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 :D 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.

Jul 212011

This is an adaptation of the session in Shala, organised by Takshashila

In Tamil there is this concept of a – uppa kadai – based around both the epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The closest acceptable translation would be a parable – a set of stories with the main protagonists from the Epics aimed at teaching values to a younger generation. To be honest, I am not sure if Either Valmiki or Veda Vyaasa had written these uppa kadai’s. I am not even sure if these stories actually exist as a part of the larger body of work or are they family specific or region specific …

These stories were told to us -me and my cousins – by our grand mother . she would sit on the floor with this big vessel filled with sambhar rice and dahi rice – with the kids around her. And she would tell us these uppa kadais’ while she gave us portions of the food in our hand to eat. Usually there was some unpalatable vegetable – kaddu or turai or something like that.. but all of us would be so engrossed in those stories that we would not even notice the passage of either time or food.

One of my favorite uppa kadai’s is based around the characters of the Mahabharata. This story takes place a few years after Drona had taken over tutoring the 105 cousins. Dritarashtra, Bheeshma, Vidura, Dronacharya and Kripacharya – were in conference having a conversation about the young men and their capabilities. Dronacharya and Kripacharya – like all good teachers – were being fairly forthright about their charges’ capabilities. Duryodhan is a hot head. Arjun needs to stop preening in front of the mirror. Sahadev should talk to people and not just animals. Bhim needs to stop reacting. Dusashan should stop harassing the dasis … And Yudishtar – as future emperor ….. At which point Dritarashtra loses it. He says ‘why is it that everyone keeps assuming that Yudishtar is going to be emperor’ … what are the qualities that set him apart from the rest. Obviously Dritarashtra’s grouse was that his eldest son – Duryodhan – was not even being considered. He tells the rest that the principals of dynastic succession seem unfair – after all it is important to have the most capable person as the next emperor …
The rest agree – and a test is set for all the 105 pupils. The test was a simple one. Each of the 105 is given a gold coin and told to fill his room . “what do you mean – fill the room” they asked. “aah – that is the test” said the elders. The boys had a few days to think thro’ the problem and present the results to the elders.

The day of the test arrives. The elders arrive at the boy’s rooms to check out the results. They first go to Duryodhan’s room. They open the door and a shower of hay falls on them. Duryodhan has used his one gold coin to fill the room with hay. The next room is filled with caked dung. The next one is filled with dry twigs. Another one is filled with wheat . And so on and so forth. Finally, the team arrives at Yudishtra’s room – they open the door. Right in the centre of the room is an earthern pot – filled with oil. A large wick is burning. The room is filled with light … Yudishtra returns the remaining change to the elders….

And that brings me to 24 hour channels – be they news or entertainment … and the desire to fill the ‘space’ with the equivalent of hay… which is also terribly convenient because the topic I am going to cover is Media and Representation. To be more specific I am going to speaking about the Indian Television Media – especially news media – and the way it represents various facets of the India – be it gender, minorities, majorities, regional issues, policies, politics and what ever else.

On the face of it – there can be nothing more diverse and varied than Indian Television Channels.

a) Television reaches around 60% of all Indian households. (print in contrast reaches 30%)
b) There are 500 + channels broadcasting in multiple languages to diverse audiences.
c) Out of the 134 million household that receive television – 52% is rural households and 48% are urban households.
d) Television in urban India has almost reached saturation levels. On the other hand, in rural India and semi urban areas are the big thrust forward for most broadcaster. If you watch entertainment channels – you will see this reflected in the programming. What we in Urban India call regressive, is the reality for most Indians.
e) There are some 90 odd news channels across the country . Around 40 more are waiting clearance from the I& B ministry.
f) The average desi watches some 2.5 hours of TV per day. In many cases this would be higher but for the fact that there are tremendous power cuts :. In the South they tend to watch a lot more TV. But, the south – especially TN has almost a 99% cable penetration.
g) Hindi is viewed by 43%, Regional by 37% and English by 11%. English News is viewed by 0.4%

There are a number of things things to remember about channels & representation :
a) there are a lot of them in India
b) All of them – apart from DD- are funded by private parties. DD , of course, is funded by us.
c) They need content to show.
d) They need money to survive

The Problem of Plenty
So the question is – with 500 + channels why is there a feeling across the board that “we are left out”.
The answer is quite simple – because we arent’ the target audience?

IF we arent’ the TG then who is the TG. To be very honest .. all these 500 odd channels are looking at around 16,000 households that are monitored. So all the ratings that we see – the ratings that advertisers buy are based on what these 16,000 households consume as television viewing. These TAM meters are installed in 150 towns & cities across India. The North East and Jammu & Kashmir are excluded from the monitoring system. So are DTH households.

An average of 100 cable & satellite households in 150 towns & cities – decide what goes on Television. I am not a stats expert – and I suppose that it is possible that this sample size can represent India – but instinct tells me it is not possible.
Why doesn’t this change ? Well it should change. But the key players in the system – the advertisers, the agencies, the broadcasters, and A C Nielsen (who runs TAM & AMAP) have not seen this as a pressing issue …. It is a jab tak chalta hai chalne do feeling. The change – to get more or all households monitored is expensive. There is confusion on who should bear the cost ? TThere could be legislation I suppose….but, if all the parties in the system are happy and no one is really complaining – then why would you legislate. Afterall, there is nothing either illegal or immoral in the current system.

The Problem of Money
Channels cost money to run. Lots of money.
How much money – it really depends on the nature of the channel. A GE channel like a Zee or a Star or a Colors – spend an average of 6-8 lakhs per half an hour of original content. This is usually a soap. Movies, Events and Reality shows cost a lot more . And to be very honest no one – apart from those who work in the channel – can put an exact figure on it because none of us know what the star package is. But this is just one part of the cost. The other two major cost heads are Distribution and Marketing. Distribution is ensuring the Cable operator not only carries the channel but carries it in the prime band. Distribution costs are getting more and more expensive.
How much money – again it is difficult to say . Estimates run between 3 – 5 crores for a new GE channel per month to 10 crores a month. It depends on whom you are talking to. Just as a benchmark – people I know are starting a region specific music channel. They were told 7 crores per annum. This 7 crores is just for the pleasure of the cable wallah to carry their channel. It does not get people to see it … for that you need heavy duty marketing spend.

Marketing costs are also high – it helps the channel to have a known face or a continuous series if they are going to advertise. One off events cost more to advertise.
The same is the case with news channels.

The Problem of Content
Content costs money. While for a GE channel it may be cost of the half an hour of soap – for a news channel it is the cost of infrastructure – including OB Vans, bandwidth etal. And the cost of people – good people cost money. On the other hand to get a unqualified person to stand in front of a camera at the scene of a disaster asking a survivor -your family is dead, your limbs are amputated, you have lost all your money – aapko kaise lagta hai …. Doesn’t really require any kind of skills.

With fiction – it is easier to make a daily soap that runs 5 days a week – economies of scale kick in as far as production and marketing are concerned.
With news channels it is easier to react than to reflect. Send a OB van to a scene of a disaster. Make allegations. Get out. If anyone asks you questions -how dare they …. There is freedom of press in India. Also the news cycle – the giving of news in small bytes and upping the tension level ensures that viewers remain hooked. Afterall, their job is not to educate you – it is to make money.

The problem of Revenue
500 channels are competing for a single advertising pie. That pie is not just going into TV but also print, out doors, radio, web and a lot of BTL activities.
The advertising agencies buy spots based on the channel’s performance . Performance is measured by ratings.
The ratings system for a news channel and an entertainment channel are the same – they even cater to the same TG. Except for one thing – entertainment – especially soaps – tends to have a female skew. And news tends to have a male skew.
So if you want to rate – you will run what the audience – 16,000 households – wants. And there goes representation.

And Finally,

Just because you call something National doesn’t make it national. National is representative of the Nation, not just the niche that you are talking to. If you look at Doordarshan – boring as it may be – there are news bulletins from every part of India. Every state. Good news and Bad. It tells you that where there is development and where there is not.

India is diverse – and diversity includes the good and the bad. It includes the accents from Meghalaya and Kerala. It includes not reporting India to Indians as outsiders. It includes understanding the history and culture of this vast nation. For example,

  • Anna Hazare’s fast at Jantar Mantar was not India’s Tahir Square. Tahir Square was a representation of what India did 60 years earlier
  • Looking at Obama and asking where is India’s Obama is silly. He happenened 70 years earlier – his name was Dr.Bhimrao Ambedkar
  • Saying South Indian food was served is ignorant. South India is massive geography. Food is far more regional – was it udipi, Kannada, Tamil, Rayalseema, what was it
  • There is no such thing as North Eastern Culture. North East, again, is vast geography. There are specific state cultures, and within each state distinct regional cultures.

Screaming, Screeching and Sound bytes may make for short term audience acquisition. But, sooner of later you will find that you have to screech and scream louder – and that is most likely to deafen the audience.

Television is a medium for carrying advertising to the customer … the original content on the channel is the device to get audiences to watch the advertising. Therefore, everything is driven by ratings. When you have a system that is so competitive, measured in a manner that it is – then you will have a situation where representation and plurality goes for a toss. If you watch a soap – you see representation of a single culture – if it is a hindi language soap based in Gujarat or Maharashtra – then you despite the fact that the characters speak Hindi, the peculiarities of the characters will be Gujarati or Marathi.
Similarly, if you have a Hindi language news channel – you will see a skew of news towards the Hindi speaking markets – it ignores the rest of India.
English language news channels – speak to an English speaking audience across India – and they try and generalize this diversity down to Mumbai and Delhi …. Those leaders who speak fluent English are called in, those who don’t aren’t.
Private sector channels in India work within a frame work. That framework is the Market . TV is no longer the mode to Inform, Educate and Entertain. IT is Shock, Sensationalize and Entertain. Let me ask you a question – if there was a TV show on the top 5 brides for Rahul Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi’s views on primary education – what would you watch ?
You really can’t blame the channels for running content that is trivial – that is what the audiences want. And the more you give them this kind of content -the more they want of it…..