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Delhi Talks: Media has enjoyed most freedom during coalition regimes, says former Doordarshan news reader Sunit Tandon

Editor's Note:  This is the eighth in a 10-part series of interviews with well-known residents of Delhi on issues that they believe define the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Read other articles of the series here


Sunit Tandon is a familiar name in Delhi circles. He has donned several hats but the most memorable has been that of a news reader in Doordarshan. He is among a handful of news readers who did not sink into oblivion after his stint in Doordarshan. Instead he spread himself thin and did several things ranging from heading the Indian Institute of Mass Communication and Lok Sabha Television in addition to a stint in National Film Development Corporation and the International Film Festival of India. Active as a theatre director, Tandon has over 150 productions to his credit. Passionate about music, Tandon has been associated with Delhi’s oldest society for the promotion of western classical music: Delhi Music Society.

Despite his high-profile jobs, Tandon has always been low key and reticent.

He says, “Being a proud Indian entails a considerable degree of anguish. Even as a student, I loved my country as I do now. Therefore, whenever I have been confronted with the very real option of going abroad, be it for my post-graduate education or any other reason, I consciously decided to desist from applying to American and British universities that virtually all my classmates were excitedly going on about, and stuck to doing a Masters in Delhi. To me, the green pasture was right here in India, and I have never regretted that. I did not understand it then, but I do now that I am a creature of my environment, my country and my culture and cannot be uprooted from all that has made my life worthwhile here in India.

 Delhi Talks: Media has enjoyed most freedom during coalition regimes, says former Doordarshan news reader Sunit Tandon

File image of Sunit Tandon, former Doordarshan news reader. Image procured by Kumkum Chadha

“But as I said at the outset, being a proud Indian brings in a degree of anguish. This anguish is caused by the deprivation and disparities wrought by centuries of caste and discrimination-ridden feudal systems; the agonisingly slow pace of change and development; the tremendous promise of its enterprising population stifled by unreformed colonial structures that continue to control and treat citizens with suspicion at most times. India is famously a bundle of contradictions, in which all ages, stages and forms of human development persist and coexist. There is much in our history, culture and achievements to celebrate and to be proud of, as well as much in our social and governance structures to be decried and in need of drastic change.

Tandon further recalls, “Thanks to my involvement in broadcasting, I have had an “insider’s view” of the evolution of the radio and television broadcast media as also its upheavals given that my earlier broadcasting experience on both radio and television was during the years of the Emergency. The overt control exercised over the media during that time was followed by a refreshing period of great freedom with the ending of the Emergency and the swearing in of a coalition government.

“Over the years, it has been my experience that the media has enjoyed the greatest freedom and latitude during periods in which coalition governments have been in power. Conversely, whenever a single party has enjoyed a majority, media has tended to be more rigidly controlled and even self-controlled. This is regrettable and a cause of concern.

“With economic liberalisation and the explosive growth of private channels that followed in the ensuing decade, it was hoped that the electronic media would truly come into its own and start playing the watchdog role that newspapers and other traditional media had been undertaking more or less effectively till then. This appeared to be true for television channels in the initial years. Radio continued to remain within government control as private stations were not allowed to venture into the spheres of news and current affairs. However, experience has now demonstrated that the corporates that now increasingly own them are only too willing to largely toe the government line in all things that matter in order to safeguard their financial interests and build their spheres of influence among the powers that be. The same equation holds true: the stronger the government, the less independent the media.

“For those who grew up in the era of single channel news on television, another great hope from the private channels was that they would provide a multiplicity of voices, variety of content and differentiated choices for viewers. Sadly, this hope has also been largely belied. The race for TRPs, unthinking competitiveness and lack of conviction in editorial stances have resulted in an annoying sameness in content, shrill delivery and almost uniform red and blue look and feel of most channels. Little wonder that there is a small but thriving community on social media that looks back nostalgically to the dignified, old days of Doordarshan News that I was part of. This has been a source of deep regret.

Tandon rues, “Most regrettable of all is the increasing loss of civil discourse, which is, after all, an essential component of democracy. This has arguably been encouraged by the mushrooming of social media with its licence to indulge in anonymous invective. The electronic media, instead of standing firm as a bastion of civilised debate, genuine exchange of competing points of view and enlightening analysis, has chosen to follow the descent of party politics into the abyss of competitive name-calling and shouting matches, reducing themselves to gladiatorial spectacles to divert and titillate audiences. News channels have largely become akin to the circuses of ancient Rome. As many have pointed out, news has now become entertainment for them.

“There are some notable exceptions, of course, but too few to make up for the general loss of credibility and seriousness of purpose that has taken place. Most media observers would agree that the essential watchdog role that the media is traditionally supposed to play in supporting democracy has been severely compromised with the crumbling of the fourth pillar, at least in so far as television channels are concerned.

However, Tandon strikes a note of hope, and says, "And yet, looking at the larger picture, I remain optimistic about the future on the whole. India is the most complex experiment in democracy ever attempted by the human race and it has belied the prophets of doom time and again. This fact is reflected in all facets of its functioning and its institutions, not least the media. Out of this cacophony, the Indian citizenry has time and again miraculously forged a new consensus.

“My kind of India would see a progressive shrinking of inequities and disparities and strengthening of fundamental rights of all citizens without discrimination. It is precisely the kind of India envisaged by the founders of the nation when they drafted the Constitution, in which the ideals and values of the egalitarianism and the freedoms enshrined in that noble document guide all aspects of our public life and policies, with the development of a truly civil society in the most democratic manner, in which the media truly plays the role of a fourth pillar.

“This may sound simple-mindedly idealistic, but when it comes to our country, why should we not dream of the best for it?“

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Updated Date: May 10, 2019 16:07:24 IST