Several weeks ago we published a long essay by Fulbright scholar James Mutti, "India, Democracy and the Press," examining whether the growth of India's media was at odds with its development as a democracy. The article prompted many well-considered comments and criticisms by a number of scholars and media experts, but the most recent response to the piece came in The Telegraph a couple weeks ago. Ramachandra Guha, author of "India After Gandhi" and one of Foreign Policy magazine's Top 100 intellectuals, has written a fairly extensive commentary on the issues Mutti raised here. From "Watching the Watchdog: Time for the Press to Look Within":
The formal institutions of Indian democracy are not especially marked by the capacity for self-correction and self-criticism. One fact should make this clear — that no senior politician, civil servant, or judge has ever been successfully convicted for corruption or abuse of power. What then of that great informal institution of Indian democracy, the press? Is there a mechanism by which we can understand, and correct, the errors, biases, and malpractices of newspapers and television channels?
This question is prompted by a discussion currently taking place on the website of the South Asian Journalists Association. It was initiated by James Mutti, an American Fulbright scholar, who had spent time studying the functioning of the press in northern India. Mutti found that “there is an inherent tension between India’s much-hyped economic growth and its deepening democracy”.
Guha then summarizes some of the criticisms of Mutti's article, including Sevanti Ninan's point that the non-English language press are better at looking at issues that affect less affluent Indians. But Guha thinks that if anything, the problem is even worse than Mutti suggested:
...in so far as the English language press is concerned, Mutti’s criticisms may in fact have understated the problem. He speaks of the focus on glamour and celebrity and the neglect of the lives of ordinary Indians. This, he suggests, was a consequence of the press’s wooing of the consuming classes, who are a large (and massively revenue-generating) world unto themselves. It may be that because he is an American he mentioned Bollywood rather than cricket. But, as the manic coverage of the IPL has demonstrated, this game has contributed even more to the dumbing down of the media.
As it happens, the contagion runs far deeper than trivialization. Consider, for instance, the unwholesome practice of private ‘treaties’ whereby, in exchange for passing on stock to press owners, companies can get favourable coverage in the news pages. Consider, again, the laying off by several newspapers of environmental and labour correspondents in recent years — an action never formally explained or commented upon, but which may be reasonably surmised as being linked to the bad publicity for potential advertisers that such reporters tend to bring.
At other times, the seductions are not commercial but political. Some proprietors, and more than some writers, are so closely allied to individual politicians or parties as to be less than objective about them. This phenomenon is particularly common among editors and columnists based in New Delhi. But it is not unknown in the state capitals, and even in district towns. For the local papers depend as heavily on advertisements supplied by the government (for tenders and suchlike) as their metropolitan counterparts do on patronage by the private sector. It can become hard, and even impossible, for small-town editors or journalists to openly challenge the misconduct of a district magistrate or a member of the legislative assembly.
Read the rest of Guha's article here: "Watching the Watchdog: Time for the press to look within"