I have been tasked today to speak about journalism, and participate in conferring a reward on a distinguished journalist of our times.

The latter part of today’s responsibility is somewhat harder because of the subjectivity factor. I have known Rajdeep Sardesai long enough, and listened to him even longer, to be totally objective about him. I therefore seek refuge in his public reputation which unquestionably is of a very high order, and that too in changing times. I add to it his passion for cricket which I shared in my younger days but gave it up when an entity called Karry Packer emerged on the scene.

Rajdeep Sardesai therefore needs no introduction to this audience and to the category known as Award Winners.


The occasion does give me the opportunity to introspect on the state of the media in our own land.

Why do we need journalism and its practitioners known as journalists? Most people feel it sums up a basic requirement of humans in society and is summed up in a pithy observation: subki khabar le, subki ki khabar de.

From this emanated the calling of journalism which gives shape to it, and to the sentiment of dissent depending on time and place. In the period of our Freedom Struggle, the latter was neatly summed up in a couplet:

Khincho na kamano ko na talwar nikalo`
Jab top muqabil ho to akhbar nikalo

In simpler language, the function of journalism is to inform, educate, guide and entertain. To most of us these are social necessitates and are sustained by law. Our Supreme Court has held that ‘reasonable restriction’ must be justified on the anvil of necessity and not on the quirks of convenience or expediency and that intolerance is dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.

A perusal of the print and electronic media today is suggestive of the tilting balance between news and advertising content and the fading distinction between editorials and advertorials. The emergence of the Internet and 24×7 television as also of social media reporting have put additional pressure on the print media.

It is not clear where public interest ends and private interest begins, where profit ends and the not-for-profit begins, where government ends and the non-government begins, where one’s fist ends and the other’s nose begins. There are no easy answers to these questions. The room for introspection remains. This has to take into account the political atmospherics of society.

What is the ground reality? Is this being done, and to what extent?

The socio-economic changes of recent decades have highlighted a facet of the Fourth Estate that was less adequately appreciated earlier. The media now has an identifiable business and commercial persona and has been integrated in the market. Today’s media organizations are large business entities with thousands of employees and huge financial and other assets. While their primary professional duty is to their readership for keeping them informed and appraised with news, views and ideas, the commercial logic brings in a new set of stakeholders; I refer to the shareholders of these companies.

These developments have brought into play a new set of considerations that guide the professional decisions of the press. The days of the great editors who had a decisive say in newspaper policy on public issues are perhaps a matter of the past; instead, we have a basket of considerations in which the demands of professional journalism are carefully balanced with the interests of owners and stakeholders of media companies and their cross media interests.

The interplay of these conflicting demands is evident and subject of public debate. The phenomenal growth in the media industry, and intense competition in it, induces journalists and their supervisors to look as much at the top line-bottom line growth as at headlines and editorial content. An eminent journalist observed some time back that ‘even editors who support the liberalization of the Indian economy have become increasingly concerned over the growing control that advertisers wield over news content’ and had expressed the apprehension that the media’s ‘growing distance from its historic role as the provider of public information threatens to transform communities of citizens into islands of consumers.’

The phenomenon is global. Some time back a former editor of the Guardian newspaper, Alan Rusbridger, wrote a book on the remaking of journalism and concluded that ‘journalists no-longer have a near monopoly on news and the means of distribution’ and that ‘journalism has to rethink its methods; reconfigure its relationship with the new kaleidoscope of other voices. It has to be more open about what it does and how it does it.’#

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the development of grass root journalism, subject of an interesting study by Alan Gillmor two years before Twitter was born. He opined that ‘tomorrow’s news reporting and production will be more of a conversation…The lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we’re only beginning to grasp now. The communication network itself will be a medium for everyone’s voice, not just the few who can afford to buy multimillion-dollar printing presses, launch satellites, or win the government’s permission to squat on the public’s airwaves.’

Some aspects of this paradigm shift in the production, transmission, and consumption of media products are worthy of mention:

Technology is value neutral. It is only an instrumentality and not a panacea. The work of defining and implementing a value system and a vision for an organization, a society or polity cannot be substituted by technology.

The collision of journalism and technology is having major consequences for three constituencies: journalists, newsmakers, and the audience. The evidence seems persuasive that something big has happened.

The convergence between news media, entertainment and social media has eroded the demarcation between journalism, public relations, advertising and entertainment. It is a continuum of information in which traditional definitions of news overlap and blur.

This has created new ethical dilemmas that lie at the core of many issues of public debate today and pose questions: who sets the terms of the public debate? Is there enough media space for the marginalized, the disposed and the vulnerable? Have sections of the media developed stereotypes? Has the media upheld the social and political compact that our people given to them through our Constitution?

Some decades back a journalist in our country sought to define the rationale for journalism in different societies. Reading it today, I am tempted to recall it for myself and for the audience before me:

“The role of the press in a democracy is different from that in a totalitarian state. Democracy is government by law; a totalitarian state is government by authority; in the former decisions are by discussion, in the latter by dictation; in the former the press acts by discussion, in the latter by dictation; in the former acts as a check on authority, in the latter it is the hand and maid on authority; in the former the press makes the people to think; in the latter to obey without question; in the former the press is necessarily to be free, as without free press there is no free discussion, in the latter the press supports authority.”

This also describes different states of social existence. I leave it to the audience to judge its own surroundings in this matter. Some may even discover in the process the stages of evolution known to students of philosophy as Being and Becoming. It certainly induces introspection.

Jai Hind.