Freedom of press in India is a myth: Tewari

Former I&B minister says media needs to relook revenue models

GN Bureau | September 19, 2020


#Diplomacy   #China   #Economy   #Atmanirbhar   #Lockdown   #Covid-19   #Media   #Congress   #Manish Tewari   #Defence   #Narendra Modi  


Sections of the news media have degenerated into becoming the pet performing poodle of the government, says Manish Tewari, former information and broadcasting minister and a member of the Lok Sabha.

In a webinar chat with Kailashnath Adhikari, MD, Governance Now, on Friday as part of the Visionary Talks series, organised by the public policy and analysis platform, the Congress leader came down heavily on majority of news channels and said that media is not philanthropic. “Over a period of time, media has degenerated into becoming the pet performing poodle of the government. Freedom of press in India is a myth. It is a chimera. Huge corporate interest dictates the direction and trajectory of media depending upon what their business interest currently are – except for print media, unfortunately I can’t say that for a substantive section of electronic media,” said Tewari.

For this and previous episodes of the Visionary Talks series, click here: www.governancenow.com/visionary-talks-series

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The former minister said that 950 million people in India have television set at home and 93% of them do not watch news channels. Only 7% watch news and current affairs channels and the 391 existing news and current affairs channels are digging around in that 7% space, trying to earn money. “It has become a dog-eat-dog market.”

Tewari argued that media needs to relook its revenue models and cannot have a totally advertisement-driven model. Asked if the revenue model could be regulated through a policy, he recalled that when he was I&B minister he cleaned out the TRP paradigm with a policy framework.

“If you want to correct your revenue model and charge subscribers a higher rate for the newspaper they buy or a TV channel they want to see, you will be able to then offer them better content. You have to start pricing your products properly and get people into the habit for paying…but since you remain dependent on advertising it is measured by a fake currency called TRP’,’ said Tewari.

He added that the biggest difficulty today is that what used to plague the print media and electronic media now plagues the social media which is also a completely advertisement-driven model. He said that the advertisement-driven model does not allow you to curate quality content and be independent as bulk of small and medium people in the business depends on handouts which are given by the BOC (Bureau of Outreach and Communication). “There is a fundamental problem they are not willing to look at,” he said.

Speaking on the phenomenon of paid news, the former minister said that when he was trying to amend the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 and specifically tried to insert the section on paid news and penal provisions, ‘‘the pushback from biggies in the media industry was so enormous that the bill has not seen the light of day till date”.

“The news and current affairs media is about educating people, presenting facts in perspective and bringing seriousness to public discourse. That’s the responsibility you need to discharge rather than looking at bottom lines and spin off cheap entertainment as news which does not require news licence,” said Tewari.

Referring to the Covid-19 pandemic and authorities’ response to it, he said that the government imposed the most draconian lockdown with a four-hour notice without consulting states. He argued that the strategy had failed and now the government wants us to believe that lockdown ostensibly saved thousands of lives and hundreds and thousands of people from getting impacted. “In reality 5 million people have been directly impacted, there are fairly low rates of testing and … utter mismanagement … they still don’t have a clue as to where we are headed.”

He added that the under-development vaccine is not a magic bullet. Flu shots have been around for over two decades and people who have taken these shots will tell you that they may or may not work. He said that unlike a BCG vaccine which will inoculate you against Covid-19, the efficacy of flu shots at best lasts 3-4 months. Does that mean that 130 crore people will be inoculated repeatedly, he asked. There is the question of triage that if at all the vaccine comes what is going to be the priority of vaccination. There is the attempt to sweep every issue under the carpet, he alleged.

Asked if the government’s Atmanirbhar package can actually help provide jobs, food and livelihood to the poor, he said these are ultimately these are mere phrases and not backed by action. He referred to the government’s Make in India initiative and said its progress over the past six years has been abysmal and not yielded substantive results. While speaking on the direct benefit transfer (DBT) scheme, he asked if it was successful and demand had stimulated then why one after another shops in mofussil India are closing down.

On maximum portion of Atmanirbhar package allocated to MSMEs, he said, “When people need money they are given credit. What is the monetary part of fiscal package of Rs 20 lakh crore? It is only between 0.8%-1.4% of GDP. The fiscal stimulus packages put in by various other countries is almost 10% of GDP…by giving people access to credit at compounded rate of interest in economy where there is no demand…the government has opened the credit tap.”

Giving his views on the global supply chains shifting business from China which has been manufacturing capital of the world, Tewari said it is going be extremely difficult to recalibrate as the lag time in case of measures to fructify could be 5-10 years. “We seem to be living on a diet of rhetoric and loving it that everything is hunky dory.”

On the government’s response to alleged border intrusions by China, Tewari said the situation is serious and does not seem to be ending soon. “The fact is that there have been substantive Chinese intrusions and the government does not have a measure for the amount of territory they have lost to the Chinese. There has been pathetic attempt at headline management by trying to milk the unfortunate death of an actor and the soap opera that it has turned into.

“The substantive question is why the Chinese have done this and there has been no concrete answer from the government or media and strategic gurus who populate our public square called national discourse. Something went horribly wrong either in Wuhan or Mamallapuram. Despite these two informal summits which were touted as magic bullets to surmount difficulties in Sino-Indian relations things have gone south. I hope initiatives taken by external affairs minister S Jaishankar and the Chinese [foreign minister] in Moscow, the five principles that they have agreed to would lead to disengagement and de-escalation,” said Tewari.

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