Entertainment or enlightenment?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 August, 2006, 12:00am

India's feisty print media is under siege. That's not because of government restrictions, as in the past, but because dumbing down seems to be the price of success for papers that once took pride in informed and thought-provoking opinion pieces.

The political and economic impact of globalisation vests Indian newspapers with a greater responsibility to inform and advise than in the older, western democracies. Yet, many fear the mass market does not tolerate high-quality writing.

'Eventually, major newspaper groups will emerge as multiple-media enterprises combining the strength of the electronic and print medias,' said Indian Newspaper Society president Jacob Mathews, whose Malayala Manorama has a circulation of 1.15 million.

Diversification is the answer, but dumbing down is easier. British Press Complaints Commission chairman Lord Wakeham warns that the public interest should never be confused with what the public is interested in. That's a commendable view, but a caveat must be attached: it is only speculation that people want entertainment and not enlightenment.

India's 5,000 dailies and more than 40,000 periodicals are flourishing. Advertising revenue, up this year by nearly 20 per cent, is 7 per cent higher than that of television. Circulation has grown by 23 per cent this year.

Nevertheless, the fear that television 'infotainment' is what sells haunts managers, especially those on English-language papers.

With certain outstanding exceptions, even conservative broadsheets seem to embody a tabloid soul struggling to take over.

Only a very brave newspaper can buck the trend, like the Manchester Guardian music critic who was said to have packed his notebook and gone home when the distinguished conductor of Manchester's famous Halle Orchestra collapsed and died onstage. Every other newspaper led with the death next morning, but there was nary a word in the Guardian. 'There was no concert. What could I write?' the critic explained.

One doesn't expect that degree of detachment in an age when life follows television in so many ways. The challenge is formidable. The reach of the electronic media is much greater, since 35 per cent of Indians still cannot read or write.

But do readers really want the other extreme - ignoring the wood of news and views for the trees of trivia? Lord Northcliffe, the founder of Britain's popular press, prided himself on giving readers not what they wanted but what was good for them - to encourage ordinary people to aspire to the top.

Leading the world of popular journalism, Britain's News of the World suffered two setbacks recently.

First, its royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, was arrested for intercepting telephone calls. Then, a source for reporter Mazher Mahmood admitted to being paid to set up sting operations.

Such adventurousness has no place in developing nations, which need sober newspapers as much as upright politicians and impartial courts. If resources are the problem, Mr Mathews' multimedia suggestion indicates a way out.

Sadly, many major Indian newspapers seek to pander to society's lowest common denominator by trying to beat TV at its own game. That is an unwinnable game.

But others are already diversifying, like the Bengali-language Ananda Bazar Patrika, which has invested in Star TV. The future will be theirs.

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a former editor of The Statesman in India