Hi everyone. I'm Tariq Thachil, I'm the Director of the Center Advanced Study of India (CASI), who is hosting this event. Thank you all for coming and I'm going to try and keep this quick. Our guest today, Barkha Dutt needs no introduction, but I will endeavor to give one anyway. She's one of India's best known broadcast journalists with over 20 years of experience in the field. Educated at St. Stephens College in Delhi and Columbia University in New York. Hold your boos. She has had a decorated career as a journalist, as the winner of over 40 national and international Awards. She's been recognized twice as global leader for tomorrow by the World Economic Forum and has been honored with the Padma Shri, India's fourth highest civilian honor and also nominated for an Emmy. She's been chosen as an Asia Society, Asia 21 Fellow, as well as Amita and Bikram Gandhi fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute.
And beyond her many accolades, and I could list many more, her career has been noteworthy, in particular for the number of roles she has played. She was first known for her ground reporting from across India and the world, including the Cargill conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999, to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, to most recently, and perhaps many of you are familiar with her coverage of the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic in India.
But in addition to this ground reporting, she also became a household name as the host of the weekly award-winning talk show We the People, as well as the daily primetime show, The Buck Stops Here on New Deli Television. During the latter, she exclusively interviewed a range of global personalities, including Sonya Gandhi, Imran Khan, Hillary Clinton, Salman Rushdie, and perhaps most importantly, given his birthday was yesterday, Shah Rukh Khan.
More recently, she's changed roles again as the founder editor of the digital platform Mojo's Story. She's also the author of two books, The Unquiet Land, Stories from India's Fault Lines, and just last year, of To Hell and Back, Humans of COVID, based again on her reporting of the pandemic that was ravaging India, claiming many victims including her father, Edda Dutt.
It is because of these many roles I think that she's played within the firmament and really at the heart of the firmament of Indian media that make her such an ideal person for us to have come visit and speak with us today about the topic of today's lecture, India's changing media landscape. Certainly a topic about which much can be said, and I can think of few people who are better positioned to give us a kind of insider worm's eye view of what those changes have been.
She will speak for roughly half an hour, followed by questions, and then we're actually going to have a reception outside, including a limited number of complimentary copies of her book, that I believe she'll be willing to sign for you at first come first serve after the event.
Before I invite her up, let me also just thank Michel Saluja for his generous support of this event. And most of all, let me thank the wonderful CASI staff for organizing this event as they do everything that we do. And finally, of course, thanks to Barkha, for serving as our inaugural Saluja Global Fellow. She's been very generous with her time this week that she spent on campus meeting with a number of students and faculty, many of whom I see here, even while recording her daily show and keeping abreast of news in India and beyond. Just this morning, she was tracking the assassination attempt on Imran Khan and had a show of it.
So to transition from that to giving a talk a few hours later, I couldn't do it. But I'm glad that you can, and I just hope that you have enjoyed your time at Penn, and in Philadelphia with us. We've certainly enjoyed having you. Before I invite her up, one final note. In the Q&A, and I'll repeat this at the end of her talk, please wait to be called on and we will hand you a mic just so that you're clear for the video recording that we're doing as well. Okay. Thank you so much. And Barkha welcome, the floor is yours.
Thank you. Are you all able to hear me right at the back? All right.
Tariq already introduced me, and I hope you'll get to know me a little better in the next 30 minutes. It's difficult to pack almost 25 years into 30 minutes or even 60, but I hope you'll have a sense of me and a sense of my country before you leave today. We're here to talk about India's changing media landscape. And everybody, people who are Indian, people who watch India from outside, people who don't know India very well, have an opinion about it. No one's opinion can be empirically said to be more accurate than the opinion of the others. So this is a very personal perspective that you're going to hear from me today. It is my journey, it is my observations, and perhaps if you hear another speaker from India, you might get a very, very different perspective.
That said, I'm sure a lot of you hear talks of how media freedom in India is diminishing. I'm sure that's what you've picked up as such. And in many ways I would agree that journalism is facing one of its most grave challenges in India today. But the reasons for this are manyfold, and the reasons for this may not be as simplistic as you might have been led to believe based on surfing the internet or what you read in the Western media.
Some of the reasons are external, some are financial, some are political, and dare I say, some are self-inflicted. That doesn't make me very popular always with my fraternity, but I do believe that we are at least partially responsible for the crossroads at which we stand today. But first, let's give you a broad overview. This is kind of what the media landscape looks like today. 144,000 registered newspapers and periodicals. My friends in the West get shocked at this number because the obituary of the newspaper has been written often. In India that has not happened. In fact, the newspaper and the printed word has continued to flourish. So this is of course, newspapers, magazines, all publications, but this was the last most recent registered number of publications in India.
News channels. This is an interesting figure. I call myself a child of television. What do I mean by that? I'm a first generation television journalist in India. Any guesses when private television started in India, private news television? Any guesses? Anybody? Like 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 50 years ago? Anybody? Come on, take a wild guess.
Okay. It started in 1995 to be precise, and you know how it started? Not with channels, but with 30 minutes of a privately produced news bulletin, one in English, one in Hindi. And I worked with NDTV, which was then a production house that used to make one of these privately produced bulletins on the government-owned broadcaster. Now, from 1995 to 2022, there are 392 news channels in India. However, the digital space, the one I helm today is fast sort of stampeding over both of these other mediums.
Close to 70% of Indians actually access their news through their smartphones. And given the cheap cost of data in India, there are more than 600 million, actually at last count, the number was closer to 700 million active internet users. So that's actually the market that we are talking about. However, a newspaper costs you less than a single cigarette. Right?
Now, the reason that this is really important is one of the reasons that journalism is diminishing, the freedom of journalism is diminishing, is the broken revenue model. And what happened in India was one of the biggest media groups in the country, the Bennett Coleman Group, the Times of India group, decided that you could sell newspapers like you sell toothpaste, and they basically did what's called predatory pricing. I'm sure some of you are students of economics, you know what predatory pricing is. That you price it so low, you force the competition to also price it roughly in that range, and then actually it's an unsustainable business for everybody else but the one with really the deep pockets. That's what it is simply. Right? So a single cigarette actually is more expensive than a newspaper.
Now, what impacts freedom of media? Good and bad, by the way. When I say impact, the impact is sometimes good, sometimes it's bad. But either way, these are the factors, and you'll hear more about them in this conversation, that leave a mark. There's a kind of jousting that goes on between the status quo of media and these factors. Politics, the larger political environment, technology. I'm going to speak a lot about this because for me, technology has set me free. And there's a lot that technology demolishes, but there's a lot that it enables as well. And it has a direct impact on how actually media changes, not just in India, but everywhere in the world.
Capital and money. That's why I brought up that slide of a cigarette costing more than a newspaper. And regulations. Not enough attention is paid to this, but sometimes just the regulatory environment of your country prevents you from actually creating a sustainable media entity. Then, we've been speaking so much about money. I've always said that people think politicians compromise media, the journalists are beholden to politicians. I actually think what compromises media is the inability for media to pay for itself and the refusal by the consumers of media, all of you, to pay for the news.
And therefore, this government spent nearly a billion dollars ad spend, advertising, across platforms of newspaper, print, and television in just the last three years. If you took out this $1 billion that the government was spending on the media, you would have, I would say, many media organizations just shut down. In particular, newspapers in India are almost entirely sort of dependent in terms of sustainability on government advertising.
Now, you don't need me to tell you that if the government is one of your main advertisers, and if the government decides to then pull the plug on that advertising, the government has a direct control. Any government, not just this government in power, which is the BGP government, but prior governments too. Newspapers have historically in particular been independent on government advertising.
Three tyrannies. I have observed the Indian media, as I have known it, go through three tyrannies. The tyranny of the state, when government owned media. As I said, I come from a background of broadcasting, and I have seen those years, even when we were producing the privately produced half an hour bulletin, every story that we actually did had to be vetted by a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. So I'm old enough to remember that time, so the tyranny of the state.
Then you take away the government and you open this up to the advertisers, and guess what happens? You're suddenly in a ratings war and you're battling the tyranny of the market, and you'll want to do something and you'll have somebody tell you, who will watch that? And if it's not populist, it doesn't get the eyeballs, it doesn't get the advertiser. And if it doesn't get the advertiser, you're back to square one. So tyranny of the market.
And if you think that the internet sets us free, well think again. Now you're back to the tyranny of the algorithm. I'm in the digital space and I know that a battle every day is, "Oh my God, nobody's going to click on this." Literally every morning, even the week I've been here, I get up at six in the morning to do my show and my producers back home, they create the thumbnail and they write the caption, and literally every day I'm having this battle with them saying, "That image is so boring, nobody's going to click on it." Or "That caption, come on. That's vanilla. Write it in a more interesting way." How do we lure you, the reader, the viewer, the audience, to click on something? This is sort of taking up more of my time than actually focusing on the content. So the tyranny of the algorithm.
So when we think of media freedom, it is a really complex thing. And we have these sort of set piece templated responses, or under this government, the media is freer. No politician wants the media to be free. But we understand when I say we, I mean people in general, understand media freedom only through the prism of politics. But you have to apply all of these other lenses to truly understand what makes the media free, freer, or not free.
And then finally, we live in an age of ... that should actually say partisanship, and I don't know why it says partnership, but it should say partisanship, and partisanship and polarization, right? This happens here. If you switch on MSNBC, you know what you're going to expect, right? If you switch on Fox, you know what you're going to expect. And some of you might have contempt for those who don't confirm your existing political bias.
So if CNN is called centrist, it's used as an abuse, or a bad word, or somehow lacking spine. So journalists are being pulled by the tribalism of their audiences in one or the other camp, there are those, I'm one of them, who ferociously refuse to surrender my interrogatory free mind to any dogma. Maybe I want to build my own dogma, but it's my dogma. I don't want camps.
And in India, I'll use a Hindi phrase, and some of you have heard me using this before. There is a [Hindi 00:13:37] syndrome. [Hindi 00:13:38] means sycophant. [Hindi 00:13:39] means activist. What is happening to journalism in India is that you have either polemicists and activists who have a political position and all of their journalism is through that lens, or you have complete supplicants of the altar of power, or the altar of government. And most of our TV channels stand there today. For instance, for any of you who still watch TV.
Okay, now that's the overview. That's the overview. And here's the question. Is there reason to hope? And here's where I'll talk a little bit about myself. As I said, I left television after 20, 21, no, almost 22 years, and I moved into digital because I wanted to be my own boss, because I was disillusioned with television because I'd even forgotten what I loved about being a journalist and I had to find my mojo again.
And so I launched The Mojo Story, which mojo quite literally means finding the magic of something again. And we had two defining characteristics, we said we were going to be people first and video first. This was highly unusual in the Indian context when everybody first launches a text website and then adds on video. And we were like, "No, people watch the news more than they read it." And a recent survey by the Reuters Institute bears out my instinct, which says that the two most common methods or mechanisms, for Indians at least, to access media are YouTube and WhatsApp.
Now this, as I launched Mojo Story is what happened in India. The pandemic. And the pandemic literally, I launched it at the end of 2019, and three months later, I was confronted with the pandemic. And while we are not here today to talk about the pandemic, I'm going to actually show you some images from my journey across India covering the pandemic, to tell you what it made me understand about journalism, freedom, myself, and the audience.
In India, we had an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the first wave because we had a lockdown, so did the rest of the world. We had a lockdown, which did one thing different from everybody else. We shut down public transport. We shut down public transport, which means that there were no buses, trains, airports, nothing. And it was like a curfew situation. Instead of being a kind of people-led initiative to stay indoors, it became a policed curfew.
The police was simultaneously, as with many other paradoxes of India, a first responder vulnerable to the virus, but also a weaponized instrument of the state against its poorest people. And we saw hundreds of thousands, and by the end of it, millions of people walk home on foot. These were all daily wage workers whose homes were in the village, but who worked in the city, as I said, on daily wages, did not have permanent homes, did not even have rented homes.
Basically, for example, they were construction workers or hired help in farms, and they would just live in these makeshift arrangements that their current employer, contract sort of employer would give them. And when economic activity came to a halt, they lost their source of income, but they also, like you and me, wanted to be with those they loved, right? One of the many irony is that the government, and I think, valiantly ran special flights. Air India ran special flights across the world. It was called the [inaudible 00:17:14] Program to bring back people who were in universities like you, to your families.
But these people at the very bottom of our economic totem pole, they walked. They didn't walk two miles or 10, they walked hundreds of kilometers, sometimes more. So think hundreds of miles, effectively. And they often walked without food. They walked without water. They sometimes walked with a packet of biscuit. Their entire universe literally assembled into one little sack that they carried on their head. Young girls, sometimes they walked without shoes. They walked in the scorching heat, and they walked with infants on their shoulder. And this went on for 60 days without, for the most part, television reporting the story.
Television decided to cover COVID, and of course, there were honorable exceptions in one or two towns and one or two cities, I'm making a large general point, television decided to run this story from the studio, and it was left to a handful of independent digital platforms, people like myself, regional reporters and vernacular language press, to actually be out there in the small towns, on the highways, where there was nobody else to tell the story of these people.
As you can see, many of them walked barefoot and their blistered feet didn't make it to our headlines. There were instances when workers were locked inside factories. This is one such factory that I found where actually the owner of the factory thought that he was being kind because he was locking his workers in and preventing them from walking home. Those are the locks. And there was actually a board outside that had the timings, literally like chattel, the timings at which these workers could be allowed out for a bathroom break or a cup of tea.
And as I said, what would happen is that these workers would walk, sometimes they'd reach the border of the city and the police would then beat them up and send them back and say, "Why are you walking?" Because no policy had been deployed to get them home, and somehow force was being used to keep them back. And some of them would bribe, some of them would plead, and somehow they would get through.
And I would just meet family after family, and although they were supposed to be social distancing, and we are taught in journalism school about objectivity, both my social distancing and my objectivity collapsed at this point. It became the overwhelming obsession of my life to actually follow these workers. And they would come and hold onto me and weep in my arms. And this was not that classic distance, emotional distance that we had been trained in, on distance between what you're reporting on and the story you're telling, it was simply impossible. And what I found as I started reporting this story was almost like being a kind of lone voice in the wilderness, but to my rescue was technology.
Now, I had regular broadcast cameras. I also have a second master's degree in film and TV production, so I understand production. But we were shooting for the most part on professionally configured phones because they were less intrusive. People found it easier to open up to them. Their camera resolution was actually better than most of the old sort of TV cameras, and somehow they were just quicker. They were quicker to move with, they were quicker to follow a worker on the highway with. And as we started telling these stories, it took a while. It took me days and days of telling the same story before I could get my audience interested, because remember, class. My class of audience was English speaking, middle class, upper middle class, wealthy elite, who were also terrified of COVID. So why were they going to care about these workers? And so, it called on me to find the most imaginative ways of storytelling to actually bring these stories home.
And at this point, I want to make a point about the media. One of the things that's commonly said about the media is that we don't do certain kinds of stories. We don't give voice to the marginalized. We don't give voice to the oppressed, and media will turn around and tell you, when we do, you guys don't watch it. You guys don't read it. So how are we supposed to do it? I have to say, this is a cop out. Because you have to know how to tell a good story. There is no excuse for being done. There is no excuse. If I stood up here today, and I really hope you're not finding me dull, so I shall push my luck with this one. But if I stood up here today and instead of showing you these pictures started showing you, with no offense to those who do use these instruments in their classrooms, if I just started showing you a bunch of graphs ...
I just realized I'm saying this in a university, I'm going to get thrown out. But my point is, I'm a journalist. I have to tell you my truth. I have to tell you my experience. It has to be personal. It has to be compelling. It has to pull you in. It has to make you want to know more. It is the same with journalism. Too many people sit in their chairs in their studios, they lecture to people, they preach to people, they moralize, they give numbers. Nobody cares.
I can tell you today that an estimated 100 million migrant workers were impacted by COVID, and the story was invisibilized by big media. And your eyes will glaze over. But then I'll tell you the story of this woman you see on your screen, whose name is Punam. She's holding the photograph of her husband, Mokesh. Mokesh, like so many poor workers in India sold the only asset he had, his phone. His phone sold for 2000 rupees.
With those 2000 rupees, there was no food, because he used to be a house painter and there was no work. And so he decided to, with those 2000 rupees, to buy some wheat and grain and lentils and bring them home to his wife, Punam, and his three children. Punam was relieved. Punam thought, "This week at least we'll get through, we won't starve." And the next morning ... oh, he also got a table fan because it was very hot, for 500 rupees of those 2000 rupees.
But the next morning, Mokesh was too anxious about how this was going to sustain, the next week. He went to his wife, Punam, he borrowed, he said, "Oh, can I borrow," what in Hindi we call [Hindi 00:23:33], "... scarf?" He took it, he tied it to a bamboo pool of their one room tenement, and took his own life. Now, this story on my platform has, I don't remember the last count, but more than a million ... I think a million and a half people have seen this story. But if I were to tell the same story by saying 100 million migrant workers were impacted by the lockdown, I think I would not even get 1000 views.
So it's not that I don't have the data in these stories, but you've got to go micro before you pull out and you reveal just how many people you're talking about. So as we kept walking and you could see these workers walking through the night, I was just struck by the growing gap between the media and people. And this is why ... we can get in the Q&A to what's happening with the politics, and the revenue, and the regulatory environment. But what about us as journalists who have moved so far from the issues that people care about? And it's not just poor people.
Schools in India, we had among the longest physical school lockdowns in the world. Our children have lost cognitive and social skills. This barely made it to the news. So you have to ask yourself, whose interests is the news serving? I had to ask myself that very tough question. And in my book, there's a kind of mea culpa moment because a lot of people said, "Okay ..." I'd been a war correspondent. I had been a political journalist, I'd been a primetime presenter. And then people saw me doing this for two years. And people said, "Oh, is this Barkha 2.0?" And I said, "No, this is Barkha 1.0 who lost her way through what media has come to be." How could we look away from images like this of workers packed, literally like, I don't know what to say, sardines into the ... finally, some of them tried to take a ride in trucks which were carrying essential supplies. That was the only mode of transport that was allowed.
And that's me trying to ... I didn't know what was going to happen, so I jumped onto the truck, and that's what I found. And there was such dignity in the people who were going through this trauma that it shamed me, and it underscored how far we had moved away from what really matters. This image, you may wonder, what does this image have to do with India's changing media landscape? It occurred to me at some point to ask these workers, "When you go, you're packing a bag and you're going home, you don't know if you're going to be alive or dead by the time you reach, you don't know if you're going to reach. What do you carry?"
In Partition, this question had been asked of people that if you're moving and you don't know if you'll come back, what do you carry with you? So it occurred to me that they're only carrying one little sack on their head, one little bucket. What do they carry? And I was so ... I don't know what the word is. I was almost shamed by their answer. They said they carried their workman's tools. In Hindi, it's called [Hindi 00:26:37], that even as they were walking home, they carried their tools so that if they were able to get work, they wanted to work. But there was no work. And you think again and again that these were the stories, the media, the big media, the big channels, the channels with hundreds of people in their newsrooms were overlooking and certainly not telling by putting boots on the ground.
This young child, I said to him, playfully, "What do you think coronavirus means? Do you know what it is?" And he said, "Yes, of course I know." And I said, "Tell me." And he said, "Coronavirus means I don't get food to eat." And it was at this point that I started thinking that something was very broken in the relationship between the journalist and the citizen. And I couldn't understand it, and I've been anguished by it ever since. And I've been trying to make sense of content and my own role in a different way than ever before.
This lady, for example, was a 70 year old lady who'd been thrown out by her children, out of her home. I found her sitting at a railway station. Again, she held onto me, and started sobbing, and said, "Get me home. But I don't have a home." And I didn't know what to do. What was my job at this point? Was my job to tell this story? Was my job to find her an old age home? Was my job ...
I finally found the answer. I think my job remains not to raise the charity, not to arrange the train, though in some cases I did surrender to that impulse and I did all of it. But actually, my job is to tell a story so compelling that you can't look away, especially when you really want to look away. That is the job of a journalist. I think it took me 25 years and two years of COVID to answer, "Who is a journalist?"
And a journalist is one who makes you not look away through work, not through polemics, not through partisanship, not through presenting my political position or preference for this party over that party, but to have work that speaks, and speaks so powerfully that you cannot look away. You cannot look away from the story of this 15 year old who placed her father, who just had an operation at the back of her cycle and then cycled 1200 kilometers back to her home.
This had a happy ending for once. That's Jothi back with her family. This man, beaten by the police. I mean, they say truth is more dramatic than fiction. And that is the privilege a journalist has to chronicle the truth, to chronicle the first draft of history. I mean, if I were a fiction writer, I could not have written this image. This man was a rickshaw driver. His name is Manoj, and he had no money. So he set out to walk to the wholesale market to try and buy vegetables for his family because he thought he may get them for cheap, but he was in violation of the curfew. The police beat him up. They then deposited him outside a hospital that was only for COVID patients. He couldn't get inside. And there I found him leaning against the police barricade.
I mean, it was just ... they beat him, they dropped him and he was leaning against the police barricade. And then there was this. These were workers who ... remember, trains eventually came. And I'm proud to say that in part, some of the work that we did made its way, not by us, we were not the activists, but people who are activists, people who are lawyers, picked up our work and took it to India's Supreme Court, that finally deployed trains to take these workers home. And all it took was three days.
That's what we needed to do in the beginning and we didn't do. But this ... before the trains came, there was only freight trains, goods trains, carrying again, essential supplies. And these were workers who, like everybody else, were walking home and they got really tired and they said, "Let's sleep for a bit." So they spent the night on these tracks and a goods train, while they were asleep, ran over them.
Yeah? All that remained of them was, as I said, yesterday's lunch, dinner. I don't know what it is. One roti. That is what remained of them. I want to say that nobody went to their village. They just remained a number. And on the hundredth day of my journey on the road, I just felt like I had to go to this village. It was amongst ... I've seen a lot of tough situations, but to get to this village, they were tribals from a really remote village that had no road connection. It was really difficult. It took me 18 hours by road and several hours on foot to get to their village where these were the women, the men had all died on those rail tracks as they lay sleeping. These were the sort of aging families of these workers. And you have to ask yourself, where was the media?
Where was the media? Because it was, the media had just not made the effort to be there. And in most newsrooms, the answer would be, and it takes us back to the slide that I showed in the beginning, there isn't budget for that kind of travel. Now, I have a whole bunch of slides here. I'm going to race through them to take you through the second wave. And my twists as a journalist, including becoming the news briefly when I lost my father to COVID.
But the second wave saw images like this, a pregnant woman, not pregnant, a new mother rather, having just delivered this baby testing COVID positive, sitting at the back of an auto-rickshaw, not being able to get a hospital bed. Oxygen running short, and the [inaudible 00:32:11] of our cities, opening up their doors for what I call oxygen [inaudible 00:32:15]. A [inaudible 00:32:15] normally has a [inaudible 00:32:16] that gives free food and halvah, and sweet meats to the poor.
Now, our [inaudible 00:32:21] started having oxygen drive-thrus, like a McDonald's, like a drive pass. It was literally like that, where the rich and the poor who couldn't get oxygen anywhere else would come take a few gasps of breath. There were just like these big cylinders on the road. There were people sleeping on cardboard strips in the hospital waiting their turn. These was images from cremation grounds and graveyards.
This was the despair of a poor man in one of the government run hospitals in Delhi. And these were then, because this takes us to a very important media debate in India, these were then the mass sort of cremations and burials that started taking place. Journalists who covered the story, and by now the second wave, the media was somewhat better, but not enough journalists were doggedly following the trail of this. Journalists who started covering the story, including myself, were dubbed anti-national, and we were told, "How can you contradict the ..." So there was a huge gap between the official number and the actual number of dead.
And there were many ways, we could talk about it a little bit in the QA. There were many ways in which the under counting was happening. And I'm not saying this was a deliberate plan, but this is how it happened. Systemic invisibilization, people dying at home without test, people dying at home without access to RTPCR tests. In India, if you didn't have an RTPCR, you weren't counted as a COVID death. And it became this enormous media debate, and we were just ...
I mean, those of us who were on the trail of the story were abused, threatened, basically called traitors to our country. But on we persisted. We went to cremation grounds. We saw there wasn't space. This happened to my own father. The day he died I had to call the police to get ... I had to pull a favor. I had to pull a favor. I couldn't get an ambulance to take my father to hospital.
One of the reasons that he died was because the makeshift kind of rundown van that we took him in, the cylinder in it didn't work. And I am haunted by my choice that maybe I should have waited for a proper ambulance. I was in the front seat with him. It was just a hard wooden bench, a cylinder on the floor, him lying on the back of that bench. And as we were going through traffic snarls to try and reach the hospital, by the time we reached the hospital, the cylinder hadn't worked.
And five days later, he was dead and there was no space at the cremation ground to cremate him. And I saw this again and again and again and again. There were bodies just lying scattered. This is a drone image of the banks of the Ganga River, which is one of the main rivers in India. And I decided to follow the trail of the river to try and actually see what was happening.
And what I found was that people were either out of stigma, fear of poverty, just leaving bodies, throwing them into the river or leaving them by the river bank with the [Hindi 00:35:15], as it's called, a sacred cloth in Hindu belief, on the body, and then just walking away. It was all happening. And these bodies were never countered. And they were just shallow mass graves by the banks of the Ganga. This is all the orange little thing that you see that seemed like a Jackson painting of flowers, is actually bodies.
And it was tough. You couldn't get to places sometimes other than on foot, on motorcycle, and also by boat. Why have I shown you this? What does it have to do with the media landscape? My answer is this. We can complain all we want about the politics, we can complain all we want about the broken revenue model. We can complain all we want about the regulatory environment, and all of these are legitimate concerns, and we can talk about them in our question and answer. But how have we dealt with our readers and our viewers? Have we reflected issues that matter to people? Have we been true to our job? Have we got lost in polarities and partisanship and ideological drama instead of actually focusing on placing boots on the ground?
And my argument is that the only thing that can save journalism from itself, the only thing that has in some ways given my life renewed meaning, is to go back to the basics. Technology enables it. There's new technology, there are new ways of telling stories, but we need to tell the stories of people. I have found that though received with great hostility sometimes, I have received my share of death threats and rape threats, and I've had police briefly, till I actually had to say, as a journalist, I just cannot have police escorts. I have to take the risk of whatever has to come my way. I have found that even the people who hate you can't ignore you if you are on the ground telling the story of the people.
Most recently, we were committed, ferociously committed to shining a light on why 11 men who had been convicted for rape and murder of a young woman called Biki Baro in Gujarat had been released from jail. And we could have done two things. We could have sat in our studio and said, "Oh, this is terrible." Of course it's terrible. But there were so many things to be told in that story. You had to go and find who were the people on that panel who actually said, "These are good men." One of them gave an interview to us where he called these men Brahmins, men of good values. He questioned their guilt.
We knocked on every convict's door. We found that they had gone underground after their release. We found that they had walked out to garlands and suites, and then gone missing. We literally had to do the hard work of going back to the field and being reporters. And I guess I'm going to stop by simply saying that India's media is in an unprecedented churn, faces unprecedented challenges, faces a very broken revenue model, and faces above all, a colossal gap between things it thinks is important and the things its readers and viewers think is important, which is why the Reuters Institute now talks about a new genre of consumers called news avoiders. People who never want to look at the news.
And I think that we can raise our voice against governments, and we can talk about big business and the compromises it brings into newsrooms. And we can talk about, "Hey, why aren't you guys willing to pay at least the cost of a Starbucks for news?" But if we don't turn the lens on ourselves and ask ourselves how we became navel-gazing inhabitants of an echo chamber where we only talk to each other and almost do journalism for each other, we cannot survive the high tide of this changing media landscape. I could go on, but I'm going to pause here. I'd love to hear questions, comments, nothing's off limits. Ask me anything. Doesn't have to be connected to what you've heard. I'm saving some of my comments for the Q&A. So thank you for showing up, for listening, and looking forward to your questions.
Raise your hand and just please wait for the mic to come to you after that.
Firstly, thank you so much for the work that you have done years over years and decades. I truly appreciate it.
You dwelled slightly about my question in your slides, just want to point back to it. I appreciate that the activists were able to take up the suggestions, arrange for trains, and send back the migrant workers. I just want to dwell slightly more into how media and journalists can work together with the government, provide some critical feedback rather than working antagonistically. And I know that most of our criticism is positive. We do it because we love our country, we love our society. And how these policy-makers can be made sure that they don't turn away from the truth. You spoke a little bit about it, I would love to hear more.
I think that's a great question, and it speaks to my original point about being caught in these political debates. "Are you left-wing or right-wing? Are you pro-BJP or pro-Congress? Do you like Kejriwal or do you like Mamta?" You know what? I don't care. That's between me and my vote. It should have nothing to do with the work I do. And I believe that my work, if it can enable a police officer to come out, as it did with 70-year-old Leelawati, to say, "You know what? I saw that story. I'm going to give her a waiting room in the railway station to spend the night." And then the railway ministry steps in and says, "I'm going to give her a ticket home." And then a politician actually adopted her. I didn't tell that full story, but a politician actually took her home, took her in.
So I believe that I must hold power to account, but I have no problem. And I would encourage more people that while we want our work to be the vehicle of change, if that leads to, let's say, a political party that you don't like stepping into doing what they should be doing, why would you turn away from it? You want that change to happen. Let that change happen. And I'm a big advocate of that.
I'll tell you, when I was driving and following these workers, I would sometimes get these comments saying, "So what did you do? Why did you not make them sit at the back of your car?" First, I had to explain that "I was in a car where we were four people, and at the back..." This was the first wave. We had to wear PPE kits when we went into hospitals and slums. We didn't even know it was airborne. We didn't have masks. We had gloves. We knew nothing. But that's not the structural answer, and that is not my answer to give. I did attach a bank account of every single person that I met who was able to give me a bank account, encouraging viewers and readers to donate, if they wanted to.
I did respond to any government official or any politician who called me, irrespective of party, but it was not my job, callous as it sounds, to think of a way to get the workers home. It was my job to tell the story. So somebody whose job it is to get them home would get them home. And I think we confuse our roles. I think we think that we are kind of politicians or activists. We must let our work bring the change, and we must hammer home everything we need to in the work. But we must, I agree with you, welcome the change when it comes, or if it comes, if there's an intervention. Often there's not, tragically.
That was really wonderful. I was kind of curious about the broader analysis about media and the fact that there's kind of self-inflicted harm, there's the business model, there're all of these kind of pressures on media. But I was very interested to hear you talk a little bit more about your life as a female journalist. One of the things that you mentioned, in fact, which is not uncommon in the US, not uncommon among journalists or among politicians, that you were threatened with sexual assault. It's the defacto threat against women of power everywhere. And I want to hear a little bit more about how you responded, what you think the genesis of that is, and what you think the solution is.
Thank you for asking me that. Just for a little bit of background, my mother was a journalist. She died when I was 13 years old. But the reason this is relevant is, I grew up hearing how when she went to apply for a job, and there was no television and digital, there were only newspapers then, she walks into the Hindustan Times and she asks for a job, and the editor actually tells her that "We have no openings for women, except to cover the local flasher." She takes the job. She fights her way through it. She goes on to become the head of a bureau.
And then war breaks out between India and Pakistan in 1965. And she goes back to the same editor and she says, "I would like to cover this war." And the editor says to her, "I will never send a woman to the warfront." She says, "Well, if you're not going to let me cover the biggest story that there is in this country, can you give me a few days off? I don't feel like being in office." He said, "Okay, take a few days off." She took her notepad and pen, went to the warfront alone. She had a cousin in the military, and started sending dispatchers that the paper was then compelled to publish. She was, in effect, India's first woman war correspondent.
I tell you this story because three decades later, in 1999, I come back from Columbia to India. I have spurned all the job offers I've got from TV stations here because I'm so sure I want to work in my country, and war breaks out between India and Pakistan. And I say, "Please send me to the warfront," and everybody says, three decades later, "You can't go because you're a woman."
Now, I have lived this in my house through my mother. Obviously, I was not born when she went to the warfront, but I have been molded by this story. And so I plead, cajole force convince, the military and my organization to send me, and I eventually reach there. This is background to tell you that in some ways, life has been a battle, and it is exhausting. It is exhausting to be a woman. It is exhausting in particular to be a young 20-something woman who doesn't want to be a woman journalist, but wants to be a journalist. It takes getting to your middle age, as I am now, to say, "Yes, I'm a journalist and I'm a woman. And I've had to work 5 times harder than the men to get to this point, and I've been 10 times more scrutinized because I've got to this point." I own my gender today. It took me a long time before I could do that. The resentment for successful, ambitious, opinionated, independent woman is inexpressibly deep.
And when women are criticized, it is always sexualized. It is for how we look, how we dress, what we weigh, what the color of our skin is, and eventually about our so-called morality, which is why one of the words of abuse that is used by trolls online is called presstitute. It is a riff from the word prostitute. It's a different political argument that why are sex workers seen as a... why is the word seen as an abuse, but clearly the users, in this case, mean it as a slur about your morality. And therefore, the threat is always sexualized.
I know people have different views about Hillary Clinton, but I just remember an interview I did with her once and she said to me, I think quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, she said, "If you are going to be a woman with a mind, you have to grow a skin as thick as the hide of a rhinoceros." How do I deal with it? I think it's taken me a long time to grow that thick skin, while making sure that the outer skin is thick but the heart is molten, because you don't have a molten heart, I don't believe you can tell stories. I think if the softness inside me goes, I can't tell stories. And I have to be able to tell stories of people that I meet.
And it's exhausting. 15 years ago, I would argue with my trolls and I would tell them, "You're lying," because they would be just bizarre things that they would say, like, bizarre, things that had never happened. And I would say, "But this didn't happen," and I was innocent enough to believe that they were looking for an argument. Sexism, misogyny, judgment, oh my god, so much judgment. And then if you're a woman who doesn't tick the boxes of how they imagine, I didn't marry, I didn't have children, that doubles, triples the scrutiny.
So this is a lifelong battle and I never gloss over it with young women. I say, "Be ready, pull your boots up. This is going to be a lifelong battle. You're going to have some shitty days, but you just have to keep going. You have to keep showing up and you have to keep going."
Hi. Thank you so much. My question was related to the fact that you mentioned YouTube and WhatsApp are the top two platforms that people use, owned by Google and Facebook, Big Tech, that have also made great investments in Jio networks for the telecommunication in India. And you talked about how technology enables journalism, but you also talked about how they can be like market parasites as they run advertisements for corporations. So I was wondering what your view was on Big Tech circling India as a new market for the media, and how they can help or hurt media and India.
It's a great question. And like always, my answer is going to be, it's a bit of both. Let me tell you about myself. We won a major YouTube, Google grant to actually do what we do. And we just did our work, the work we believe in, and we won the grant. That said, we're a monetized channel. And the... I mean, the sort of pathetically small share of advertising that YouTube actually shares with us is appalling. They just algorithmically basically place... That's why I said, "The tyranny of the algorithm." They algorithmically place an ad on content on Mojo Story, and I get a percentage... I mean, the platform gets a percentage of that revenue. Now, they are enablers, but they are also... it's a predatory market. If there was Times of India in the newspaper age, there is Big Tech in the digital age.
Now, my point is, we can't sit and wring our hands and feel sorry for ourselves. It has to be a constant negotiation. You have to constantly push back. You have to constantly say... and I think they started to respond to that pressure a little bit, not to the extent that they should, but you have to constantly say, "Look, your platforms are powered by the content that we do, and you are basically not paying us. It's just there for free." And that is why you today have an increasing paywalling of content because I think journalists started understanding that before the paywall, you guys might think that you have the right to everything for free. But guess what's actually happening? What's actually happening is that Big Tech companies are getting their content for free, not you. You're also getting it, but actually, it's them. You wouldn't be on the internet if it didn't have lots of content. Where's that content coming from? It's coming from all of us, and we are not being paid for it. It's like that. We are not being paid for all the hard work that some of us do.
And therefore, I believe we can't live... I mean, the other day, someone asked me, "Are you on TikTok," I said, "Mercifully, it's banned in India." But there was a time I used to talk about Instagram like this, and I was like, "I don't know why I am like..." I am like...
I was on a show yesterday on Elon Musk wanting to charge... I mean, "I was on a show" means I was doing the show on Elon Musk wanting to charge $8 for the blue tick. And one young guy, who was a guest on my show, said, "Hey, you know what? You people, your generation takes itself too seriously. Nobody cares about Twitter." It was a really important point because young people are not on Twitter, and people of my generation are all obsessed with this, "What is going to happen to Twitter, the marketplace of ideas, politics," duh, duh, duh, and I'm like, "Where are you?" Said, "Instagram and TikTok." And I am mortified because I am told that the most popular trend on TikTok right now is Americans, god bless all of you, trying Indian food for the first time, with one samosa, one green chutney, one butter chicken, and one naan. And apparently, this is content.
Now, let's not be snooty about it. I am actually going to make a counterintuitive point, and I'm going to say, it's very easy to sit in your ivory towers and think you're too good for this. That's just bullshit. I said it in the beginning, there's no excuse for poor storytelling. So maybe you don't want to get onto TikTok and do the banal trying Indian food for the first time, but find a way to communicate. It'll push us to tell our stories better, to tell our stories differently, to not get locked into a format.
I learned this. I learned in my midlife how to do an Instagram Reel, and I will go on TikTok when it comes to India or when the ban is lifted. So, I guess what I'm saying is, it's both. We can't ignore it. We have to push back. We have to negotiate. Look, everything in life is a negotiation for space and autonomy. Everything. Every relationship, personal, professional, teacher-student, the marketplace, negotiate, and learn, and unlearn. You've got to unlearn.
Some of us really are so templated that we think it's somehow beneath us, "Oh, you're on TikTok?" I used to be like that. I used to be like that. And I have become different because I have seen the power of that engagement. Now it's on me to find a way to tell the story of Mukesh Mandal who sold his phone and then took his own life on TikTok. Why can't I? It's just that I have to tell it differently from the way I told it on TV, or different... I'll tell you, Ashwin's here, I was telling him this that I was at a conference in Singapore and there was a journalist I met, and I forget what country she's from, and she said, "Young people don't watch anything. We don't know what to do. They only like memes. So we built an entire product." Their entire journalism is through memes.
Maybe the world of academia thinks that they're banal. But you know what? Probably more people are engaging with them. So I don't think we should think we're too good for anything. That's my life lesson.
Hi. Talking about Twitter, I'm sure a lot of thought has gone into this. Don't you think it's the best opinion poll platform?
I do, but just because I think it, it doesn't mean that a 20-year-old thinks that. That's the point. Either I can say, I'm just not going to bother to about a 20-year-old, but I don't want to do that. This is exactly what I'm talking about, that for me, I get up and I go to Twitter. I don't read a paper, I don't watch a channel. I scroll through Twitter, and what seems interesting to me, I click on that link and I go to that platform, and which is why I actually think that websites are passe. I'm making a controversial point. We have a website, but I think websites are passe. I think nobody... I don't know. Maybe Economist, New York Times, Washington Post, where I write a column, maybe. But I think mostly, tell me if I'm wrong, how do you all access content? Don't you just do it via social media or shared links? Do you really go... Is there anything you look at religiously? Anything? Yeah?
New York Times.
That's what I said. I prefaced it by saying the three exceptions I can think to this is The Economist, maybe the FT. I'm making this up from my experience, the FT, The Economist, The Times, the Post, The Atlantic. I think it kind of ends there, globally. And I don't know that we go to any other URL or we watch any other television show by appointment in the way that we once did. So, of course, sir, I am with you. I think Twitter is a great place. I have found new writers, new voices, new commentators just by going through Twitter. But I'm cognizant of the fact that I'm old. I look for a certain kind of content, and a section of my audience is not on Twitter. And I do not want to. I can, but I do not want to ignore that audience.
First of all, thank you so much for coming. I'm actually quite curious of what you just talked about. So many different platforms coming up, there's a diversification. I think with this diversification comes a big risk of drowning out just important voices. So for example, you were talking so much about a journey. I was sitting at home in Bombay and the biggest thing on TV channels was the son of a Bollywood... Shah Rukh Khan, his birthday yesterday, him being involved in a drug bust, and this went on for 40 days. And my family just talking about this and not talking about what you are talking about right here. So I'm just curious about what your reaction is seeing that people's attention is not on stories like this, on stories like that. What's the motivating factor you think behind TV channels doing something like that?
That everyone in your family was watching it is the motivating factor? No. No, no. Look, seriously, my thumb rule for this is, you do some content because it's popular. You do some content because you believe in it. And most platforms across the world have a combination of this. And it, again, goes back to why should I be snooty about the film industry?
I think Shah Rukh Khan is and should be the subject of multiple Ph.D.s... I can see all the women saying, "Oh yeah." ...because honestly, there's so much in that story. That boy has now been acquitted. Why there is a culture war taking place in India? Why is the film industry, the Hindi film industry, the target of the right-wing? Why is there suddenly such derision for the film industry? Why are films, which were our biggest exports to the world, bombing at the box office? Why are movie stars not able to be openly ideological in the way that they are here? I'm just saying that there are soap opera stories, but I actually don't think that this is one, which is not to say that I wouldn't do any soap opera stories. I think I would say...
I mean, there were so many times people told me, "Stop doing COVID, nobody's interested," or "People don't want to hear this." And I said, "No, I'll do it because I believe in it." When I did the Bilkis Bano story, people were like, "Nobody cares about this." I was like, "I care about it." But I also have to have a sense of my market, of my audience. And if, for example, maybe you'll watch a show that I do on Shah Rukh Khan and that'll bring you to Mojo Story, and maybe then you'll scroll through Mojo Story, you'll watch my COVID work.
So, we've got to stop being so hierarchical about... as long as we report with the same rigor. I think that's very important. I think, basically, I showed you my journey because I think the rigor of reporting has gone from too many news rooms and practitioners, and it's all about this side, that side, this wing, that wing, this party, that party. And you're right, it is a challenge, and it takes us back to, how do you tell the story? I think of this, like, it keeps me up at night, "How do I tell a story that fits in one minute?"
On YouTube, the average length that somebody watches content is a minute and a half. Those who work in print will tell you, most people never make it past the first graph, right? We are in the age of TL;DR, too long; didn't read. Now we have to be crafty. Being crafty is not a bad thing. Be smart. I'll give you an example. I do a virtual property now, it used to be offline, called We the Women, where, all day long, I bring in a mashup of women from different walks of life, and I brazenly say, it has glamour, gravitas, and grassroots. And I think for me, the question is, if I can use the glamour to make you watch a story about Khabar Lahariya, which is a woman-owned newspaper in India, if you come in for Alia Bhatt, but you stay for that story, I'm okay with it.
Thank you so much for speaking today. I was just curious to follow up on your points about when you were talking about the mass burial and cremation grounds, the few journalists that were speaking were being dubbed as anti-nationalists. I feel like that's something that's become very common in media, especially in South Asia. So for you, as a journalist, going into issues like that, how does that response from people like those, being told that you're anti-nationalists, kind of change your strategy towards journalism and media?
I mean, I have to say, of all the cuts, that's the deepest one because I really do love my country. I suppose, I don't know what the correct academic nomenclature for it is, but I believe in being Indian. I grew up in New York, I have a lot of global exposure, but I am aggressively, proudly Indian. And so for me to be called anti-national is the deepest, deepest cut. And when I was younger, it used to really traumatize me. It used to actually traumatize me more than anything else.
And then I just realized that this is crap and this is somebody else determining my idea of what patriotism is. And so, I have learned not to craft a strategy to counter it, but just to make sure that my work is so robust that it stands on its own. I don't always manage, but I try, and I tell my young team that, "Look, I'm willing to fight with anybody for a story we've done well, but I'm not willing to fight with anybody for a story we've done badly," if you see the difference. And there are stories we do badly, there are stories where our reporting falls short, we don't go deep enough, we haven't covered all the layers, we haven't spoken to all the people, we haven't done our job. Now, yes, we haven't done our job, so maybe a hostile politician has come for us, but it still doesn't make us a victim because we didn't do our job. I think that test takes place of your resistance to power when you've done your job.
I guess my honest answer is that I don't change. I've just learned to not take it seriously. I will say one thing, though, that I do believe that in the tribalism of our times, I used this example of Jon Stewart in Tariq's class and I was told "Nobody knows who Jon Stewart is," but hopefully this is a slightly more adult audience also, so you know who Jon Stewart is, and it gives the example of Jon Stewart sort of canvassing to get a legislation through for veterans. And he's no Republican. There's Jake Tapper on CNN, whatever you may think of his politics. I see him often doing issues on the military. I cut my teeth as a reporter covering the military. I am very happily sentimental about the Indian military. I was 20 something, it was my first big story. I am an Indian and I don't pretend to have any other prism when I report. I do not report be contextualized for who I am.
So, I guess the point I'm making is that I think sometimes we, especially among liberals and the liberal intelligence, we make the mistake of thinking that this is somehow some status thing to do or this is some incorrect thing to do or some jingoist thing to do. No, I don't think so. I think this is an error that marginalizes you further and further. And I think that we have to... In the end, we are in the business of communication. We have to keep looking for a language that is elastic enough to not go too far from our core principles, but is, at the same time, elastic enough to make us step out of our comfort zones, to make us use different language to make us use different ways of approaching an issue.
Yes, here in the front. Oh, I recognize you from the class. And I was saying that that class was so difficult because all of you had the most impassive expression. And I said, "Oh my god, they hated me," so I'm really happy to see you back.
Thank you so much for coming here and for sharing. One thing that, I guess, worried me was how much the government invested into advertising and how much control that gave them. So my question is two-part. Was there a connection between a news organization's willingness to cover the challenges of COVID and their advertising revenue from the government? And were there any instances of the government withdrawing support from newspapers that did fully cover COVID or similarly controversial issues?
It's a great question. And absolutely, there have been different times when three or four newspapers have had government advertising withdrawn. And there cannot but be a connection between who funds you and how much you can say about them.
When we were young, we were told about the Chinese wall between advertising and content. And I remember I would do all these shows against fairness creams. Fairness creams are a big obsession in India, and I find them really appalling. So I would keep doing this programming, and then I would say, "Oh my God, what if a fairness cream is the sponsor of this show?" And I actually didn't know, and it used to be that you didn't know, but I think the only time you can afford to not know is when you're really young and junior in the system. But anyone at management and ownership level will definitely be trying to balance, and anyone who says otherwise is not being honest.
If the government... if, let's say, 20% of your advertising comes from government, are you going to be able to report on them honestly, whether on COVID or anything else, without fear? And we have seen several cases where advertising has been withdrawn. And I actually think it's extremely problematic that we never speak of this government advertising, and newspapers are more afflicted by it than any other platform. And it's not even spoken about. It's just taken for granted that it is acceptable.
And so this takes me back to, the only way to keep news free is to pay for it. This is the only way, but the challenge we are facing is that we can't convince enough of you that the news matters to your life. And if you don't think that the news matters to your life, then you're not going to pay for it. And this takes me back to where I started, that there is a growing gap between journalism and the end user, and therefore nobody's interested in the future of news because nobody cares. Nobody is an essentialism word, but most... many people...
I have friends. I was, from whole day, obsessing about something. I would go to dinner and my friends will say, "Where were you," and I was, "I was immersed in this story," and they were like, "Really? What happened?" And it is a reality check that we are so far, we've gone so far from our audiences. So therefore, it is compromised. It is a broker-revenue model. It's only counted as if people pay for news, people pay for journalism. But people will not pay for journalism until you can make yourself relevant. And journalism, I'm afraid, is in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant to a maximum sort of percentage of people that at least I encounter.
Great, thank you. I'm just kind of curious as to the perversion of media. It seems like it's been a global trend within the US, India, Brazil, wherever it may be, and this lack of faith and undermining of journalism, news avoidance, partisanship divides, echo chambers. But where is this stemming from, in your opinion? Is it populist currents? Is it technology? What do you really see as the root of this issue?
Again, a super question. So many reasons. Politics, we didn't speak much about politics. Let's talk a little bit about politics. I find it astonishing that bias today is understood by my reader or my viewer's own bias. So basically, if you watch somebody and they confirm what you think, you feel better. You're like, "Hey, there's somebody saying what I think. This is a person I like." But the moment that person that you like says something that you don't think, suddenly you can't make sense of that space or that person, and you are disenchanted. What is happening is... I don't know the answer to this and it needs a little more research. I do not know if our media is reflective of a political polarization, or if our politics has polarized media, or the media has enhanced the polarization. I don't know the answer to this.
And I think about it a lot because I see reflected in newsrooms the kind of polarization, at least in India, that never existed 20 years ago. It never existed. Like, there was no question that you could not have a conversation with somebody of a different point of view. And today it's really difficult, and it's even more difficult to keep it civil. So we can't decontextualize the extremities of our media from the extremities of our politics. I think that's one reason.
I think the other reason is social media. If your group has exchanged a few things and you have watched that, you may think you've consumed what you need to for the day, and you don't feel the need to go to a newspaper, to watch a television show, you don't feel the need for that. And I think we'll have to accept that some of these things are going to die. The CD died, the DVD died, the website may die, television may die, and we shouldn't lament it because we can do Spotify and still hear the songs. So, I think the point is to be agile enough to move with technology, to recognize...
Let me give you a small thing. I keep arguing with my team that "You've got to transcribe everything that we do." And they were like, "Why?" And I'm like, "Think of yourself consuming content. You're doing it on a train, you're doing it in a car, you are reading the news instead of listening... or watching it. Sometimes you're listening to it, so audio has to be really good. So I think we just don't..." There are a lot of different reasons. In India... Let me talk about big business since we haven't.
Why does big business manage to have this corrosive influence on India in a way that it doesn't here? It's not that big business doesn't own media here, whether it's NBC or whether it's the Post. Post is owned by Jeff Bezos and General Electric, whatever. Everywhere, it's corporations. I'm not going to sort of give you a fake answer and say, "Some money is better than other money." This is the template. What happens in India is that our economic policy is structured such that businesses need too many government clearances to do business. That's not the case here. So you are able to create a separation between ownership and content in a way that India's not able to do. So we can't think of news as existing in isolation from politics, from economics, from internet access, from language. In India, where multiple languages are spoken, people are going back to their vernacular. So the idea of the English channel, the language of the elite, telling you what to think is being challenged. So, it's all of these things and we have to be faster and moving with it.
Hi. While you were talking about the issues with media and independent news outlets, and it's a pay-to-keep news, it reminds me of my subscription to Newslaundry. My question is with regards to the sustenance of independent news media outlet. Like, Mojo Stories has what, 8 lakh, 8 and a half lakh subscribers. A lot of revenue a lot of outlets like Newslaundry gets through subscriptions, are relatively expensive, like the [inaudible 00:34:43] or Scroll and others through ad revenue through their websites. But then they cater to a very small sliver of the Indian population. Part of the reason is, one, expensive subscription rates, which makes sense. But compare that with news organization like big media, like Republic TV, which is free-to-air, or other new channels which cost, like, 1 rupee or 2 rupees a month, that has a lot of influence. So how do you think would be the next step or how to increase the share of the reach of Indian news media outlets?
Look, I could give you the politically correct answer and say, "I'm sure we'll grow. I'm sure you all will start consuming." I don't believe that. I don't believe that. I think your question is valid, but I would remind you that, just like The Times of India, which famously priced its newspaper at 4 rupees, completely predatory pricing, and then basically drove the newspaper industry to the ground, which is why then the newspapers had to go and seek government advertising. So it's all connected, right? Something similar is happening with what you imagine to be the free-to-air channels. Channels are really expensive to run and no channel today is putting boots on the ground. There's very little reportage. There's only talk-TV. People are just talking at each other, shouting at each other.
I mean, I have this joke that... Noam Chomsky used to talk about manufactured consent and how mass media creates manufactured consent. And I said, "In India, mass media creates manufactured descent," because it's all structured around getting two people who really will never agree and putting them in a debate and getting just the most distorted extreme opinion to... If you watch Indian TV, you'll think, "Indians don't agree on anything." It's not true. I don't think it's true.
So, I could give you the dishonest answer and tell you, "I'm sure if you meet after two years, I will be running a giant media cooperation." No, I don't think I will. I made my peace with that. So I have decided that journalism is going to be a corner of what I do, it's my first love, but I'm going to do other things to subsidize my journalism. I'm going to do events, and I'm going to write, and I'm going to write books, and I'm going to do OTT production, and I'm going to do advocacy and production campaigns for other clients, as I have in the public service ads kind of thing. I know how to produce video, I know how to tell a story.
So, I'm quite clear that news is not going to ever be profitable enough to grow to scale without compromise. It's not going to happen. So you have to find a lateral way to grow. The vertical path is not available to news, and it isn't even available in the big media that you imagine, which is why you have my old channel today getting bought, because quite simply, they took a loan that they weren't able to pay back, which is why you have TV not being able to send reporters to cover anything because the revenue model is broken. So, you, at your end, think it's for free. Inside that newsroom, there's some marketing guy telling some other person, "This is how much has gone down. Oh, we can't spend on this. Oh, let's not do this. It'll piss off somebody there. We need that advertising." So there has to be a re-imagining of content. And I am more interested in good, meaningful content. I don't think I need to be bound by it being news in the conventional sense. And I think then there is still some money and revenue options available.
One last question.
Hi. I was one of the students in the class you spoke at and I can promise we did not hate you.
I think that we have a crisis of credibility in the media at this country. And, as a lot of the previous questioners have alluded to, that's because of polarization, basically. It's either a left opinion or a right opinion, you can't just get an objective account. I'd be curious to know whether you believe that there's a similar crisis of credibility in the media in India and whether or not that's attributable to polarization, or if it's only, as you've just been discussing, the connection between government advertising and the need for media to get that advertising in order to keep on running.
It's very much the case in India. And let me end with something that didn't come up in the Q&A, but I'm sure it's a story you'll be following. There's a website in India called The Wire. The Wire is very openly left-leaning. It doesn't pretend to be objective. It is left, it is activisty, it is adversarial in a almost sort of, I would say, political way. And it is followed avidly by people of its own ideological bent.
A few days ago, they published a story saying that Meta/Facebook had given overarching powers to one particular leader of the ruling party to take down Instagram posts at will, and that this was a secret program called cross-check. They said that they had uncovered this program and this was their big scope. Now, this became, quite quickly, a global story, except that Meta, which many people have many problems with it, and it doesn't usually come to them, gave an assiduously-argued denial and said, "Cross-check isn't even for this. The program cross-check is something completely different. You've got the whole story wrong." At this point, they double down, triple down, started fighting with people on Twitter, said, "Oh, all of you..."
There was a Facebook whistleblower, Sophie Zhang, who told them "The story isn't passing the smell test." And she told me later in the interview that when she said that, people started calling her a fascist-enabler. Please, sometimes, let's also look at the labeling and the name-calling that comes from sites that are considered more liberal. So they said, "You're a fascist-enabler. You're a sanghi." Sanghi is known for the right-wing in India. "You are just biased." She's a Facebook whistleblower.
There's a point to this story and I'm getting to it. They then said, "Our story is right and we are going to release emails that show that Meta has acknowledged this story." So they then published some emails, supposedly from the global head of Meta, and we all looked at that and we were like, "This email doesn't sound authentic," but they insisted it was. So this became more and more controversial.
Now, why am I saying this? Because I think Wire really wanted to believe that the BJP and Meta, it was like, this was their belief and they were almost attaching their belief to the reporting as opposed to reporting and then seeing whether it confirmed their belief. So, they published this report, and that email is forged. I'm cutting through this long story. That email is fake.
But it got a lot worse before this was found out because they then said, "We have given it to two independent experts, and the two independent experts have verified that this email is true." The two verified experts then said, "We never wrote this. We never gave the green signal." So, from beginning to end, it was a complete falsification. We don't know who falsified and why. They then hung out the original reporter to dry and said, "This guy's mentally unstable. He fooled us." Though, for 15 days, they had aggressively owned that story.
Now, why do I share this with you? I share this with you because to me, it is an illustration, a sad moment of where robustness of reportage is not privileged as much as an ideological instinct. Their ideological instinct is, "We don't like the BJP. We don't like Meta. This must be true." It doesn't work that way. And they've spent years building a reputation. It takes one thing to destroy your reputation built up over years. And after that, what's happened I don't agree with. The police has criminalized a case against them. I do not agree with that. That is wrong. But they have filed a counter-criminal case against their reporter, who's the weakest link in this story, and called him mentally unstable.
I've told you this long, complicated story to answer your question, to say, this polarization is a very real problem. Equally, I've told you about The Wire. If I started telling you about the channel called Republic, a channel called Times Now, the Indians here know it, it is prejudice, dressed up as farce. It is deep bigotry dressed up as farce. It's almost comical. It's crazy.
So, what happens to people who want to be journalists, who don't want to be this or that, who don't want to be the sycophant or the activist, who don't want to be the chamcha or the morcha, who want to be able to have the intellectual honesty to embrace the inconvenient truth? The truth will sometimes be inconvenient to the person you're reporting on, but the truth will also sometimes be inconvenient to yourself. And I think that is when you're tested as a journalist, when you're able to tell the truth that is inconvenient to your own belief. And I think this is the real crisis of journalism. I think people are just looking... I mean, journalism has become, like, an extension of politics. I don't think journalism can survive like that. And that is why so many people don't care for it. It's just an extension of their political belief. And they can also get that from a rally or they can get that from somewhere else. And people who criticize that are the opposition. It's just all partisan politics. And it is indeed the real crisis, a very much one in India.