‘There Is Still No Dalit Newsreader On Any TV Channel’

The first to study the post-capitalist expansion of the newspaper industry in India, he says we will soon see the English language press taking stories and leads from language newspapers.
Robin Jeffrey was the first to study the post-capitalist expansion of the newspaper industry in India. His book India’s Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian-Language Press, 1977-97 has been translated into Malayalam as Indiayute Patraviplavam. Currently professor at the School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Australia, Jeffrey argues that in an India where 65 out of 100 Indians today can read, the proliferation of newspapers has led to an expansion and deepening of democracy and believes that the time is right for the Indian version of Citizen Kane.

“A policeman once told me that with the spread of Telugu dailies, villagers now know the police aren’t supposed to beat them up and if beaten, they can go to the newspapers.”

In an e-mail interview, he says we will soon see the English language press taking stories and leads from language newspapers.

You have talked in celebratory terms about the ‘newspaper revolution’ in India in the 1990s. Today, the Indian print sector is seeing another surge. What do you make of it?
If you think of newspapers as the cutting edge of capitalism, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that newspapers expand as marketers push more goods into wider markets. We’re nearly 15 years into ‘liberalisation’. We’ve also had notable growth in literacy in places like Rajasthan, which once would have been thought of as poor, illiterate and a poor place to start a small-town edition. That’s not so today. It’s understandable that newspaper expansion continues.

For an innately conservative society, can the term ‘revolution’ be really used? Has the media really helped usher in new ideas? Hasn’t there been a competitive dumbing down?
No question that many of the big-city English dailies have headed towards British tabloid style. But what happened in the 1980s, in my view, was the creation of a ‘public sphere’ in parts of the country where there’s been nothing like it before. I was fascinated by the Telugu policeman I met in 1993 who told me that the spread of Telugu dailies had made the work of the police difficult.

“The English press will take stories and leads from the Indian language newspapers. It’s part of the process of local news becoming increasingly important for capturing readers.”

Now, he said, villagers knew that the police weren’t supposed to beat them up—and they would “go to the newspapers” if the police did. When you repeat that perception tens of thousands of times around India, then you are, I think, talking about a revolution.

Managements are driven by a desire to maximise profits though they talk of the press being the fourth estate. Besides, we’ve seen the entrenchment of monopolies despite democracy. How then can the media be a harbinger of change?
Owners have always aimed to make money and wield influence. But they often do other things in spite of themselves. A newspaper owner in Bangalore has no problem if the reporters and editors run a campaign against oppressive landlords in northern Karnataka—providing that campaign captures readers and doesn’t put off advertisers.

Hasn’t information explosion, the 24-hour news channels, made news redundant? Sehwag’s century or Karisma Kapoor’s marital problems figure as ‘breaking news’ on TV. Can one not shut oneself from the world of news for a month and yet feel no less wise?
It depends what your interests are. If a telephone pole is falling in my village, and a reporter and photographer come and say they’re doing a story about it, I am going to buy the paper the next day. The local superintending engineer may find he needs to read the paper too. It’s hard to imagine a time when local news, in print, on TV or radio, is not going to have an audience.

TV and print media are joining hands—the launch of DNA by Zee TV and ‘Dainik Bhaskar’. What do we make of this?
It’s a proprietor’s dream: One newsroom! In India there’s still a lot of competitive families and organisations, but in other places, where media is controlled by two or three big companies, the linking of TV and print is a grotesque prospect. Towns could have one newspaper, which owns one of the town’s TV stations.It reduces the chances of different stories getting out into widespread circulation.

Does language press and the English media continue to address a ‘split public’? While the English language media took an anti-Hindutva stand during the Gujarat riots, the local Gujarati media sought to reflect the Hindu opinion.
There are more than two ‘publics’ in India. But various ‘publics’ overlap and interact constantly. Increasingly, I suspect, the English language press will take stories and leads from Indian language newspapers. We’ll see more of the agenda set by Indian language media outlets, rather than the other way round. That’s part of the process of local news becoming increasingly important for capturing readers.

In Tamil Nadu, for the Sun TV network, political and business interests seem to go hand in hand. The group enjoys virtual monopoly in television and is now taking on print with the purchase of ‘Dinakaran’. In Telugu, ‘Eenadu’ and ETV control most of the market. Why do monopolies persist and don’t we see healthy competition?
What business person would turn down the chance of operating a monopoly? The trend in English-speaking countries has been towards monopoly in the media. In Australia, two big newspaper chains control 90 per cent of daily circulation in big cities. For the time being, India is relatively fortunate with the kind of newspaper competition you see on the hawkers’ stalls in the bus stands in, say, Thiruvananthapuram or Delhi on any morning.

Whenever the topic is FDI in print, there’s talk of safeguards and issues of national concern. But wouldn’t the presence of foreign players and global capital challenge the complacency of monopolistic mercantile capitalism?
That is probably right. If foreigners start papers, there’s an extra voice created. Australia faces this question at the moment. Government has to decide whether to eliminate restrictions on cross-media ownership. And if it does, it will also probably lift restrictions of foreign ownership to try to get some more players into the media business. In India, too, foreign arrivals might provoke vigorous Indian response. Ramoji Rao said one of the reasons for founding Eenaduwas to give Telugu speakers in the 1970s a Telugu-owned voice. It was a matter of self-respect for someone who could afford to express his self-respect by starting a newspaper.

You have discussed the connection between democracy and media expansion. But the media does not seem to be representative of demographic realities. In 1999, you had devoted a chapter to the near-total absence of Dalits in Indian newsrooms. Has anything changed?
Almost nothing, so far as I am aware. I’m told, reliably I think, that there is not a single Dalit newsreader or weather person on any television channel. When will we get, say, a national Dalit weekly, doing what the Chicago Defender did for African-Americans from the 1920s to the 1950s? The absence of such a voice is a mark of the political and economic weakness of the Dalit middle class.

In the US and Europe, there are demands on the media to be socially responsible. Why does the Editors Guild in India not seem to have similar concerns? Moreover the Press Council of India seems virtually defunct. Is this not dangerous?
If the national government intends to let the Press Council quietly fade away, that would be a very bad thing. What’s needed is a revamped “media council” that would monitor ethics and conduct in the electronic as well as print media. But such a council would be politically difficult to create. Most governments find media matters very hard to deal with because they fear that powerful proprietors will turn their organisations against the government.



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