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A Press Card is a Privilege, not a Licence

The country's Press is at the crossroads, and the line between reported truth, and fiction, can be dangerously thin

By Pranab Bora

Assam–and India’s–Press is at the crossroads. Worse, it is caught in the crosscurrents of survival, success and narrow self-interest, the arrest of a few Guwahati ‘journalists’ because of alleged misdoings could be an example of  a media organisation being sucked in by the whirlpool thus created.

The rot runs deep. Allegations include charges of “booms” (microphones) allegedly being sold by media houses to ‘reporters’ who, in a strange reversal of roles, are expected to pay the management monthly ‘rent’, having been ‘empowered’ with a ‘Press’ card and a microphone they can stick into just about anyone’s face. 

The mobile phone, of course, is the easily accessible, visual-recording device that can go anywhere, anytime.

Such a ‘reporter’, having made the ‘investment’, now has a free run, sending in non-news that allegedly is randomly run on some portals and channels, not too many questions asked, so long as the reporter pays the management the rent agreed upon.

The ‘paid news’ phenomenon

Something like this, of course, isn’t exactly a new scenario—it is believed to have existed for many years now, much before the Internet, or even television, became new-age media platforms.

Setting the trend back then—and it continues to remain that way, sadly, if allegations are to be believed—were some “paid news” publications that charged for ‘news’ published, on a column-centimetre basis. 

The creators of India’s “paid news” phenomenon, it is believed, weren’t small time get-rich-quick Internet waylayers but media behemoths who walked the corridors of power and had been given to believe that they helped set the agenda of the country.

The Press in the time of the Pandemic

The pandemic brought about another strange phenomenon: Aware of the goodies that can be raked in during an economic slowdown courtesy a ‘Press’ card, many more took to the profession. 

A small investment in a website brought about easy money, perceived impunity from the law, access to the moneyed, and the monstrous, and access to the powers that be, who were often happy to open their doors to such elements so long as they served their political interests.

Devastating consequences on the Press

The collective consequences over the years have been devastating: one-sided reporting, blackmail, shamelessly partisan writing, misplaced patriotism, blatant violation of personal space, deafeningly loud prime-time hours on television, and blatant political propaganda on all media platforms, print, television and the Internet.

The country’s economic forces have added to all of this: the more the circulation, the higher the advertisement rates in print, the more the TRP the higher the advertisement rates in television, and now the higher the number of ‘Likes’ and ‘followers’ on the Internet, the higher the advertisement rates a website can demand. Many, quite obviously, decided to take shortcuts to such success.

Sanctity of content takes a beating 

It is often here that the dirt flows in. The sanctity of clean, well-reported, unbiased, balanced content has taken a beating like never before, and just about everyone is at fault. 

The line between fact and fiction as reported in the Press now can be dangerously thin. 

Waylayers and a mad race for ‘Who breaks a ‘Breaking News’ first’ have led to an unprecedented number of concocted stories and visuals of everything unthinkable.

An effort to regain self-respect

The question that now needs to be answered is rather simple: What does the Press do to cleanse itself of its misery, and regain its self-respect? 

Not that there aren’t bodies to make this happen: the Press Council of India along with the Editors Guild of India need to take the lead, and very soon, in cleaning up the mess that the media is in. Press clubs that have sprouted up across the country should be taken on board. Content must once again be made king.

But most of all, reporters in this country must realise and understand a fact of life in this profession: that a Press Card is a privilege, not a licence.

Founder Editor... Formerly resident editor (east and northeast) with The Telegraph, editor (Assamese) with The Sunday Indian, has worked with India Today, National Herald and The Sentinel. Has written for India Today Travel Plus, Darpan, The Pioneer, Hindustan Times online edition, The Times of India. Lyricist and singer, enjoys composing, photography, being a chef and travelling