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English Language Press in India: Fall From Enlightenment to Entitlement

Posted on May 1, 2011 in Media

By Shruthi Venukumar:

It is said that the discovery of papyrus had led to the downfall of the city-state that made way for the Empire. When papyrus became sparse, empires plunged into the age of feudalism. Information has had the power, down the line in history, to tear down fortresses. Despotism and scandals beneath the commonly scratched surface have all met their end at the hands of circulated information and resulting revolutions, fierce or subtle. Communication, riding on the back of language, is the armour of information. Newspaper is the tool that makes this information public. The English language press locates its roots in the British Raj. Over the post-independence years, it has retained its national character. While successfully staving off becoming a relic, it has not yet trickled down fully either.

Indian press during the Raj was, on the whole, an aggregation of vernacular reads which did little to unite castes and national interests. The first English language newspaper in India was James Hickey’s Bengal Gazette which was launched in 1780. In less than half a century thereon, India saw many news publications setting shop in major cities. Some English newspapers of those days, established by Englishmen like Knight, broke with the press of the British Raj in criticizing the high-handedness of the bureaucracy in India, the disrespectful manner in which Indian culture was documented in school books, the tax system etc, and also spoke out against the biases in reporting on Indian uprisings. Many of today’s leading English national dailies came into circulation in the pre-independence era. They were mostly the brainchildren of reformist-minded young Indians who aimed at creating awareness about the exploitative nature of the Crown. Many freedom fighters and social reformers of the time had newspapers to their credit, each pushing for a cause and making a case. Simultaneous was the rise of regional language newspapers (vernacular press). These spoke to people in their mother-tongue and hence connected better with them.

Post Independence, both regional and English-language newspapers continued to expand in sphere and influence. English newspapers, their ownership now having passed into the hands of solely Indian shareholders, are mostly concentrated in big cities and major towns. This is because of the limited penetration of English into rural areas. Regional language press is more popular in these areas because of the publication and popularity of local news, sponsors who see opportunity in advertising their products to niche consumers and the promotion of regional press by the State Governments by injecting finance into it.

English language newspapers are mainly urban national dailies with countrywide circulation and multiple editions and have bigger financiers and sponsors. They are used as a medium of instruction in the English language by those keen to learn, though a lack of proofreaders has brought down their grammatical quality. Traditionally they followed Queen’s English, but with the growing acceptance of American English, a mixed style is observed today. With the emphasis laid on knowledge of English for success in the mainstream, simultaneous penetration of the English medium and English newspapers in the countryside can be a useful educational mix.

Better purchasing power in urban areas reduces the ratio of newspaper to person and hence helps in better visibility for advertisements. Many a frontpage is a full page ad. Unscrutinised advertisements for fronts for shady unlawful practices in the classified ads section has not left the English press untouched either. Just on the adjacent page, one can find news reports on exposed rackets operating out of the very places advertised. Because of the reach and credibility of this press, this can lead to a puzzled urban generation unable to make up its mind on whether to condone the “classified” practices or go along.

Better financed than their regional counterparts, English-language newspapers are more flamboyant with colours and writing and make a fashionable impact on the mind of the reader. Their tabloid journalism section presents gloss and glamour and are often as instrumental as advertisements in aggressively selling certain kinds of lifestyles.

The English-language press in India is largely owned by business houses. The activities of these entities are of national interest and it is the right of the common man to be informed about them. The Birlas, the Tatas, the Goenkas, the IPL franchisee Deccan Chargers and many others run national English dailies. Unbiased reporting and analysis without selective screening can be prohibitive to their self interests. Business interests depend on the legislation of the land which depends on bureaucrats and Parliamentarians. In case of a nexus between the three, or any two of them, reporting can go askew. Paid news and smear campaigns, even masked as advertisements, have gained notoriety in national dailies that claim superior reliability. While collaborations between Indian English newspapers and those from foreign shores, to bring out business and political news, help create a global culture with free flowing information, there is a strong chance of vested interests getting highlighted and others being ignored. A willful error of omission can lead to a huge sway in public opinion and market confidence. Whether companies go bullish or bearish can often depend on the way their prospects are projected in reporting. Competition between newspaper giants can keep such overarching biases in check as each newspaper house/business house is equally interested in exposing the excesses of their rivals. The emphasis is on being the first to break the news. In this hurry, sometimes even unconfirmed reports go to print, scandalising the news. In a bid to drive up circulation, newspapers force “school edition” subscriptions on school children through aggressive salesmanship tactics and a commission-based relationship with schools. It looks fair if we are to overlook the fact that urban school-goers can find newspapers on their living room tables as well.

Many English national newspaper giants have current affairs magazines of their own. Public confidence in these magazines in high. Being unaware of the ties between these newspapers and these highly opinionated weeklies or monthlies can lead to wrong mental conditioning if one is not in the habit of reading a variety of such publications and following it up with analysis.

While newspapers aim to condition minds in a certain way, they also, at times, ride on popular sentiment leading to contradictory stands. For example, Aman Ki Asha is a great cultural endeavour by The Times of India to foster peaceful Indo-Pak ties. The same newspaper went berserk with overenthusiastic “patriotism” during the recent cricket World Cup match-up between the two countries. Such writing can rustle up hostilities in a country where murders are committed over a lost match. English language newspapers have gained such a size, financially, that they have different, often unrelated, units for supplementary prints. The final edition is an assemblage from various units. It is no surprise that the tone of the main newspaper should be different from that of the supplements. They seem to cater to the needs of entirely different categories of readers.

Due to the presence of English language press athwart the country, it can be a favourable tool for evoking national pride and a sense of unity and togetherness. If they feature articles on how cross-country transfer of resources is absolutely necessary for an equitable distribution of wealth and income, a sense of symbiosis and mutual dependence can evolve. This might cut into the secessionist base in the country. As the patrons of this press are mostly drawn from the middle and upper classes of society which have practically no day-to-day interaction with the socio-economic backward classes, it can help highlight the plight and plough of the latter to the former. The irony is that the very finances that enable the English press to gather information worldwide and keep urbanites connected globally, come at the cost of strategy-based advertisements designed to make the reader feel inadequate without a life of excessive luxury.

Newspapers have come a long way from being sources of enlightenment to the sources of entitlement.

The writer is a Senior Editor of Youth Ki Awaaz and a student of Politics from University of Delhi