The greatest Editor-in-Chief to have walked India’s soil once said “the soul of India lives in its villages”. You could extrapolate that quotation of the ed-head of Young India and Harijan to the media, and say: “The soul of Indian journalism lives in its languages”.
Just one set of numbers will suffice to show why. In week 14 of annus horribilis, April 4 to 10, the top-five English TV news channels had a combined viewership of 52 lakh impressions, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC).
In contrast, the top-five Hindi channels had a combined viewership which was 284 times larger than English. The top-five news channels in the four South Indian languages had a viewership which was even bigger: 295 times.
In this episode of J-POD, a podcast on journalism, M.G. Radhakrishnan, the Editor-in-Chief of the Malayalam TV news channel Asianet News describes the challenges thrown up by COVID to India’s first-ever private news channel.
Although it has changed hands from its original owner, Asianet News continues to be one of the few mainstream channels across the depressing TV landscape to still cover news and information with due seriousness and gravitas.
13.15: “News media is the one sector which is on the rise while COVID is ravaging all other industries. TV news viewership has shot through the roof, and since January we seen a huge spike. The irony is that it while it helps ratings and subscriptions, it doesn’t bring in money.”
14.38: “These are times when states assume more power. There is greater surveillance. There is a tradeoff with fundamental rights. It is one thing to disseminate information of the state government. At the same time, it is important that the media remains free, remains independent, and remains as a check and balance on state power.
“The media has to help the state but at the same time has to remain vigilant so that things do not go out of hand. This is not the time to be coopted by the state. We have to keep the power dry. The media should not give up its role of being a critical insider.”
18.38: “With all its imperfections and warts, Kerala media has done an admirable job right through Coronavirus. When you see a so-called national media being increasingly co-opted, we can proudly say we are keeping our critical monitoring role. We have kept the powers on the hook.”
21.43: “Kerala is constantly under the scanner of the public. It’s a literate, media-saturated society. Sometimes we may go overboard. But this very system of scrutiny on the society, on the state, on the government, at all times has helped Kerala become what it is.”
23.00: “Media is a creature of society. Whatever biases and prejudices get hegemonised in society, media has a tendency to mirror them and reinforce them. Hindi media reflects the kind of communal and sectarian values dominating Hindi society.”
27.35: The big lesson from Kerala: “be with the people”. “Whenever you touch their real needs, the real issues, whenever you address the real needs of people, instead of just skimming the surfaces of markets or sensationalism, you will remain important, indispensable.”