Is India currently facing a flood problem? Yes, if we listen to BBC World or visit the BBC’s website. In fact, the BBC warns that the northern states and in particular UP and Bihar could be facing epidemics in the wake of severe floods if immediate steps are not taken. However, switch from the BBC to any Indian news channel, or in fact even most of the national print media (English only as I have not checked any regional news media except Prajavani, the Kannada daily), and there is hardly any coverage or mention of the floods. Today’s edition of the Prajavani mentions the flood situation in Karnataka (but the New Indian Express’s Bangalore Edition does not mention it). The immediate question that arises is India really facing a flood problem?
The larger question is how do channels/newspapers determine what constitutes news? Is it determined by the viewership/readership? The headlines on each of the major Indian English news channels last night when the BBC was airing the flood story as the lead program was Dhoni’s elevation as captain of the Twenty20 team.
A couple of days ago I was reading a statement made by a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in the context of the proposed legislation giving powers of intervention to the ministry in respect of content in the media. In short, he said that the ministry did not want a whole generation of Indians growing up thinking that “page 3 information” is news. While that by itself does not justify censorship of any form, I am beginning to wonder if the Indian media is losing its way. There is no doubt that there has been a shift in the coverage and the mainstream media (at least the English media both print and electronic) are moving away from serious news coverage and focusing on entertainment. While the Times Group has been the leader heralding this shift others are not far behind. For e.g, one of the news items on the front page of the New Indian Express yesterday was of an Indian character being introduced in Archie comics! About a year ago, I attended a lecture by P. Sainath (now Magsaysay Award Winner) where he attacked the media for completely ignoring the crisis in the agrarian economy. He contrasted about how the media constantly tracked the number of millionaires in India, but completely ignored farmer suicides.
I am not sure what conclusions we can draw from this selective vision of the media-it certainly should not affect the free speech-censorship debate- but its an issue that all of us need to think about.