"The Indian Newsroom: Studios, Stars and the Unmaking Of Reporters" has hit the stands, finally. I think what Bhushan wanted to talk was about news and the way it is run, and covered in India. I think that is what he wanted to write, and discuss.
The debate over both journalists and journalism in India started around the time when news channels discovered the 3Cs and added one more in their news bulletins (cricket, crime, cinema and then came comedy). It was about a decade and half ago, when Sanjaya Baru, the then media advisor to PM Dr Manmohan Singh, said India needs to import - like oil, gas and Californian almonds - journalists from abroad. Baru was pissed off because of a barrage of attack on the two-term Congress-led UPA government that was embroiled in scams ranging from telecom to airports to coal.
Sadly, the debate still continues over the troubled Indian newsroom, I have often felt this is a great subject for a thesis. In fact, there could be multiple thesis on what makes the Indian newsrooms, especially those of news channels and what goes behind observing news, chasing news and even manufacturing news for a market that is - probably - the largest in the world.
Sandeep Bhushan is my former colleague, we both worked for Business India Television that now only exists in memories. He had a sharp mind and joined the research team because of his grip on several subjects, including politics and movies. He told many that he was contemplating writing the most definitive book on Indian news television. It was of immense interest to me, ostensibly because he has been threatening to write and expose many in the Indian news system for many, many years.
The book, The Indian Newsroom: Studios, Stars and the Unmaking Of Reporters, has hit the stands, finally. Bhushan has talked a lot about history of news in the book. I will leave that out completely. Let’s not - like typical Bengalis - discuss everything with a tinge of history. I think what Bhushan wanted to talk was about news and the way it is run, and covered in India. I think that is what he wanted to write, and discuss. But he picked up news from the stone age when All India Radio and Doordarshan were formed. So let’s ignore that part, and all that he has written about press laws, for the time being.
Bhushan is worried about the state of private news channels, and also of Doordarshan in India. The first is all owned by big buck industrialists - he would have preferred the BBC model - and the second owned by the government which - till date - has not learned how to handle news. It seems to me Bhushan is worried that there is virtual death of independent media and independent-minded journalists, all of them are kiss-kiss-ready-to-kiss types, they do not have the Golden Gun, they do not have the Silver Bullet to kill the wolves. He hates the way news is handled by television channels, he does not talk about the way news is handled in newspapers, newsmagazines and even portals. The situation is very much the same, I am sure Bhushan knows it.
The book is peppered with several examples where journalists floundered and where unethical reporting became the norm as if there was no tomorrow. I wish he had done a detailed report on the Zee-Jindal dustup that has now been happily buried, and also the incident of women portrayed as rape victim for weeks before cops forced a shutdown of the news. And also banter set like courtroom dramas now passed off as news. Bhushan does mention how political parties influence newsroom and their owners, his focus remains high on NDTV and the time when Barkha Dutt - a star anchor - and Republic Television - it seemed to me he just does not like Arnab Goswami and his band of reporters - and he is sanguine that the BJP helped Goswami start the channel and did not allow the rest to open shop, including Raghav Bahl.
Bhushan says - without mentioning it - he is a rebel, and has hated the way owners and senior editors (he calls them star anchors) handle news in India. He hates Dutt and Goswami and calls Rajdeep Sardesai the best bet. That’s his way of looking through the dark glass of Indian journalism. He dislikes the way ANI gets access and others don’t, he hates when reporters do not get cash to cover news and have to seek permission from star anchors, he hates when anchors fight over their guests and heap shit on guest coordinators. But he does not offer an answer to his questions, his worries. He merely raises the red flag.
So the Capitalist way of news channels cannot work in India, Bhushan is sanguine. He knows what happens when channels have a free run and he also knows the BBC model will not work in India. Tehelka, the now defunct news portal turned newsmagazine - attempted a similar model of public service journalism before it shut shop under the heap of an alleged rape scandal, the premises now taken over by an expensive Spa shop. So what is the alternative? Again the book does not offer an answer, excerpt saying industrialists should not own news organisations, or - for that matter - journalists turning entrepreneurs is not good news because they will eventually end up siding with politicians and corporate honchos.
This is one side of the coin, Bhushan’s other discomfort - now it’s here he rants like Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hain - is with journalists favour politicians and industrialists. Bhushan is not that worried about who sucks up to the Congress, SJP, TMC and other parties, he does get upset with those getting thick with the BJP. He calls them Nikkerwala journalists, the term also a dig at the RSS which is synonymous with its distastefully designed Khakhi shorts. Bhushan is not worried about editors prostrating at the doors of 10, Janpath for various reasons, he does not mind even if channel owners get very thick with Congress or Left politicians. Anything with BJP is bad and sad, he makes it very clear in the book. He even highlights his concern on Facebook.
The Indian media - Bhushan should have noted - is now simply divided between pro and anti-BJP elements. There are a group of editors who hate BJP, and the others hate the Congress. Lost in the middle are journalists who are pushed to change their mindset and reportage by channel owners to promote the political party close to the group. It kills good and effective journalism, it triggers increased madness of breaking news and it leaves the journalist very, very vulnerable. The journalists, Bhushan should have offered examples, routinely cross the Thin Red Line and walk into the minefield, and are rarely backed by their editors. The editors shudder every time a legal notice lands in the newsroom. Many editors are forced by the owners to chase industrial groups, ministries and even NGOs for advertisements, paid content is plugged as news. As a result, reporting which can make great investigations take a backseat and everyone chases the routine, the routine and only the routine.
Bhushan offers an overview of Indian journalism. It’s like the sage Yudhishitra answering his master Dronacharya on being asked what he saw in front of him. Yudhistira’s answer was no match to that of Arjuna who said he saw a bird, and then he said he saw the eye of the bird. It’s like writing an inland letter in the age of WhatsApp messages. Both carry information, both work for millions. But news is all about time. The faster and focussed you say, the better for you. So if news is changing in that direction, there’s no point ranting about the owners of news channels, newspapers, and magazines. Bhushan knows it very well journalists cannot run news organisations because many cannot even write decent English and constantly need help, how will they check balance sheets? He knows the crisis of fake news will remain because there is no gatekeeper and news organisations always will look for quick cash, he knows breaking headlines will routinely crush all that is decent and normal in news in India. He knows editors will constantly monitor over 40 news channels from their glass-panelled rooms and scream every time a breaking headline hits one channel. He hates access journalism but forgets each profession has its sets of favourites and haters, it works the same way in the corporate world. So, access journalism will stay.
Bhushan offers the Ritwik Ghatak narrative of Indian journalism. He does not want to be a Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray or even Govind Nihalani or Shyam Benagal. He hates when an editor who went to jail is seen releasing a book at the home of the Prime Minister.
The Indian newsroom will change when journalists change the system by being a part of the system. So let things run the way they are, let’s not worry about truth being suppressed. Truth will continue to emerge because the social media platforms will provide the alternative, they are all buzzing with activity and its huge pressures of truth will eventually steamroll the uneven bounces of Indian newsroom into shape.
Bhushan is the perfect postman, he has delivered some strong messages, raised some very, very strong arguments. It’s for you to open the envelop, or drop it in the dustbin. He is your Anant Welankar - remember the cop in Ardh Satya - and brings diligence, enthusiasm and a definite idealism to his job. Do not ignore him, or his thoughts. I will only tell him not to berate the reporter. The reporter still lives to fight another day. In the troubled Indian newsroom, the reporter works in isolation - without support or cash - like a lone ranger. The publishers must sell this book as a staple read in India’s 150-odd journalism schools.