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P K Ravindranath
03 June 2003

Mumbai: One had assumed that after the humbling experience of the bombardment of the World Trade Center (WTC) on 11 September 2001 the American press had begun to show more commitment to real news, in preference to flippancy and the lifestyles of the elite.

Its coverage of the aftermath of the 11 September episode conformed to the best traditions of journalism as a mission. It did accomplish its duty to inform the American public of everything connected with the terror attack and all about the men organisations behind it.

Unfortunately, this phase did not last too long. It faded back in the hysterical campaign launched by the President of the US of A, George W Bush, against Afghanistan as the source and refuge of terrorism. The initial fight was against terrorism. No one really minded it since Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida had been operating from Afghan soil for long.

Once bin Laden had been dislodged, Bush turned his attention to Iraq in his search for weapons of mass destruction-. That was a phase when most of the leading American newspapers did not reflect the public mood, which vas clearly against any kind of adventurism in Iraq. Not that many people had any sympathy for Saddam Hussein and his regime, but most Americans sympathised with the people of Iraq who had already groaning under the economic sanctions imposed by the UN since 1991, when the country invaded Kuwait. Besides, several Americans did not think the US could act in defiance of the UN.

What happens in American journalism is of serious concern to us in India, since most or our leading newspapers have been taking the lead from the American media. In the wake of globalisation and liberalisation, our leading papers had become copycats of the American system, forgetting their role as missionaries and as spokesmen for the readers.

Most of our newspapers had degenerated into celebrity journalism. We still persist in this kind of pseudo-journalism. The incursion of television has farther degenerated our value system so far as print journalism is concerned.

Tired of the harangues of Bush and his cronies during the programme, most discerning Americans tuned on to BBC, for an independent point of view and objective news. American networks, as the director general of BBC said, "wrapped themselves in the American flag and substituted patriotism for impartiality.

The fact is that the American networks owned and run by private individuals and multinational corporations appeared to be more loyal than Bush himself, while the BBC, state-owned as it is, remained neutral and objective. The American media that had learnt its lesson from the WTC bombing that the readers crave for information they could get on a catastrophe that had struck them all, was caught up again by the nation's war against Afghanistan and Iraq.

BBC, which subsists on government funding, is still an independent corporation and strives to stay impartial and retain its viewers' loyalty. The American media, by and large, is deferential to government leaders, even when it is not dependent upon even an iota of government assistance or patronage. Almost the entire media in the US is ran and owned by men who are rich and influential, who as a class are dependent upon the ruling elite out of the class identification.

Much the same thing happens in India. This is bad for the country as much as for the media in the long run. For long there has been a great clamour that the media, particularly the electronic media, should not function under the aegis of the government or even the ruling class. The print media has been able to establish a certain amount of autonomy, but the electronic media still lags behind. Much of it still functions as an adjunct of the ministry of information and broadcasting, forsaking its claim for objectivity and impartiality.

Government after government have only tightened its bold on Doordarshan and Akashwani, year after year. Several experiments had been launched by various ministers for information and broadcasting looking for excuses not to concede full autonomy to Doordarshan and Akashwani. Autonomy had been one of the items of the election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power five years ago. Yet, even today the minister in charge of I&B at the centre adamantly seeks to tighten the noose around the electronic media.

There has been a wrangling going on in the ministry about the selection of the next director general of Doordarshan. There are candidates qualified and experienced to hold the reins of this office, from within the ranks of the organisation. And yet, the ministry has been asked to advertise the post to enable the minister to get his own candidate, once he had established the demand that such a candidate could be an "outsider."

There are no outsiders who can ostensibly function capably as the director general of Doordarshan - not even from any of the other networks now functioning in the country. This would mean that the choice would ultimately fall on a bureaucrat, not a technocrat. And that is precisely what the minister has in mind.

Having left the organisation headless for quite some time, till he was able to "convince" all those around that the post should go to an "outsider," Doordarshan did not even think it necessary to have its own correspondent in Baghdad to cover the Iraq war. It was only after all the dirty work had been accomplished by the American occupation troops in that country that Doordarshan engaged a freelance journalist, Satish Jacob, to report from Baghdad.

Jacob, according to the testimony of senior officials of the ministry and a hard-boiled journalist Saeed Naqvi, is an excellent reporter and has been doing a good job in Iraq. Till Jacob came on the scene, Doordarshan had been dependent upon the "embedded" journalists, who provided us with a tunnel vision of the war as it progressed for three whole weeks.

The same tragedy has befallen the rest of the media in India. While some newspapers with "special arrangement" with American papers, carried their reports on the war, many others were wholly influenced by the American correspondents who were busy feeding the print and electronic media in the US. None of them even thought of coming to an arrangement with BCC or independent news organisations in France, Germany or Switzerland to provide us a completely objective reportage of the war.

If the minister for I&B is able to bureaucratise the office of the director-general, that could be the eclipse of Doordarshan. Already, Films Division and National Film Development Corporation have been rattled in recent months by charges of corruption at the higher levels. One man continues to hold charge of both the top positions in the two organisations. All this does not augur well for the media.

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