CHANDIGARH: India has the largest number of newspapers, as well as the largest number of TV channels in the world. There are also e-newspapers as well as news websites that are increasing rapidly. So, how come a very large number of people, not necessarily intellectuals, reach out for BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and other foreign TV news channels and prefer to read opinion pieces, editorials and op-ed analytical pieces in newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Times and other English foreign newspapers?

It is only the vernacular newspaper readers who having no choice, only read our indigenous newspapers. Incidentally, it is our Hindi and other vernacular papers that have a much larger leadership, as is also the case with non-English TV Channels.

The Fourth Estate, especially in a democracy is an important pillar of the state. In the past, our print media was commended for publishing unbiased, analytical and independent news on all matters. However, there is a sea change now, as in the perception of the public, independence has vanished and biases have crept in. There is a race for increased circulation in the print media and for TRPs (television rating points) in the electronic media. I am convinced that it is the good old lucre that is chiefly responsible for the slow but steady deterioration of the output of our media.

Take for example, extremely mundane but well read reports of movie reviews, which invariably get printed in all newspapers and form an essential part of all TV news channels every week on the day movies are released. I suppose these reviews are to inform the public of the salient points of the concerned movie so that they can decide whether they should spend time and money on watching the movie or ignore it for other pursuits. However, there is such a wide variation in such reviews in different papers that one is totally flummoxed whether it should be watched; ignored; or watched when no better option is available and one has to kill time!

Let me illustrate it with an example. In the four newspapers that I subscribe to, I deliberately took time out to read the reviews of a newly released movie that has had a lot of pre-release publicity. The movie is Bajirao Mastani, with famous names of actors, directors and so on. All four newspapers have come out with diverse views in their papers dated December 19, 2015. While one review titled Dazzled and Frazzled gives it a rating of 1 and half stars; the second review titled magnificently as Bajirao Mastani has guts, glory and grandeur! gives it a rating of four stars. Then we have reviews of two other papers that further confuse the issue. One review, titled An Opulent Affair gives it a three stars rating; while the next one, with the title as Soaring, Searing, Sumptuous rates it with four stars!

The obvious question in a lay reader’s mind then is ‘to see or not to see the movie’? Of course, as the majority of readers subscribe to only one paper, they are likely to follow it and after the show gets over, come out highly satisfied, barely satisfied, or cursing!

While appreciating that all writers have their fads, foibles and quirks; and their favourite heroes, heroines, directors and producers; but one also discerns some give and take, either by the producers and distributors; or others in associated film areas, and perhaps by some in the media who have to toe a particular line, as laid down by many media barons, editors and so on! Obviously, the example is at the lower end of the spectrum of opinions, reviews, op-eds and the like, but it is quite on the cards that it is a fairly common phenomenon in most areas that the media reports, from political alignments to business promotions to biases in many other fields.

Let me dwell on one additional quirk of our media, before I switch to a more serious topic. We know that all or maximum number of Indians (with very few exceptions) are highly superstitious and believe fervently in how stars in the firmament influence our lives and even those of prominent leaders and stock markets! That is one reason for the popularity of Nostradamus and others of his ilk. All our newspapers – both English and vernacular, always have a column, half a page and sometimes more of ‘What the Stars Foretell’ in all their editions. Many have more than one and at times there are hilarious comparisons when one such forecast talks about an imminent romance, while the other forcefully states the termination of one under the same star!

While I have no quarrel with such supposedly heavenly interventions, I do object to one particular weekly forecast that has mug shots of so-called heroes, like film stars, cricketers etc. either as eye-candy or as superheroes. The photographs of all such transient and tinsel heroes are prominently displayed as part of all 12 nakshatras/ heavenly bodies/rashi’s and so on, while not once has that paper thought of displaying the photographs of the real brave heroes of the Indian Military, like our gallantry award winners –VC’s, MC’s, PVC’S, MVC’s and the like. They may not classify as ‘beautiful people’ but they are the ones who have shed their blood, limbs and lives for all citizens of the nation, including the editors and sub-editors of that particular paper, euphemistically called ‘the Old Lady of Bori Bunder ‘ at times. Maybe ‘entertainment’ and not ‘news’ fetches better revenues!!

Now that I have stirred the chicken coup, let me shift to reporting. Either news reports are so heavily suppressed, may be on account of political/VIP pressures, that it becomes as bland as a British meal; or so many details are printed that one misses the woods for the trees! Only one example will suffice.

All print media had headlined the court appearance of the Gandhi’s in their editions of 20 December, which is quite natural. However, what drew my attention were the irrelevant details, excerpted below from the lead story of just one national level paper:

“At 2.13 pm on Saturday, close Gandhi family aide Ahmad Patel submitted the list of persons who would stand surety for the accused…Thirteen minutes later, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was the first Gandhi family member to enter the 20X20 sq ft Court No. 7. She came with Sheila Dixit, Ambika Soni and Kumari Selja, and they sat in the second row in the courtroom. At 2:38 pm, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived, standing in the extreme left in the first row. Sonia and Rahul followed around 10 minutes later, taking positions at the extreme right in the front row. The two did not exchange a single word. Oscar Fernandes stood behind them. The proceedings began at 2.51 pm. Seven minutes into the proceedings, the court granted bail…”

Being a military person, I am aware that such minute details are made by the military for formal parades and such like events where exact timings are extremely important. These are written down as “Minute to Minute programme”, copies are given to all and rehearsals are carried out, but they do not form part of any reports or press briefings etc. However, do the newspapers have no other news to report?

Incidentally, the two other accused, Motilal Vora and Suman Dubey did not find any mention but were ignored and must have had a sleepless night for being so ordinary as not even finding a word as to when they arrived, where they stood or sat and so on!

In army parlance ‘they were not even ‘Mentioned in Despatches!’

(The writer is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff)