and not the viewing patterns of less than 10,000 people.) Have legislation on the cross ownership of media. Bring in addressability. But no, politicians will do none of this, because the fall out will be so great and their political obsolescence will be so rapid – that they would be out before the ink is dry on the bill. So, they come up with silliness like this. The bill won”t be passed is, hopefully, a given. But, someone who introduced a bill like this deserves censure.


Finally, if the Congress Party says it doesn’t know about the bill or that the bill doesn’t reflect its policies then maybe it needs to have words with its M.P. who introduced the bill. The bill is not an independent member’s bill, it a Congress MP’s bill. And this particular Congress MP is an aide of Rahul Gandhi. If none of them knew about it, then either the organisation is terribly inept, or the MP has crossed the line on discipline.


do also read Anant Rangaswami on First Post on why the proposed  bill was a non starter

Mar 042012

Brokering News

Brokering News is a documentary on the Paid News in India. The phenomenon has spread far and wide and permeates every aspect of news in India.

For most of us working in the media, the story of paid news is not new. When i was with a leading entertainment group, the anger against journalism as a profession and specific journalists or news companies, inside the company was huge. “chor hain woh log’ was a term i heard many times, especially when it came to the time when business results had to be published.  This is despite the fact that the company i worked for owned a news channel. But, in board rooms and office meetings we were told to be nice to journalists, to humour them and give them the ‘bhaav’ and treat them with kid gloves.

When we made our film Jhing Chik Jhing, and then were ready for publicity – we were told very clearly pay or there will be none. It is not called paid news. it is called a marketing tie up 😀 While you can argue that publicity for a film should be paid for, after all you are making profits out of the film … however, if you go to watch a film based on the reviews (which are part of the marketing package) then are you incurring a loss if it is a bad film ?  the same logic applies  when it comes to covering Politics or Business. The job of journalism is not to encourage or cover up for politicians on the take – it is to expose them. Similarly the function of journalism is not to cover up business wrong doings. For example, do you remember what happened with the ground water pollution in Kerala caused by Coke ? or do you know why the Metro in Mumbai has been delayed for so long – or indeed who is building it ?

Umesh Agarwal’s documentary looks at all these areas – be it film marketing, or sanitizing politicians or covering up business wrong doing. It further looks at the issue of who owns the media. the answer is that the same people own different news channels and papers and are also amongst the largest advertisers. The film looks at the main paid news cases of the last 5 years – be it the reporting on the Ambani brothers or the involvement of leading journalists – Prabhu Chawla, Vir Sanghvi & Barkha Dutt – with Nira Radia. The journalists claimed that they were cultivating an important source, but the fact remains that the incident eroded the credibility of not just the journalists but the profession at large.

A few years ago i stopped watching and reading the bulk of main stream media, and get my news from Government controlled agencies such as PTI, UNI, DD and AIR. For, if I am going to read biased news, i might as well know whose bias it is and compensate for it. I wouldn’t mind paid news, if i knew who was paying for it and how the bias manifests it self.

Do spend an hour to understand how the majority of those in the news business function. it is more business and less news. Don’t believe most things you see or read – it will lead to tremendous disappointment and disillusionment. There is a line that S.Y. Quraishi., the CEC, uses in the documentary “the fourth estate should not become the 5th column.’  Corruption – and the term paid news is a euphemism for corruption – corrodes a system from the inside.

The documentary raises important points. However, like most desi documentaries it tends to bludgeon you with its view rather than allow for any subtlety of any sort. I wish that it had featured views from honest editors and hones member from the journalistic fraternity . Also, the one thing i would like to see Indian docus do, as i would Indian films, is understand and appreciate the value of silence. there is no need to cram every second with sound … Having said all this , the film is a worth while excessive. Its an hour well spent in understanding who shapes your views and why . Umesh Agarwal needs to be congratulated to have the courage to go up against some powerful people .

Dec 232011

Jail Bharo or fill the jails is an interesting concept. Paralyse the administration, paralyse the police till your objective is met.
There are many ways of getting to jail. The most simple way is to break the law. Preferably commit a crime.

The single biggest problem with Jail Bharo is that the jails are already well over capacity. The Asian Age says:

Indian jails suffer from 29.2 per cent overcrowding with the total prison population at a staggering 3,84,753 which is 0.034 per cent of the total population of the country. The home ministry last week reviewed the conditions of prisons and noted that most states have not been able to reduce
the number of undertrial prisoners who are constituting 67 per cent of the total prison population.

You can find more prison stats here.

One appreciates Team Anna’s marketing prowess in revoking the slogan “Jail Bharo” – but one also marvels at their lack of knowledge of either contemporary Indian Histroy – freedom struggle, and of current Laws. People got arrested for asking for independence or participating in the freedom struggle in the pre 1947 era. Today, the right to protest peacefully is enshrined in the Constitution. So to get to jail, you have to do something more – break the law. So is Jail Bharo a call to riot ? a call to vandalise? a call to do what?. The system can’t simply deprive people of their freedom if they haven’t done something what wrong are you compelling your supporters to do ?

For all the youngsters, who in your idealism want to break the law and get to prison, a small reminder. IF you go to jail, you will may have  end up with a criminal record. That record stays for ever and ever and ever. It will come into play when you apply for a job, your passport, want to go abroad to study or work. I am not sure if it will impact a bank loan – but i am not sure that the banks will give a loan to someone who had a record … not ordinary people with a record, in any case. No one will tell you this, because it suits them not to. For those proposing jail bharo – you are a head count. for the media, you are drama. If the government tells you not to- they will be a bully. So everyone will keep quiet. While Jail Bharo sounds great – it will not make an iota of difference to anyone but you. A better way to curb corruption is to promise never to pay a bribe. never to break the law. Never to tolerate it in your family and neighbourhood. Enough of you do this, corruption will reduce.

For all those grown up who know the risks – hats off. I don’t agree with the IAC and civil society. But, i possilby agree with you and admire your courage of conviction. (no pun intended). Only one request to you – don’t get used by these political animals. they are not in it for the country, they are in it for themselves. you are but tools.


This post has spawned both positive & irate responses. For the positive one’s thank you. 

Forthe irate responses both on twitter and on this blog from those who are Team Anna fans, you would think that i asked people not to take part in the Jail Bharo scheme … no. Simply said be aware of the consequences. Figure if IAC has lawyers on site to take care of issues.else contact a friendly lawyer. After understanding all the consequences, you still want to do this – great… but don’t go in blind. 

Oct 172011

My column in today’s DNA:

If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to have heard it fall, does it make a sound?’ is an old philosophical question on which there has been much heated argument over the centuries. The debate is a consequence of a school of philosophy that believes that events exist from the point of view of the observer. If there is no observer, then there is no event. Others, especially scientists, maintain that events exist irrespective of the presence of the observer.
In an era of 24-hour news channels, this philosophy can be revisited. If an event occurs, let’s say a protest, and there is no media coverage, then as far as public consciousness is concerned, does the issue even exist? Groups and causes that can articulate their view in media-friendly chunks have their issues become part of the public debate. Groups and causes that cannot, do not exist as far as the public space is concerned. Political and civil society groups of all hues and shades are beginning to realise this. They have realised that media coverage works best in the media centres — Mumbai and Delhi. And, protests work best when conducted in the full glare of the media. They realise that if there is no observer for an event, then the protest is as good as being dead in the water. For example, Irom Sharmilla has been fasting to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for over 10 years, and it is just now that the protest has been noticed. And, that is because Anna Hazare’s 12-day fast brought Irom Sharmilla’s decade long fast into the limelight. Similarly,38-year-old Swami Nigamanand Saraswati died trying to save the Ganga from pollution caused by illegal mining. After 68 days of fasting in Haridwar he passed away. His death was covered by the ‘national media’ because it coincided with Baba Ramdev’s little drama at the Ramlila grounds. But his cause, that of saving the Ganga, is largely ignored.
Media coverage is not about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘important’ or ‘unimportant’ a cause is. It is about being part of the media’s line of sight and being able to keep catching their attention. Once the media starts paying attention, then the idea is to keep engaging the media on a constant basis, so that the cycle of publicity continues.
Today, packaging of news surrounding the protest is as important as the protest itself. Every successful protest is handled like a product. And, in a modern world, the product attributes are not as important as the packaging and promotional hype surrounding it.
That is the reason for the insistence on Jantar Mantar by Team Anna. Anna could have fasted anywhere else in India. After all, Gandhi fasted wherever he was — his ashram, jails, various cities — location didn’t deter him. But, in a modern India which is wired 24/7, it is important to be where the media is. If Anna Hazare had fasted in Ralegaon Siddhi would the event have been part of pan national consciousness or would it have been like Nigamanand Saraswati’s fast, mentioned in passing by regional news while being largely ignored by the ‘national’ media?
The recent attack by members of the ‘Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena’ on Prashant Bhushan — a core member of Team Anna — in full view of a television news crew is taking this philosophy one step further. The issue raised by the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena becomes part of national consciousness, overnight, because it was sensational, violent, jingoistic and on tape. We would not even have heard of this fringe organisation if they had hit someone without the TV crew being present. They were mimicking the acts of Sri Ram Sene a few years ago. The Ram Sene protesting against declining ‘moral’ values — decided to go to the nearest pub and beat up a few girls who were drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. But, before they went to teach the girls a lesson, they called the camera crews.

As a result, an intolerant, violent, extreme fringe organisation became part of pan-Indian consciousness.

News focus on strife, violence, drama and sensationalism to increase ratings, has led to it becoming the launching pad for many a fringe organisation. These groups thrive on media coverage. Their philosophy is immaterial — their rage is what sells. In its blinkered focus on only ratings, news channels have unleashed a genie that needs to be put back in the bottle.