Evolving media

Print edition : August 12, 2011

A set of stimulating essays by students of media studies on the changing world of the Indian media.

NO entity has changed as fast and as comprehensively as the media have in the past two decades. The change has been global, but the book under review, Indian Mass Media and the Politics of Change, restricts itself to changes in the Indian media, which have been as seminal and significant. For almost the whole of the 20th century, the media in India meant the print media newspapers and magazines apart from the state-run radio service, All India Radio (AIR). Perhaps radio could have had a greater impact on the media world, but it chose not to.

One says chose not to' deliberately. It stayed a rather formal purveyor of carefully chosen information presented in its news bulletins and what were called features and spoken word programmes, and of entertainment, for which it soon came to be valued among its large number of listeners. The classical music that it presented through programmes such as the National Programme of Music was not only appreciated but created an awareness of music among many. The large following that Hindustani and Carnatic music now has in the country owes a great deal to the regular broadcasts of classical music on AIR for decades.

Its information-based programmes were, however, rather conservative. The news broadcasts never carried live reports from the field even when it was technically possible to do so using a telephone; field reports were confined to features on different socially relevant' programmes meant to enlighten rather than inform. This was, of course, owing to the fact that AIR was state-owned and -controlled, and the initial identity given to it by the British was carried on for a fairly long time before some radio professionals began to bring in changes nothing major, because they needed government approval, and the government saw radio as a propaganda tool more than anything else. Foreign radio channels were available, but only on the frequency called short wave, which soon became crowded and was, in any case, a channel full of static, which made listening, on occasion, a positive ordeal.

The advent of television in the form of the state-owned Doordarshan meant merely a new dimension, exciting though it was. The excitement was mainly because of the possibilities of presenting dance and films and theatre through it, and many stalwarts from the film world made films and special programmes for Doordarshan. But the presentation of news remained a visual form of the AIR news bulletins; in fact, Doordarshan news bulletins were nothing more than a compilation of the news reports received in AIR's general newsroom what was called the news pool'. What Doordarshan used was referred to as the pool copy' unless it was a specially written story to go with what was being shown on the screen, which was, more often than not, the Prime Minister or some other dignitary inaugurating something or making a speech.

Until around the late 1980s, this placid state of affairs continued, save for an odd ripple here and there. The print media was supreme; they brought the news, the comments and any investigative journalism that was there. Various attempts to impose some kind of control on the print media were stoutly resisted and the freedom of the press was something that was jealously and effectively guarded. Things have now changed greatly, becoming at once more complicated and compromised, but that is another story.

What completely altered this situation was technology. Satellites appeared, carrying clear pictures and stories that could be accessed using dish antennae that were sometimes primitive. What it meant, though, was a sudden and huge growth in the sales of television sets primitive black-and-white ones and, later, basic colour sets. It meant the advent of a system that provided clear picture and sound via a cable network, which was much better than the hazy flickering images that private dish antennae gave.

This coincided with other technological advances the easy-to-carry charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras, soon overtaken by the lighter but more efficient digital cameras, the increased use of Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) to send live reports back to the studio, and a host of other new devices that use digital technology. It also coincided with the advent of private television channels, which soon began to carry news in different forms. Then the channels became more interactive, inviting viewers to participate, and then came the Internet, smart phones and the rest.

All this happened very fast. All that viewers and producers of news could do was to keep up. Viewing habits changed, which in turn changed lifestyles. Cellphones with their popular functions such as short messaging service (SMS) and multimedia messaging service (MMS) changed news formats rapidly. The Internet and MMS facilities have played an important role in the Arab Spring' revolution that has swept Egypt, Syria, Libya and other totalitarian Arab countries.

The book addresses the changing world of the media through some stimulating essays written mostly by young graduates from the Centre for Media and Film Studies of the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Some of the essays are not only interesting but provide valuable insights. For example, the essay titled Editorial - Where Art Thou? News Practices in Indian Television by Somnath Batabyal examines the changing world of relationships between the editorial and commercial units of television channels. This essay also steers clear of the academic jargon that weighs down some of the other essays.

Will people who are not students of mass media find the book worthwhile? Perhaps not, because far too many of the articles are written in jargon peculiar to academics, which means little to those who may be interested in the changes that have occurred in the Indian mass media. Even the majority of mediapersons will not find the book very readable on this account. Perhaps the intention of the editors was to produce a book that would be of interest to their own kind, and on that score, it does very well indeed.

THE NEWSROOM OF a private television channel. Television became more interactive with the advent of private channels.-JOHNEY THOMAS

Not that all the essays are written in this manner. MMS Scandals and Challenges to the Authority of News Mediation by Angad Chowdhry discusses the use of MMS as a communication and information dissemination tool by television channels as well as individuals. He provides insights into what will certainly become if it has not already become a major input to information dissemination by television news channels.

The remarkable feature of this book is the nature of the subjects chosen. In the essay Indian Haunting: Representing Failure as Change' in Contemporary Mumbai, Angad Chowdhry and Aditya Sarkar make assessments of the film Roja to comment on the stereotype of the terrorist, among other things; of the Bharatiya Janata Party's India Shining' campaign for the 2004 elections; of the Union Ministry of Tourism's Incredible India campaign; and of U.S. President Barack Obama's 2008 election campaign with change as its theme. These campaigns, the writers assert, were nothing more than a bag of carefully chosen and performed tricks.

They note: A glance at the histories of the relevant actors lays this bare: Obama promised his free-floating change' on the back of a Democratic Party complicit with [ sic] some of the most brutal acts of geopolitical violence in living memory, the BJP tried to reap the benefits of social changes that his [ sic] party and the national media had neither the patience nor the intelligence to grasp, let alone evaluate, and the Congress strategically batted on an existing field of social-progessivist rhetoric that it patently had no claim to (page 176).

A serious student of mass media studies may find that perseverance with this book will be of benefit because it has interesting analyses, by some sharp young minds, of issues relating to the nature of changes in the Indian mass media. As the media change, and the changes get not just complex but murky for example, paid news the insights these young graduates bring to it are valuable because they are a part of that change in a way seasoned media watchers are not.

The book is dedicated to the memory of SACREDMEDIACOW, which is an independent postgraduate collective on Indian media research and production at the SOAS, and most of the essayists who feature in this book belong to this group. That phrase tells one a great deal about what they thought about the media and also that the collective is dead.

It has clearly served its purpose and the members have moved to other spheres of activity. The poet W.H. Auden sums it up in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts' where, describing Brueghel's painting of Icarus, he writes:

...the delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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