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Mainstream news media is a business so any claim that it is mission-driven is misleading, says T Manivannan, senior journalist and former BBC Tamil editor.

Speaking to as part of the “Can we trust the news media?” series, Manivannan however said the growth of social media was not necessarily driven by the credibility, or the lack of it, of mainstream media. He said social media, by its very nature, would have come either way. It is free and anyone can be on it – that is its attraction. 

The credibility of mainstream, organized or legacy media has always been in question and continues to be so. “Social media has just pushed that question to the forefront,” he said.

But Manivannan was not entirely pessimistic about the future of news media. “Whatever might be the commercial pressures on mainstream media, they have a sense of accountability. This cannot be said for social media,” he said, adding, “because mainstream media is a business, maintaining some kind of credibility and being accountable for the news they put out is important to generate revenue.”

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Manivannan whose long career includes many years in The Indian Express recalled Ramnath Goenka’s description of the newspaper as a mission. But, aside from Emergency, when the Indian Express, Statesman and a few other newspapers including the DMK’s Murasoli vehemently opposed it, there have not been many stellar examples. Manivannan, however, did recall The Hindu’s Bofors exposes. “Both newspapers and electronic media are failing to do their jobs. The importance of press freedom and freedom of speech seems to have been reduced to a great extent.”

Press in Tamil Nadu, Manivannan says has always been more critical of DMK than AIADMK, attributing it to class interests. He said the press in Tamil Nadu did not in the past too have a robust culture of a critical attitude to government or other institutions. So not much has changed, he opined, when asked if the news media in the state has been too obliging to the government. He also recalled the many criminal defamation cases slapped by Jayalalithaa on journalists that had a chilling effect.

“Both newspapers and electronic media are failing to do their jobs. The importance of press freedom and freedom of speech seems to have been reduced to a great extent” says, T Manivannan, senior journalist and former BBC Tamil editor

The conversation touched upon the BBC News, a unique media outlet that is publicly funded and therefore is free of commercial pressures. The BBC is a standard bearer of some of the finest journalism values although it is publicly funded. Manivannan pointed out that the BBC was a public broadcaster, not the government’s. It reported to a board of governors and enjoyed much independence.

The UK government often critiqued its reporting including in the Falklands War when Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister, expected the BBC to go along with a nationalist narrative that the Beeb refused. Manivannan contrasted that experience with that of India. He said the AIR and Doordarshan had staff with much credibility and professionalism. But no party can let go of the control it would enjoy if it came to power. For that reason, true autonomy for the public broadcaster remains a distant dream.

When talking about lessons the Indian media can learn from the BBC, the main difference Manivannan points out is the structural working of the BBC and the Indian news media. “The Director General in the BBC does not report directly to the government. He/she reports to a bench of governors instead”. This is probably what provides BBC with the autonomy that does not exist in India.

The concept of public service broadcasting ought to be adopted in India, particularly by broadcasters like AIR and Doordarshan. The essence of “by the people, for the people and of the people” needs to be imbued in the workings of these broadcasters to present the happenings in the country with a neutral approach.

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