The freedom to say we are not free to write

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

Prothom Alo illustrationAt the recent press briefing of the prime minister, a journalist told her that the media was in a crisis and that there were fears of journalists losing their jobs. While it is true that news media is faced with a crisis, it is also true that it would be suicidal for the media to be dependent on government subsidy. The media that depends on government assistance will never be able to demand accountability of the government.

Unless the actual cause of the crisis is determined, it will not be possible to come up with a realistic solution. There has been huge investment in the media in recent times, but no one is deluded into thinking that any of this is in public interest. In most cases, the investment in media is to protect one’s business, to use one’s influence to gain favours and also to climb the political and social ladder. There is hardly an instance where anyone, before investing in the media, has run a survey on what the readers or viewers want or whether the paper or channel has the capacity to meet public demands or even whether it will be commercially viable. As a result, the three dozen or more TV channels and higher number of newspapers are unable to meet public demands and also unable to generate adequate income to survive.

The news media faces an acute crisis in public confidence due to subservience to the government for getting the required permission and licences and for accepting unspoken government control. The surfeit of TV channels and newspapers has created a problem for the industry, but the government stands to benefit. Firstly, everyone is turning to the government for support (practical and in principle). Secondly, the government is using the large number of media establishments to prove its democratic character. But in actually, more channels and more newspapers do not mean more freedom.

And it is the newspapers that face the toughest challenge. TV channels can run all sorts of entertainment shows and educational programmes to make a profit. But the success of a newspaper depends on its reliable news, depth of information, news between the lines, neutral analysis and a reflection of diverse views. Unless all this is brought back to the newspaper pages, it will be impossible to overcome the crisis. The present suffocating political situation will only serve to extend and expand the crisis.

Just as the people lost their right to vote with the votes being cast overnight before the election, there is no saying how far people will lose their right to express their views. We are thankful to have the freedom to say we are not free to write. If this can’t be kept alive, then there will hardly be any difference between us and North Korea. But this is not enough for the media to survive. It will then simply turn towards the government.

In identifying the reason behind the downsizing of manpower in the media industry, many point to technological advancements including the popularity and dominance of the social media. Recently when news of the transfer of an official of the consumers’ rights protection directorate went viral on social media, the prime minister had to reportedly intervene from Finland where she was visiting at the time. Facebook and Twitter’s clout is undeniable. It has snatched away that ‘breaking news’ monopoly of TV and radio. Many feel that the social media has revolutionised democratisation. But reality is that the government can also reach out to exert itself on the social media. In the last election, the government completely ignored any noise made on the social media about rigging and malpractice in the polls.

So what is the future of newspapers? The future is not likely to be bright in a weak state of democracy. In other words, if the crisis of democracy clears, things will look up for newspapers and only competent media will be active and vibrant. Those who simply rely on being subservient will crumble and fade away.

Editor of the 235-year-old Times, John Witherow, on Monday spoke about how newspapers have survived and will survive the onslaught of technology and the social media. I was fortunate enough to have come into contact with Bob Satchwell, founder director of Britain’s Society of Editors, about 10 years ago. He retired about two years ago on health grounds and the society organised the Satchwell lectures in his honour. John Witherow delivered the second lecture this time.

Under Witherow’s leadership, the Times has managed to overcome its losses in recent years and see profit once again. While the printed edition of the newspaper saw a 2 per cent fall in sales, its circulation is still 500,000. Online paying readers of the Times and Sunday Times have also reached 500 thousand. And there are 5 million readers who read a limited portion of the newspaper for free. The Times stands as a pioneer globally when it comes to running the online newspaper with a pay-wall. There were sceptics about the pay-wall but the paper has displayed success.

According to the Times editor, the secret of their success is utilising new technology in a creative manner. The newspaper is not in constant competition with radio, TV and the social media to break news. It rather chooses to publish a collection of news summaries at particular intervals during the day. While the rest of the media is haywire with news items, they concentrate on how to take the overall picture to the people. For this they rely on four components: commentary, analysis, exclusive stories and investigation.

John Witherow pointed to the propensity in recent times to steal news and plagiarise, making a report only exclusive until it was published. Technology had made copying and pasting reports possible in a couple of seconds. But it is uniqueness and individuality that attracted readers.

They are applying Artificial Intelligence (AI) in their newspaper. But the editor is confident that AI will never achieve the language and analytical competence of their renowned columnists. The trend of collecting information and processing it remains as before and will remain so in the future, he believes. He also pointed to the success of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Guardian. According to him, the content and objective of the newspapers are the same, only the method of publication has changed. Even is this situation, he feels that the printed newspaper will survive and if any newspaper decides to go solely digital, it will be at risk of extinction. The British daily Independent is an example of this. After closing down its print edition, its digital presence is gradually vanishing from the scene.

The big challenges before the newspapers, and indeed the media as a whole, are Google, Facebook and similar giants. They are snatching away most of the advertisements but using the content of others. They do not have to make investments for this and do not face the risks faced by journalists. They have no liability. The Times editor pointed to this challenge and said it is imperative to break this monopoly. He hailed the European Union’s initiative to draw up rules and regulations regarding these organisations and hoped that the US would also adopt similar measures soon.

One side of the Society of Editor’s stage carried the words, ‘Fighting for the people’s right to know’. It is the universal objective of journalists to present undistorted news to the people, not cater to the wishes of the powerful. So to look to the patronage of those in power is nothing short of suicide for the news media.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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