29
Oct 12

Indian media: expanding alright, but sometimes in the wrong directions

By what seems only to be coincidence, there has been a bundle of rich, informative writing about the India news media in the last month. It seemed a good idea to collect the links in one place – and they turn out to have a common theme.

Exhibit One is the James Cameron lecture by N. Ram, until recently editor of The Hindu. As befits his biography, Ram writes as a newspaperman but his magisterial survey does not neglect the astonishing growth of 24-hour news television in India. I have already posted about this lecture, so I’ll summarise brutally and say that Ram’s underlying message was: because Indian news media is a “growth story”, don’t assume that everything is fine.

Second item is a piece in the New Yorker (£) by long-time media analyst Ken Auletta on the Jain brothers who run Bennett & Coleman, the owners of the immensely successful Times of India. Auletta isn’t the first person to write about the changes which have occurred at the Times of India but he is the first writer to lay out with such clarity and force the truly revolutionary ideas which have altered the group’s papers.

I do not mean “revolutionary” in any romantic sense. The insight on which the Jain brothers based their changes at the Times of India and the Economic Times was simple but turned the world of those newspapers upside down. The idea is shocking to journalists like me, brought up on the assumption that newspapers have a democratic function beyond their existence as businesses. Not so, thought the Jains: we’re not in journalism, we’re selling advertising. And so the journalism was gradually but firmly subordinated to adjusting the newspapers to be platforms collecting readers whose attention could be sold to advertisers. This has been so successful and influential, that the group’s executive no longer feel and need to fudge or obscure what they have been doing.

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Indian media: expanding alright, but sometimes in the wrong directionsIndian media: expanding alright, but sometimes in the wrong directionsIndian media: expanding alright, but sometimes in the wrong directionsIndian media: expanding alright, but sometimes in the wrong directionsIndian media: expanding alright, but sometimes in the wrong directionsShare This Post

09
Oct 12

Wisdom from India (and from children in Ethiopia)

The traffic figures for this blog make clear that what people like is strong opinions from the author. But occasionally this author grows tired of the sound his own thinking and just wants to pass on wisdom from others. I have two items to offer.

Last week’s James Cameron Memorial lecture at City University London was by N Ram, until recently editor of The Hindu, which has a claim to be India’s best daily paper. Ram delivered a magisterial overview of the Indian media which I can recommend as one of the best analysies of the subject you can find (video/audio, text).

My personal selection of edited highlights (page numbers for text in full):

  • Ram, who knew James Cameron, observed that the great foreign correspondent would not have had much truck with the idea, floated occasionally at the Leveson Inquiry and elsewhere, that journalism should be regulated as profession in the manner of doctors or lawyers. Cameron, writing in 1967, was clear that journalism was “not and never has been a profession…since its practice has neither standards nor sanctions” for the reason that “it can be practised in many ways.” (p2)
  • Ram stressed a discussion that far too many journalists complaining about failing business models forget: the fortunes of the news media are not the same as the state of the news media (p7).
  • Ram gives an up-to-date list of India’s juiciest corruption scandals (p11), remarking that the Indian media has been much better at reporting scandals in government and politics and much less good at chasing corporate corruption.
  • Reminding us that India was the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”, he lists the recent threats to free speech (p17).
  • He quotes often from a long piece on Indian media in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta: “Citizens Jain” (£).
  • If you want to see one o the most important differences between India and China, look at internet penetration rates: China: 40%, India 10%.

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07
Oct 11

Wadah Khanfar: fascinating, but carefully tactful

Wadah Khanfar can claim to be one of the world’s most significant journalists in 2011. He doesn’t make that claim himself, but he ran the Middle East’s most outspoken satellite broadcaster, Al-Jazeera, as the revolutions erupted in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and as they spluttered in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Last night he came to City University to give the James Cameron Memorial Lecture and most of his audience wondered if he would shed any light on his abrupt departure from Al-Jazeera’s director-generalship a few weeks ago. He shed no new light directly. But a few hints were dropped, and they illuminate both the power and the limits of the Arab Spring.

When people suddenly announce they are going to “move on”, that decision can be assumed to be not entirely voluntary. The deal to depart is sealed with a payment, conditional on neither party saying more than a very limited amount in public about the rupture. Khanfar was not replaced by a journalist or broadcasting executive but by a member of the Qatari royal family from one of the state’s oil and gas outfits. Khanfar is a charming and plausible speaker, but I doubt that many in his audience quite bought his explanation that after eight years at the top of Al-Jazeera, he had decided to quit while he was ahead. The indicators point to Qatar’s ruling family wanting someone a little “safer” in charge.

Al-Jazeera’s foundation in 1996 was a remarkably bold act by the Emir of Qatar. Even if Al-Jazeera did not report quite as vigorously on Qatar itself, it was allowed to report without inhibition on other states in the region. The Emir in effect tore up the convention among Gulf ruling families that news media from their own state try to avoid embarassing rulers of neighbouring states. Or at least that appeared to be the case until the Arab revolutions began this year. And Al-Jazeera’s own journalists rapidly built the station’s own editorial identity and strength, probably becoming more famous, influential and controversial than its cautious founders anticipated (backgrounder here). Qatar, Khanfar said in answer to a question last night, did not start Al-Jazeera “for charitable reasons”. The state had “expectations”, he said; but then, he added, so did Al-Jazeera’s journalists have their own expectations, aims and agenda. The channels, Khanfar said, found their “mission” and created a “solid identity”. This identity, he implied, was not quite what Qatar’s rulers had in mind.

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06
Oct 11

Wadah Khanfar in London

Wadah Khanfar, until very recently the director-general of Al-Jazeera, is due in London this evening to deliver the James Cameron Memorial Lecture at City University. This is the first time a journalist from the Middle East has been invited to give the lecture (the year of the Arab Spring seemed an appropriate moment) and the first time that Khanfar has been in London since he suddenly announced that he was stepping down from running Al-Jazeera.

To get an idea of the importance of satellite television in general – and of Al-Jazeera in particular – in this year’s events in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain take a look at the annual Strategic Survey of the Institute of Strategic Studies (the relevant section starts at p97). I have a fair idea of who wrote the (unsigned) analysis and she is very expert. There have been many analyses of the influence of social networks and satellite television on the Arab revolutions. Because the IISS survey is sober and careful, its carefully weighed evidence about the influence of cross-border broadcasters counts for more. A slightly less sober (but well-rated by insiders) account of Al-Jazeera’s sudden global fame from GQ is here.

We still don’t know exactly why Khanfar left his job: this is his explanation and this is a summary of the rumours. Khanfar is a journalist; he was replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family previously working in a state oil and gas compnay. All of the above (significance, reasons for departure) in this piece from the Columbia Journalism Review. We may learn more this evening; I will report back tomorrow.