The Indian Media Leaders eSummit began yesterday at 3 pm and will continue for another two afternoons. It is almost painless; one can learn quite a bit from some of the factual presentations. From the panels so far, one can assess where Indian media leadership is today – or at least how it is evolving or stagnating – tentative in public and going nowhere fast.
The first session, which presented the annual Wan-Ifra report on World media trends, could have served as the basis of some questions but didn’t provoke many throughout the afternoon. No one asked how a report of such stature could be based on a worldwide sample of only 92 respondents. And then, while participants asked about the relevance of the information to Indian newspapers, no one bothered to make any connections to our reality. The report cited a worldwide spend of about 35% with only a 1% or 2% decline in the pandemic year on news gathering or journalists and editorial employees.
Our media leaders didn’t bring up the fact that the spending of the significant Indian mainstream print media is far less on editorial resources – published figures show that for even a major print media group like HT Media, it’s less than 23% in the pandemic year, representing a decline in the past financial year of slightly more than 20%. They didn’t also bother to mention that their ad declines were far worse than the global average of 26%.
The panel of Indian media leaders all spoke about democracy and freedom of expression. Although this is a hint of possibilities, there was really no discussion about the course of democratic expression except in the context of social media and fake news. It was mentioned that social media directly damaged the print media with fake news about newspapers spreading the virus, and also there was some cognizance of ‘tech dictating democracy.’
As Navaneeth, the CEO of The Hindu group, said, “In looking at big tech’s algorithms, the algorithm makes sure to feed the existing polarization. So tech has played a big role in preventing people from consuming a plurality of views.” No one talked about social media and fake news emanating from the government as it has bungled its way through the pandemic and tried to suppress criticism of every kind. However, there was a mention by Jayanth Mathew of Malayala Manorama of the new digital laws that have a chilling draconian provision.
While implying that the legacy print media in India enjoys great credibility, no one assessed its performance (much of which is outstanding and highly commendable) in the pandemic year when foreign newspapers were compelled to send in extra resources to decode the mess of the second wave. To my mind, apart from most of the larger print media groups having missed the opportunity of exposing the governments in power at the center and the states, they have played an extremely middling game bringing facts to the population. Although many of these groups have done an excellent job on scientific reporting of the Covid-19 virus and the vaccine developments, some major groups do not even have a science correspondent.
There was little mention from the media leaders of what is blowing in the wind – the backing of courageous journalism – even when major language newspaper groups hitherto loyal to the government such as Bhaskar, and Sandesh have broken ranks to report on the Covid-19 deaths and falsified records of deaths, burials and cremations. Likewise, no one mentioned that the mainstream Indian print media is in danger of losing its credibility as it prevaricates on the brutal truths of pandemic – a veritable gold mine of stories from migration to scientific stories on the virus and its spread and the development of vaccines – that it is likely to be displaced by digital alternatives.
To be a bit fairer, much can be learned from the eSummit, mostly from those involved in trying to save the media by changing how it works. And there are good sessions coming up in the next two that again discuss important issues such as diversity – but will they discuss caste diversity? The Indian media leaders are on the whole too preoccupied with survival in the near term and are missing the longterm opportunity to do something that they all recognize – to present a plurality of views, and with their great resources and legacy bring back some of the character that was their reason for being. To some extent, this conference is an opportunity missed for the leaders to inspire each other – to lead.