The Changing Role of the News Media in Contemporary India N. Ram

The Changing Role of the News Media
in Contemporary India
N. Ram
The global scenario
The news media are in crisis across the developed world. Journalism as we
know it is being described, obviously with some exaggeration, as ‘collapsing’,
‘disintegrating’, in ‘meltdown’. In this digital age, there is gloom in most
developed country, or ‘mature’, media markets over the future of newspapers
and also broadcast television. Two decades after a call issued from a conference
in Windhoek, Namibia for the establishment of World Press Freedom Day, ‘the
arrival of the digital revolution – the evolution of the Internet, the emergence of
new forms of media, and the rise of online social networks – has reshaped the
media landscape and made “the press” of 2011 something that those gathered in
Windhoek in 1991 could not have imagined’ (UNESCO 2011). There is a strong
sense that ‘the news industry is no longer in control of its own future’ (Rosenstiel
& Mitchell 2011) and that it is technology companies like Google and the social
media that lead the way and look set to hegemonize the public space that once
belonged to the news media.
The global financial crisis and economic slowdown of 2008-2009 sent several
western media organizations into a tailspin. Advertising revenues, the lifeline
of the newspaper industry, took a body blow during this period. Many big
newspapers, whose strengths had been sapped and whose situational advantages
had been undermined over the years, went into bankruptcy or protection against
The New York Times
was bailed out by an emergency loan of US $250
million from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim: ‘to help the newspaper company
finance its businesses’ (NYT 2009). Tens of thousands of journalists lost their
jobs in the United States, where newsrooms are 30 per cent smaller than in 2000
(Rosenstiel and Mitchell 2011), and across Europe. 2
There has been some recovery, or to be more precise, a slowdown in the decline
beginning mid-2010. But printed newspaper circulation and readership are in
irreversible decline across the developed world; they have been in steady, long-
term, secular decline much before the recent recession hit these countries and
their news media. ‘Circulation is like the sun. It continues to rise in the East
and decline in the West’, Christoph Riess, chief executive officer of the World
Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), told those
assembled at the World Newspaper Congress and World Editors Forum in
Vienna in October 2011 (Riess 2011). His presentation of
World Press Trends 2011
the annual survey done by WAN-IFRA, focused on ‘six key areas’: the media
consumption shift; economic developments; newspaper circulation and number
of titles; advertising expenditure by media; newspaper revenue; and internet
versus mobile (
. 2011).
There was a clear sense in the Vienna gathering that a historical era for the news
media was coming to an end and they had entered, even if differentially across
the world, an indeterminate period of uncertainty. With the changes in audience
behaviour and news consumption accompanying the migration to the web and
to mobile platforms gathering pace, the big challenge for the traditional news
business is
of the audience that is getting away, with grim financial
implications. ‘We have always been extremely efficient in using the time of our
readers’, Riess told his audience in Vienna. ‘But now we are in a more challenging
environment, because readers are more promiscuous, they have more choices,
they read newspapers with less frequency.
We have to do more to attract them,
find new ways to garner loyalty’ (
These industry-wide trends, and the accompanying stresses, pessimism, and
disarray, have already taken a big toll of independent and resourceful journalism in
the developed world. According to a report titled
The Reconstruction of American
, commissioned and published by the Journalism School of Columbia
University, New York, ‘the era of dominant newspapers and influential network
news divisions is giving way to one in which the gathering and distribution of
news is more widely dispersed’ and the economic foundation of U.S. newspapers
is ‘collapsing’. Newspapers, ‘the country’s chief source of independent reporting,
are shrinking – literally’, with fewer journalists ‘reporting less news in fewer
pages’ (Downie & Schudson 2009).
The situation and prospects of broadcast television, which still commands a big
audience across the world and remains the world’s premier advertising medium, 3
do not seem much brighter. I do not propose to enter into a discussion of why,
which would require a separate extended discussion. I shall merely note the
assessment of experts that in developed countries, broadcast television – for
several decades the ‘dominant organism’ in the ‘media ecosystem’ – has been in
‘inexorable decline’ (Naughton 2006), and that commercial television news, in
parallel with printed newspapers, has been ‘losing its audience, its advertising
revenue, and its reporting resources’ (Downie & Schudson 2009).
Digital age paradox
This brings us to a paradox, which seems to be central to this transformational age.
In the midst of this old media crisis, more and more people are reading newspapers
digitally and it is a global audience for the best publications. Worldwide, printed
newspapers, with a reported circulation of 519 million, reach an estimated 2.3
billion people every day, 20 per cent more than the internet (Riess 2011). But
the ‘terms of trade’ are shifting remorselessly in favour of the web, mobile, and
newer interactive digital platforms. Many newspapers have excellent websites
offering rich, many-sided, multi-media content, including long-form features,
investigative articles, and thoughtful analysis. Several journalism schools round
the world now take digital journalism seriously. It still comes mostly free-to-air
but some major western newspapers have begun to price their digital content and
some new revenue streams have opened up. Mobile platforms and tablets led by
the iPad hold promise, with several newspapers and television channels coming
up with innovative and attractive apps.
But all this does not add up to a viable revenue and business model for digital
journalism. The internet advertising model is doing exceedingly well but it is the
search engines, above all Google, that take the lion’s share of the revenue; the
paid-content model is also well established on the mobile platform, what with
hundreds of millions of users accepting ‘monthly contracts, pre-paid phones, and
paid-for apps’, but here too, the new kids on the block, Apple and the mobile
operators, take the bulk of the revenue (Riess 2011).
The newspaper industry faces a double squeeze: the print business continues
heavily to subsidize digital journalism, which cannot pay for itself by attracting
enough advertising or subscriptions or a mixture of the two; and the new digital
players put increasing pressure on newspaper circulation, readership, and the 4
Two Media Worlds and India
Let us now turn to the differences in the situation of the news media across the
world. These differences, which mirror the larger patterns of the world’s uneven
economic and socio-political development, run wide and deep and can even
appear dramatic. How long this duality will endure is a matter of conjecture.
us call this situation ‘The Two Media Worlds’ and see how India figures against
this backdrop.
While daily print newspaper circulation has been in decline globally, by 17 per
cent between 2006 and 2010 in the United States, 11.8 per cent in western Europe,
and 10 per cent in eastern and central Europe, it has risen 16 per cent in the Asia-
Pacific region and 4.5 per cent in Latin America over the same period (Riess 2011).
With nearly three-fourths of the world’s 100 top-selling daily newspapers now
published in Asia, India and China are regarded as ‘the world absolute leaders
in the newspaper industry’ (WPT 2009: 6), with current daily circulations in
the vicinity of 110 million copies in each case. In India, the growth trends in
circulation and readership are especially strong in the Indian language sectors of
the press, led by Hindi. But the buoyancy and implications of this development
need not be exaggerated, as it comes on the back of extreme underpricing of cover
prices and the dumping of hundreds of thousands of copies that go straight to the
Side by side, satellite television has been in buoyant growth mode in South
Asia, in China, and in other parts of the developing world. In 2011, television
households in India are estimated to number 141 million, with 116 million of
them served by cable and 26 million by direct-to-home television (TAM 2011).
And since the total number of households in India is estimated to be 231 million,
there is considerable space for growth (
From a low base, internet use and broadband access are growing rapidly,
although unevenly, across the developing world. China’s development in this 5
area has been quite spectacular: it has upwards of 500 million internet users – by
far the largest number for any country in the world – most of them served by
broadband, minimally defined by western standards (Fu 2011). India, by contrast,
has only something like 100 million internet users (Internet World Stats 2011),
most of them poorly served by bandwidth. One would think the number would
be much higher, given the country’s fairly advanced capabilities in the software
field but this is typical of India’s political economy paradox, large swathes of
backwardness amidst high economic growth rates. The most revealing indicator
in the comparison is the internet’s penetration of the comparable populations:
China’s 36.30 per cent, which is still only about half the developed country norm,
contrasts sharply with India’s 8.40 per cent (
.). What this means is that the
impact of the digital revolution on the print press and on broadcast television is
considerably stronger and the tipping point is likely to arrive sooner in China
than in India.
Thus far we have attempted to provide a bird’s eye view of the quantitative
trends in order to place India in global media context. What about the roles and
functions of the news media and their qualitative performance? In order to begin
to answer this question, we need to delve into history.
The two media traditions
Historically, we can distinguish two major media traditions in India – the
older tradition of a diverse, pluralistic, and relatively independent press, and
the younger tradition of state-controlled radio and television. Most objective
observers are likely to agree that for all its faults, contradictions, and conflicts of
interest, the first is a worthwhile tradition while the second is a stultifying and
largely misspent tradition, representing a great democratic and developmental
opportunity squandered (
Ram 2000
: 241-242).
The press in historical and social context
The Indian press is more than two centuries old. Its strengths have largely been
shaped by its historical experience and, in particular, by its association with the
freedom struggle as well as movements for social emancipation, reform, and
amelioration. The long struggle for national emancipation; controversies and
battles over social reform; radical and revolutionary aspirations and movements;
compromising as well as fighting tendencies; and the competition between 6
self-serving and public service visions of journalism – these have all found
reflection in the character and performance of the Indian press over the long term
.: 242).
In the first place, the close association between modern India’s struggle for
political and social emancipation from imperialist thraldom and oppression and
the origins and development of the Indian press accounts for the seriousness,
relevance, and public-spirited orientation of the older media tradition at its best
.: 242-243).
Secondly, part of the historical legacy is some diversity and pluralism and a
certain space for the expression of divergent opinions. Diversity and pluralism in
the Indian press can be said to reflect the vast regional, linguistic, socio-economic,
and cultural heterogeneity of a subcontinent. Within the Indian newspaper
tradition, there has long been an awareness of the need for greater diversity and
pluralism (
.: 243-244).
In the developed countries, press and media monopoly has developed in a
big way, eroding diversity, pluralism, and the values of serious journalism. In
India too, monopolistic tendencies and aggressive market practices aimed at
aggrandizing market share and killing competition have manifested themselves
in the press sector. In some newspaper markets in India, duopoly or monopoly
has developed.
Thirdly, there have always been sharp ideological and political divides within
the Indian press tradition. In a sense, the contemporary differentiation between
newspapers that broadly take a secular-democratic stand and those that have come
increasingly to support the ideology, politics, and policies of the Hindu Right –
the Sangh Parivar and some of its allies – can be said to be analogous to the divide
between the ‘nationalist’ and ‘loyalist’ press during the freedom struggle (
244). But such categorization, while valid, is hardly sufficient. Within the ‘secular’
press as much as within the ‘nationalist’ press of the pre-Independence period,
there are significant divides on a number of ideological and political issues, and
these manifest themselves in differentiated news coverage and editorial attitudes
towards the ruling Congress and other parties at the national and regional level.
Oftentimes, as Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju has pointed
out in his recent critique of media performance (Katju 2011a), the losers are the
people of India – the working people and the hundreds of millions who suffer
under multiple deprivations 7
Involvement in great social and political campaigns, or other exciting events,
during the freedom struggle fuelled newspaper growth and circulation and
built up the credibility and image of particular publications. ‘Literacy, basic
communications and adequate technology’, notes Robin Jeffrey, a political
scientist who has done valuable scholarly work on the Indian language press,
‘are essential to the development of a daily newspaper culture. But momentous
events provide the link between these developments and politics – the link
that seems to send circulations shooting upwards. People need the stimulus of
exciting times to hook large numbers of them on the daily newspaper habit’
(Jeffrey 1987: 608).
Kerala is the classic Indian case of politicization spreading to large sections of the
population and creating a newspaper-reading culture. Many forces influenced
this process. They include, most importantly, working peoples’ struggles, the
social movement of the oppressed castes, and Left politics. The connection
between the masses forming the habit of reading newspapers and the existence
of an authentic public opinion is noted thus by V.K. Ramachandran: ‘Owing
to the prevalent levels of literacy, the dissemination of information by means
of the written word goes much deeper in Kerala than elsewhere in India; this
has important implications for the quality and depth of public opinion and of
participatory democracy in the State’ (Ramachandran 1996: 206). The implication
is important for the rest of India: the formation of an authentic public opinion
will not be possible in the absence of a newspaper-reading culture – the mass
habit, in town and country, of reading daily and periodical newspapers and
tracking major happenings through them.
The dramatic expansion of the Hindi daily press over the last quarter-century,
partly in response to the political and social upheaval generated by Ayodhya-
centred communal mobilization by the Sangh Parivar, is a strikingly different
case, and one that underlines the link between political excitement and newspaper
circulation. It can be seen that this politics-driven growth of newspapers can be
for better or worse. But a public that tracks major events through the media must
be counted as a positive development, even when it is encountered in the context
of a socially and politically disastrous movement.
Even in the pre-Independence context, the press learned to act like a player in
the major league political and socio-economic arena, despite its well-known
limitations in terms of reach in society, financial viability, professional training,
and entrepreneurial and management capabilities. The First Press Commission 8
estimated that the total circulation of the 300 or so daily newspapers being
published in India in 1953 was 2.53 million. This worked out to 5.40 copies per
1000 in the population against the backdrop of an all-India literacy level of
16.40 per cent. (Press Commission 1954: 15-24). From such a low base, India’s
daily newspaper circulation climbed slowly to 3.15 million in 1957 and 5.11
million in 1962. It would take the press three decades after the attainment of
Independence to cross the 10 million mark and, in a manner of speaking, join
the ranks of the ‘mass media’. It would take thirty-two years of Independence
for the total circulation of Hindi daily newspapers finally to overtake the total
circulation of English language newspapers in India (RNI for the relevant years;
Ram 2000: 248).
According to the last National Readership Survey (NRS 2006), there were an
estimated 204 million readers of daily newspapers and an estimated 222 million
readers of all publications in India (even if more than two-thirds of them fell in
the NRS category of ‘light’ rather than ‘medium’ or ‘heavy’ readers). A positive
feature spotlighted by the survey was the rising profile of ‘rural’ readers who
constituted nearly 50 per cent of all daily newspaper readers; this was in
striking contrast to the composition of newspaper readership in India twenty
years earlier. However, women were severely under-represented in the ranks
of daily newspaper readers in the country. There were more than 650 million
people aged 12 and above (the NRS’s potential reader universe) who did not
read any daily newspaper. The 2006 survey found that nearly 360 million people
who could ‘read and understand’ some language did not read any publication.
They represented a huge potential readership of the near future.
The latest survey by the Indian Readership Survey (IRS 2011, Q2) shows further
growth in the numbers but the structural features of the all-India readership are
not very different. Total readership of all publications is put at 347.80 million, with
Hindi publications accounting for 53 per cent of this and English publications
16.80 per cent. Now ‘rural’
readers are actually in a majority, accounting for 53
per cent of the total. However, women continue to be severely under-represented
in the readership, accounting for merely 33.00 per cent. There are still more than
280 million literates or neo-literates who do not read any newspaper. 9
NRS 2006 found that the top ten most read dailies in India were all Indian language
newspapers, with an estimated readership ranging from 8.41 million to 21.17
million. According to IRS 2011, Q2, the top ten are all Indian language dailies,
but the estimated readership now ranges from 14.40 million to 55.10 million. For
English language newspapers, still the most resource-endowed sector within the
Indian press, the challenge is one of consolidating gains and holding their place
against rising Indian language challengers, competition from television, and
potential competition from digital news operations.
Robin Jeffrey’s scholarship on the growth of successful newspapers in a dozen
Indian languages (1987; 1993; 1997) highlights a lively and buoyant situation
where, essentially, five factors have been capitalized on over the past two decades.
They are:
improved technology
(which enables the production and distribution
of larger numbers of more attractive newspapers),
steadily expanding literacy
better purchasing power
, and
political excitement
. ‘The
logic of capitalism’, Jeffrey explains, has driven newspaper expansion ‘as strongly
as a thirsty potential readership’ (Jeffrey 1993: 2007).
Yet while the absolute numbers are big, the social reach of the Indian press is
not impressive – about 85 copies of daily newspapers per 1000 in the population.
This compares poorly with the social reach of the press in developed countries,
where the relevant number ranges between 150 and 550, and unfavourably with
several developing countries, where the number is well above 100. There is also
the phenomenon of uneven development. This means, among other things, vastly
uneven dispersion among regions and states, between urban and rural India,
between men and women, and among social classes.
But there are more serious problems than built-in disparity and unevenness
in the development path of the Indian press. Increasing concentration of
ownership in some sectors; higher levels of manipulation of news, analysis, and
comment to suit the owners’ financial and political interests; the downgrading
and devaluing of editorial functions and content in some leading newspaper
organizations; systematic dumbing down, led by the nose by certain types
of market research; the growing willingness within newspapers to tailor the
editorial product to subserve advertising and marketing goals set by owners
and senior management personnel; hyper-commercialization; price wars and
aggressive practices in the home bases of other newspapers to overwhelm and
kill competition, raising fears about media monopoly; private treaties with
corporates that undermine the independence and value of news; rogue practices 10
like paid news (Press Council of India 2010) and bribe-taking for favourable
coverage – these are deeply worrying tendencies.
Some of these tendencies, which grew qualitatively worse over the past decade,
have caused anxiety to two Press Commissions, to the Press Council of India
(PCI) from time to time, and to a host of practitioners in the field. Recently, they
have attracted sharp criticism from PCI chairman Katju. The retired Supreme
Court judge began his term by highlighting ‘three major defects in the Indian
media’, which he listed as frequently diverting attention from serious socio-
economic issues to non-issues and trivializing news, dividing the people by
putting out communal or other divisive messages, and promoting superstition
and obscurantism instead of rational and scientific ideas. He also criticized
what he considered to be the relatively low intellectual level of a majority of
journalists, their poor general and domain knowledge, and their lack of ‘desire
to serve the public interest’. He called on the Indian media, print as well as
broadcast, to take the progressive path the print media charted in Europe’s Age
of Enlightenment. He also revealed that he had written to the Prime Minister
suggesting that the Press Council Act be amended to bring the broadcast media
under the purview of the PCI and also that it be given ‘more teeth’, including
penalizing powers (Katju 2011a; 2011b).
Radio and television
I do not propose to delve into the history of the broadcast media in India, except
to make the following shorthand observations.
The younger tradition was initiated some eight decades ago with the appearance
of radio as a prop of the British colonial state. Television arrived late on the scene
in independent India, but when it did, it was annexed with hardly any protest by
the manipulative tradition as part of its natural domain. It had been kept away,
for as long as possible, by philosophical as well as policy and resource-related
considerations. It is difficult today even to imagine that until the early 1970s
there was an official belief that television, which is now estimated to have an
audience of 531.76 million (IRS 2011, Q2), was an unjustifiable luxury in a poor
and underdeveloped country.
In the early phase, the experiments with teleclubs, urban community-viewing
centres, school television, and the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment 10
like paid news (Press Council of India 2010) and bribe-taking for favourable
coverage – these are deeply worrying tendencies.
Some of these tendencies, which grew qualitatively worse over the past decade,
have caused anxiety to two Press Commissions, to the Press Council of India
(PCI) from time to time, and to a host of practitioners in the field. Recently, they
have attracted sharp criticism from PCI chairman Katju. The retired Supreme
Court judge began his term by highlighting ‘three major defects in the Indian
media’, which he listed as frequently diverting attention from serious socio-
economic issues to non-issues and trivializing news, dividing the people by
putting out communal or other divisive messages, and promoting superstition
and obscurantism instead of rational and scientific ideas. He also criticized
what he considered to be the relatively low intellectual level of a majority of
journalists, their poor general and domain knowledge, and their lack of ‘desire
to serve the public interest’. He called on the Indian media, print as well as
broadcast, to take the progressive path the print media charted in Europe’s Age
of Enlightenment. He also revealed that he had written to the Prime Minister
suggesting that the Press Council Act be amended to bring the broadcast media
under the purview of the PCI and also that it be given ‘more teeth’, including
penalizing powers (Katju 2011a; 2011b).
Radio and television
I do not propose to delve into the history of the broadcast media in India, except
to make the following shorthand observations.
The younger tradition was initiated some eight decades ago with the appearance
of radio as a prop of the British colonial state. Television arrived late on the scene
in independent India, but when it did, it was annexed with hardly any protest by
the manipulative tradition as part of its natural domain. It had been kept away,
for as long as possible, by philosophical as well as policy and resource-related
considerations. It is difficult today even to imagine that until the early 1970s
there was an official belief that television, which is now estimated to have an
audience of 531.76 million (IRS 2011, Q2), was an unjustifiable luxury in a poor
and underdeveloped country.
In the early phase, the experiments with teleclubs, urban community-viewing
centres, school television, and the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment and [provoking] a lively and often heated debate about the implications for
nations…communities and cultures’ (Page & Crawley 2001: 20). However,
the proliferation of satellite television has happened without necessarily
offering a better and richer choice of content. It has promoted increased
fragmentation of the television audience. More recently, it has become clear
that the choice of viewing is being restricted by ‘entry barriers…at the market-
ruled distribution end’ (Sashi Kumar 2011). These have resulted in a ‘peculiarly
skewed and distorted’ development of the television industry in India – with 12
the unregulated, exorbitant, and arbitrarily variable distribution fees charged
by mega cable TV and DTH operators denying small- and medium-sized
broadcast ventures ‘a fighting chance’ of achieving viability by reaching a
national audience (
The content too has raised concerns about accuracy, taste, decency, rationality,
and brazen class bias. While bringing some worthwhile and occasionally
excellent news, features, sports, and educational programming to tens of millions
of homes, Indian satellite TV contributes, in disproportionate measure, to the
sensationalization and trivialization of news, the class bias, and the other ailments
that have recently drawn a lot of public criticism.
A surprising development has been the steady decline in the reach of radio, once
considered the mass medium with the greatest potential to reach every section
of the population in rural as well as urban India at unmatchable cost advantage.
All India Radio is, in terms of territorial spread, notional reach of the population,
and educational programming, one of the world’s great broadcast networks. But
during a period in which both television and the press have expanded their reach
impressively, it has languished. IRS 2011, Q2 estimated the audience for radio to
be 161.45 million, which is 30.36 per cent of the TV audience and 46.43 per cent of
press readership (IRS 2011, Q2). In contrast to television, radio as a news medium
remains a state monopoly in India. From time to time, assertions are made that
FM radio is ‘poised for an exponential growth in India’ (Indian Media Scenario
March 2011). There are around 250 FM radio stations broadcasting now and in
the next phase, 1100 more are expected to be licensed, most of them private
.). However, the private FM radio stations have not been allowed by state
policy to cover news and current affairs on their own and their programming is
mostly entertainment.
Functions of the press
The idea that information, and specifically the news media, can play a substantive
and even a crucial role in the formation of public opinion in society and
in shaping public policy on major social, political, and economic issues is an
appealing one in intellectual and socio-political terms. The discovery that on vital
matters such as mass hunger, deprivation, and a sudden collapse of entitlements,
timely and relevant information makes a qualitative difference to the way public
opinion is shaped and official policy is made to respond is somewhat flattering 13
to the self-image of professional journalism. In a sense, it begs a much larger
question. It depends on the kind of independent, or relatively independent, role
that newspapers and other news media are allowed to play in society; and this
in turn depends on the political system and practice, the constitutional and legal
safeguards, and the information cultures that prevail in the country in question
(Ram 1990: 146; 2000: 267). These observations apply primarily to the printed
press, which has played the most substantive role in the formation of public
opinion in society and can claim pre-eminence in a historical sense.
Two central functions
The long-term Indian press experience, set in a broader framework, suggests
two central functions or roles
that newspapers have played in modern and
contemporary times. These functions may be designated as (a) the credible-
informational and (b) the critical-investigative-adversarial. An accompanying
condition – which evolves over time, typically as an outcome of a democratic
or working people’s struggle – is that the political system, for whatever reason,
gives newspapers free or relatively free rein, and a public culture of valuing these
functions develops.
Analytically, the two central functions are closely related, in fact, twinned. They
need to be considered together, for the following reasons.
In the first place, the credible-informational function can be seen as a pre-
requisite for the second function. In India, the former has something to do with
a rule of law tradition that managed to take root despite the oppression, racism,
inequities, and barbarities of British colonial rule (in contrast to another country
under a different colonialism where nothing comparable might have happened
historically). The credible-informational function is also capable, it must be
assumed, of being acquired or ‘learned’ in a non-colonial or post-colonial context
(Ram 1990: 152; 2000: 270).
Secondly, it is the critical-investigative-adversarial function that gives the
credible-informational function a new, substantive content in relation to society.
The more progressive second role that the press may be able to play, at its best, with
respect to, say, public policy relating to food, hunger, and multiple deprivations 14
and in defence of mass entitlements and their expansion needs much stronger
ideological and political nourishment than the credible-informational role. In
fact, if the critical-investigative-adversarial function weakens or gets eroded for
whatever reason, the credible-informational function might fade away through
sheer disuse (Ram 1990: 152; 2000: 270).
Another point needs to be made about the second function. It can also,
, be conceptualised as a ‘watchdog’ role, which is to say it can involve
either constructive cooperation or adversariality in the public interest. Under
ideal circumstances, the purpose and tendency of press reporting, criticism,
investigation, and even watchdogism may be to improve the government or
reform the system; this may be characterised as the latter-day Walter Lippmann
vision of an informed and enlightened free press intervening continuously to
improve governance in society (Steel 1980: 180-185; 513-515). But under other
circumstances, the more substantive and progressive function may legitimately
turn into a ‘destabilising’ role in the sense that the press tilts effectively against
what begins, as a result of the communication impact or influence, to be popularly
and politically perceived as unjust or otherwise unacceptable government policy
(Ram 1990: 151-152; 2000: 270-271).
It is only in this sense that an independent press, by exposing facts on the
ground relentlessly and by providing some kind of hunger-related discourse
with policy implications, can prevent a government from pursuing disastrous
policies and thus, in concert with other democratic institutions, can, in
the Amartya Sen theoretical scenario, ‘guarantee…the avoidance of acute
starvation and famine’ (Sen 1985a: 77). Thus, in a deeper sense the adversarial
or destabilising role makes for the relative stabilisation of crisis-averting
policies if the democratic rules of the game work reasonably. Theoretically, it
can be seen that so far as a government or a system is concerned, the second
role might help to reform its practice, or, perhaps, to destabilise it – this
depends very much on the nature of the government or system, its attitude
to democratic opposition and criticism, and the character of the policies it
pursues vis-à-vis mass entitlements or other great social challenges and issues
(Ram 1990:151-152; 2000: 270-271).
Performed over time, in a sustained way, the two central functions working
together build
in the press or, more accurately, in individual newspapers.
‘A newspaper that can really depend upon the loyalty of its readers is as
independent as a newspaper can be, given the economics of modern journalism’, A third function may now be posited. It occupies a bashful, somewhat
nebulous position when we speak of the high-minded, serious, ‘quality’
cohorts of the press but is out in the open in the ‘popular’ press and on
television, often in a flagrant way. At its worst, it seeks to purvey escapist
entertainment, celebrity worship, vapid talk shows, scandal, and even
voyeurism at the expense of everything else. But it can be something quite
different – engaging, entertaining, delving into life’s small pleasures, covering
hobbies and recreation, pandering to crossword and sudoku addicts, mixing
in humour and satire, lightening solemn, heavy, ponderous journalism, and in
general serving the ‘pleasure principle’ as the French use that term. This can be
designated the
pastime function
of the news media. Suffice it to say that the
pastime function has always been around, in India as well as elsewhere, but 16
is encountered today on a larger scale and in a greater variety of ways than,
say, a couple of decades ago.
How do we assess the performance of this third function by the news media?
The criteria for evaluation used here must necessarily be perspective and
proportionality. How does the entertainment or pastime function of a newspaper
or television news channel or radio station fare in relation to the two central
functions? Does its performance, day in and day out, outweigh the performance
of the credible-informational and critical-adversarial functions? If it does, it
deservedly invites criticism. Thus this observation in the Katju critique: ‘No
doubt the media should provide some entertainment also to the people, but if 90
per cent of its coverage is devoted to entertainment, and only 10 per cent to all
the socio-economic issues put together, then the sense of priorities of the media
has gone haywire’ (Katju 2011b).
But this is not all. There are
of the two central, twinned functions and
these are significant.
The first derivative is the agency of the press in
public education
. It is widely
recognised that the press, television, radio, and the digital media have the
potential to make a major difference in this area. At a certain level, India’s print
and broadcasting media have been serving to educate the public for decades, in
areas such as politics and public affairs, the economy, science and technology,
music, the arts, and sport. But as elsewhere, including the developed world,
the educational potential of the press and other news media remains largely
untapped. What is certain is this: if and when the educational agency of the
news media is taken up systematically and imaginatively in India, there will be
a qualitative change in what the media mean to society and exciting results are
likely to follow.
second derivative
of the two central functions is the press, or at least its
serious sections, serving as a forum for analysis, disputation, criticism, and
comment, in which different opinions and ideas are discussed, debated, and
have it out. An idealized conception of this is attributed to the American
playwright Arthur Miller: ‘A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking
to itself’ (Miller 1961). ‘Free trade in ideas’ is at the heart of the fundamental 17
right to free speech and expression, as India’s higher judiciary has repeatedly
affirmed (Shah 2011). The problem is that more often than not, the forum
provided by the news media is not what it claims to be, namely, an open, critical,
and democratic forum; the rules of the game allow the editorial gatekeepers to
be highly selective and restrict entry to opinions and ideas that challenge the
status qu
o or offend their ideological sensibilities or go against their judgment
of what will not be palatable to the mainstream or to advertisers. Thus you
will rarely read Noam Chomsky, one of the great intellectuals of our age and
a prolific commentator on politics and international affairs, in the mainstream
American press.
From here, we can move on to a
third derivative
of the two central functions. This
can be called
agenda building
. Several examples can be found of investigative
and analytic journalism bringing a significant issue to the fore and initiating or
contributing to the building of a worthwhile public agenda. The leading role of
the press in investigating the Bofors scandal, which captured the imagination of
political India in the late-1980s, and more recently, the role of the press and news
television in probing certain aspects of the 2G spectrum, Commonwealth Games,
and Adarsh housing corruption scandals readily come to mind. The publication
in early 2011 of a series of articles based on the U.S. Embassy cables on India,
made available by
, has provided the reading public and historians
of contemporary India a wealth of information on foreign and domestic policy
issues, and on corruption, the cover-up of corruption, and ministerial and official
misconduct; and at least in one case relating to the 2008 ‘cash-for-votes’ scandal,
it triggered the launch of a criminal investigation under the watch of the Supreme
Court of India.
It is also worth remembering that the exposé of the scandal of
paid news and its role in the 2009 general election has come largely from within 18
the press. P. Sainath’s investigations of rural distress and farmers’ suicides are
part of the finest journalistic tradition of agenda building on working people’s
issues. Socially conscious media can trigger agenda-building processes to help
produce democratic and progressive outcomes; and this they can do best when an
authentic public opinion and a congenial context of attitude, feeling, and critical
democratic values and practice exist, as in Kerala.
We have seen how the two central functions of a relatively independent press
– the credible-informational and the critical-investigative-adversarial – and the
derivatives, the agency of public education, acting as a critical-disputatious-
reflective forum, and agenda building, relate to each other within a conceptual
framework. In an ideal world, by working virtuously and symphonically, these
functions and derivatives can become a powerful force for the good.
How does the pastime function fit into this framework? Aside from the intrinsic
merits of serving the pleasure principle, performance of the third function broad-
mindedly and tastefully can be said to make journalism more interesting, lively,
and enjoyable, thus contributing to the
of readers or the audience
in challenging times, when cohorts of traditional supporters of newspapers,
broadcast television, and radio seem to be getting away.
The capability of the news media to perform these functions and their derivatives,
and contribute more meaningfully to society will be strengthened if progress can
be made in a long-neglected area: journalism education, training, and research.
The distinction between training, which is essentially about skills, and education,
which is about something else, must be constantly kept in mind. Journalism
education must aim at challenging the intellectual capabilities of aspiring
journalists, introducing them to concepts and ideas, educating them in the core
values, best practices, and ethics of the profession, giving them new critical
yardsticks and a vision of journalism, and, of course, strengthening professional
capabilities (Ram 2000: 270).
The need for innovation in specialised areas of journalism also stands out.
Investigative journalism has a long and creditable track record in India but its
capabilities can be significantly enhanced by acquiring a better grasp of theory
and ethics applicable to this field, by appreciating its essential character as ‘the
journalism of outrage’ (whereby journalists attempt to alter societal agendas
by unearthing wrong-doing or bringing problems to public attention), by
gaining systematic knowledge of specialised methods and techniques, and by
business itself. 19
developing new areas such as computer-assisted reporting, data base analysis,
and ‘crowdsourcing’
A major development has been the arrival on the global media scene of Julian
, a completely new kind of digital-technology-enabled, not-
for-profit player. In less than five eventful years and especially since July 2010
when it geared up to a new level of journalistic operations and engagement,
has changed the rules of the game for newspapers and the news media
everywhere, including India
. It has enabled and empowered whistleblowing
and ‘principled leaking’ through the power of digital technology and its ideals,
functioned as a reliable and generous source and publisher, and raised the bar
for investigative journalism. It has inspired other experiments or ventures to
develop technologies, secure electronic drop boxes, and platforms to encourage
and enable whistleblowing or leaking on issues that matter.
Manufacture of consent
There is yet another issue that needs serious discussion, especially in the current
Indian context. It is the
manufacture of consent
contribution of
the press and the other news media. This can be seen to be the subversion of the
two central functions, the credible-informational and the critical-
Liberal democratic theory asserts for the most part that in countries like the United
States and the United Kingdom, the media are free, independent, respectful of a
diversity and pluralism of views, strive to report the news fairly, fully and without
undue bias, play adversarial roles, and act as watchdogs of the democratic and
public interest. The propaganda model conceptualised by Herman and Chomsky
(1988) in their influential book,
Manufacturing Consent
, is a frontal challenge to
this liberal theorising on the media and democracy. 20
In another classic,
Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies
Chomsky (1989) explains that the propaganda model shows how ‘the media serve
the interests of state and corporate power, which are closely interlinked, framing
their reporting and analysis in a manner supportive of established privilege and
limiting debate and discussion accordingly’. In a highly developed context, the
major media can be seen to be ‘corporations “selling” privileged audiences to
other businesses’ and the picture of the world they present tends to ‘reflect the
perspectives and interests of the sellers, the buyers, and the products’. Ownership
concentration in, and the management structure of, the media as well as their
dependence on advertising powerfully promote such a role.
The interesting question is whether the propaganda model applies to the Indian
news media and the answer must be in the affirmative. The propaganda of state-
controlled television and radio is widely recognised and ridiculed in the Indian
public arena, but the press too can be seen to manufacture consent from time to
time in relation to sensitive, contentious issues. Two major cases in point are the
complicit role of influential sections of the Hindi as well as English language press
during the aggressive Ayodhya communal mobilisation by the Hindu Right between
1990 and 1992, and the propaganda role played by much of the press on issues and
controversies raised by the post-1991 experience of economic liberalisation.
kar sevak
role played by a large section of the Hindi press during the
kar seva
crisis of October-November 1990 has been documented and indicted in a study
commissioned by the Press Council of India (1991). The general culpability of the
Indian media in adopting a celebratory attitude towards the Hindu Right’s Ram
Janmabhumi movement and in creating the impression that the mobilisation
that led up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid was ‘a grand mobilisation
without any dissenting voice’ has been criticised by the Citizens’ Tribunal on
Ayodhya (1993). In an interesting study, Rajagopal (2001) offers a comparative
perspective of the performance of the English language and Hindi press during
the Ram Janmabhumi campaign and argues that ‘the social distance between
the Hindi and the English language press itself became a strategic resource for
Hindu nationalists’, with the gap between the coverage by the two press sectors
providing ‘crucial camouflage’ for the mobilisation.
In the case of Gujarat in 2002-2003, a similar point can be made about the
differential coverage by the English language and Gujarati press. While ‘national
media’ coverage has justly been applauded for truth-telling and blowing the
whistle on a state-sanctioned genocidal pogrom, it was a sobering fact that the leading English-language newspapers and television channels of the 2002 carnage
of Muslims in Gujarat, in which the State government played a complicit role;
and Tehelka’s 2001 sting operation on fictitious but presumed defence deals that
exposed a culture of bribery. Neither exposé made any discernible difference to
political outcomes.
The key question was: why had this decline in the power of the media occurred?
Patnaik’s answer was that ‘internal’ or media-centric explanations were 22
inadequate and that a better explanation was that ‘the moral universe of the
people’ had undergone a change, engendering ‘a degree of confusion, uncertainty,
and fuzziness’ about what was right and wrong and enabling the communal
or corrupt forces to ‘get away with their unconcern for media and intellectual
opinion’. Looking deeper for an explanation, the economist found it in such
factors as the collapse of dreams of building a society that was not based on
private aggrandizement, the ascendancy of a new kind of international finance
capital based on the globalization of finance, the spinelessness of nation states
and political formations in the face of this ascendancy, the intellectual hegemony
attained by ideas and policies imposed by globalized finance, and the plethora of
institutions and instruments that serve this juggernaut (
There can be little question that the news media ‘have fallen prey to this
hegemony’. From this, we come to what may be called Patnaik’s Law on media
power in relation to economic issues: ‘where the media are on the same side as
international finance capital, they appear powerful; but in fields where they strike
out on their own, upholding humane values and expressing concern for the poor
and the suffering, they appear powerless’. Such powerlessness, he proposes, is
the outcome of a process, ‘the process of ascendancy of international financial
capital over the economy, which the media, paradoxically, with a few honourable
exceptions, have avidly supported’ (
We have here a persuasive, sympathetic, and deep-going critique of media
performance that focuses on the theme of media power, its limitations, and its
perceived decline in recent times in India.
The status of media freedom in India
There are differing views of the status of press and media freedom in India. Some
external observers consider the Indian news media to be in an enviable position
in the developing world, their freedom, space, stability, and security derived from
history, constitutional protection, the workings of a democratic political system,
and their own rapid growth and expansion over the past quarter-century. Others,
mostly media insiders, believe these advantages are offset to a considerable extent
by an illiberal framework of laws, dating back to the British Raj, which cover
criminal and civil defamation, contempt of court, legislative privilege, official
secrecy, national security, and incitement to offences – and have a chilling effect
on freedom of expression. 23
Further, media freedom in India is considered ‘incomplete’ because the print media
and the broadcast media have not been placed on an equal constitutional and legal
footing (Ravi 2007). Freedom of the press is a fundamental right not explicitly
mentioned by the Constitution of India. Fortunately, judicial interpretation has
derived it from Article 19 and placed it on firm ground. Specifically, the Supreme
Court of India has held that freedom of the press is a combination of two
freedoms, Article 19(1)(a), ‘the freedom of speech and expression’, and Article
19(1)(g), ‘the freedom to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation,
trade or business’. The first is clearly the principal component. It is subject to
‘reasonable restrictions’ that can be imposed by law for the purposes specified
under eight heads in Article 19(2) – and for no other purpose. Article 19(1)(g) is,
however, subject to ‘reasonable restrictions’ that can be imposed by law ‘in the
interests of the general public’. It has also been held that the restrictions must
meet judicial standards of reasonableness. No such protection has been conferred
on television and radio, whose status within the Article 19 framework can only
be described as nebulous, insecure, and yet to be settled.
Secondly, newspapers in independent India function within a benign system of
registration; since there is no licensing, they cannot be de-licensed. By contrast,
while terrestrial television is a state monopoly and All India Radio alone is
allowed to do news and current affairs radio broadcasts from within India, private
television channels and FM radio stations function under a licensing system and
can be taken off the air for alleged serious transgressions of the rules.
Paradoxically, in practice, while the press has a statutorily established watchdog,
the Press Council of India, in place, there is no legal regulatory framework
for private satellite television channels, which have attracted growing public
complaint that they are a law unto themselves.
This paradoxical situation demands well-considered, progressive reform. The aim
of such reform must be to expand the scope of media freedom – but also to ensure
professional and social accountability.
The social responsibility of the media
Conventional wisdom in the west posits a
laissez faire
conception of a
libertarian press with unbridled rights that no government and no external
agency could be allowed to touch. The social responsibility conception arose 24
in reaction to this posture. In the United States, the first systematic theory
of a socially responsible press was presented in 1947 in the report of the
Commission on Freedom of the Press, headed by Robert M. Hutchins. The
Hutchins Commission lay down five ‘standards of performance’ for a free and
responsible press. These were (1) to provide a ‘truthful, comprehensive account
of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning’; (2) to serve as a
‘forum for the exchange of comment and criticism’; (3) to offer a ‘representative
picture of the constituent groups of society’; (4) to present and clarify the ‘goals
and values of society’; and (5) to provide ‘full access to the day’s intelligence’
(Lambeth 1986: 7).
The specification of ‘standards of performance’ needs revision and updating.
But there can be little doubt that over the long term the conception of socially
responsible news media has been influential and has come to stay. Over the
years, a substantial international literature has appeared on templates for socially
and ethically accountable journalism and also on the constitutive ‘elements of
journalism’ (Kovach & Rosenstiel 2001). This has yielded codes of practice or
professional ethics that have privileged such principles as truth telling, freedom
and independence, fairness and justice, humaneness, and working for the social
or public good, and emphasized such disciplines as fact-checking, verification,
investigation, rigorous data sourcing and analysis, providing context and
meaning, and maintaining perspective.
But what are facts to the journalist?
The New York Times
may continue to print
on its front page the claim, ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’, patented in 1896,
but everyone recognizes this is mythologizing about not just one newspaper
but the field of journalism itself. I would propose that an intelligent approach
to the journalist and her facts needs to fall back not so much on C.P. Scott’s
much-quoted dictum, ‘Comment is free but facts are sacred’ (Scott 1921), as
on E.H. Carr’s classic dissection of ‘The Historian and His Facts’ (Carr 1961:
7-30). It needs to steer between the Scylla of a ‘fetishism’ of undistinguishable
facts and documents, the most trivial mixed up with the really significant, and
the Charybdis of the wildest and most extreme subjective form of ‘disputable
interpretation’. As for the discerning public, the most sensible advice must be,
following Carr (1961: 23), ‘When you read, or tune in to, a work of journalism,
always listen out for the buzzing’.
This is a period during which, taking the cue from the critique and demands
placed on the national agenda by PCI chairman Katju, many voices within the 25
Indian establishment and the large media-consuming public are demanding
accountability, transparency, better standards, an end to paid news and other
rogue practices, and effective governance and regulation. The more discerning
critical voices make the point that ‘self-regulation’ either does not exist within
the Indian media industry or, where it exists, is not effective. So what can be
the answer?
Interestingly, a parallel discussion of media-related issues, provoked by the
phone hacking scandal featuring the
News of the World
, the Murdoch empire, an
array of top British politicians, and the Metropolitan Police, is being conducted
in the United Kingdom. An unprecedented inquiry set up under the Inquiries
Act 2005 and conducted by Lord Justice Leveson shows every promise of going
deep and wide into ‘the culture, practices and ethics of the press’ and coming up
with sound recommendations for ‘a more effective policy and regulation that
supports integrity and freedom of the press while encouraging the highest ethical
standards’ (Leveson Inquiry 2011). Forward-looking liberal voices, notably Alan
Rusbridger, the highly regarded Editor of
The Guardian
, have welcomed this as
‘an opportunity for the industry to have a conversation with itself while also
benefitting from the perspective and advice of others’ (Rusbridger 2011), and
several other British journalists seem to agree with this.
The Indian situation cries out for such an independent, comprehensive, hard look
into the culture, practices, and ethics of the news media and into questions of
what kind of regulatory and governance mechanisms need to be put in place.
The object must be the same: to support integrity and freedom of the media
while encouraging the highest ethical standards and best practices. For too
long have India’s news media got by on the strength of empiricism and animal
spirits, an inchoate realization of their own history, accumulated strengths,
capabilities, weaknesses, vices, and unrealized potential, and an approach that
ad hoc
and, on most issues, hit-or-miss. They have travelled quite a distance
since Independence, with the pace accelerating over the past quarter-century.
What they need to acquire in order to develop further is an active consciousness,
a coherent theory of their own role in society, higher professional norms and
standards and benchmarking, a better-informed socio-political and ethical side
to their practice, a systematic critical monitoring of their own performance, a
break with the illusion of self-sufficiency, an internal accountability to higher
intellectual standards, a whole-hearted acceptance of social responsibility, a more
precise and less breathless style, and a sober advocacy of their own role as an
indispensable part of the striving for a democratic and just system. 26
Nobody knows what the long term holds for India’s news media. But if they
do not shy away from these challenges and go about these tasks earnestly and
intelligently, their immediate and medium-term future can be considered secure
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…and I am Sid Harth