Monday, 14 March 2005

On blogging, mainstream media and mediah!

A couple of days ago, an online publication that plans to do a story on the TOI/mediaah! ruckus asked us to answer a few questions. Since it has some bearing on why this blog decided to take sides (and also because we stirred our lazy butt and wrote many paragraphs out of which maybe one or two sentences will be carried so we might as well get some use out of it; and also because we don't have anything else to blog about today, and we're actually getting a bit of a traffic spike, first-time readers who we want to impress with our intellectual depth), thought we'd share it with you, and ask for your comments.

Will post a link to the article if and when it's carried. This is the exact text mailed, with a few disgraceful typos cleaned up. So much for our snobbishness distaste for clumsily typed blogs.

Disclosure first.

On the Times of India, as an organisation.

It's been a reasonably cordial relationship. I was once a freelance radio jockey on their FM channel, I have worked on audiovisual material for the Group's TV division many years ago, and as a journalist, I wrote for them as a freelancer before I moved to an advertising career, and again in the last few years, when I started working freelance once more. I have been published both in the main newspaper, as well as in one of the Group's magazines. I would still write for them if asked to, because I am a professional writer. I would only refuse to work with them if the organisation supressed my opinion in something I was writing for them, something that hasn't happened so far. I also know many people who work for the group, people who i consider good friends, good professionals.

Pradyuman Maheshwari is someone I knew of very slightly, from my first stint as a journalist. We resumed contact when mediaah! was in its first run (incidentally, i learned of the blog thanks to a friend in the Times), and I followed it then. We have exchanged email off and on, but have only met in the flesh once - that was when he had a small party to announce the closing of mediaah! last year - and have had maybe half-a-dozen phone conversations. I cheered when he brought mediaah! back this year, and have been reading it regularly. I called him when i read about the legal notice, and we've talked frequently since that day.

Now, to your questions.

What do you think about his situation?

I think it's pretty sad that an organisation like the Times, one whose purpose is to provide information and opinion, should seek to suppress opinions it doesn't like. It does not befit them.

I think that they either underestimate or overestimate what blogs can do. Let me explain.

If they think that the blogosphere will let something like this go by without raising a stink, then they're seriously underestimating the power of the collective.

On the other hand, if they think a blog with a small subscriber base (Pradyuman says mediaah's readership is about 8000 individuals) can seriously threaten an organisation that is the size of the TOI and its group, then its almost comical. They look pretty much like an elephant running away from a mouse.

Frankly, it sounds to me like some legal gremlin in the hierarchy trying to earn brownie points with the top brass. Maybe it's me that's doing the underestimating, but I doubt the powers-that-be even know what a blog is. I'm being a cynic here, i know, but it's based on experience. When big media organisations the world over were talking to us in January, post the earthquake and tsunami crisis (see, the media in India, with a few honourable exceptions - and even some of those were pointed in the right direction only because they were taken by the scruffs of their necks and led to the water, so to speak - didn't seem to know or care that net history was being created under their noses.

Does the Times have a good legal case against Mediaah! or should Maheshwari fight it?

Well, I'm not a lawyer. But I have read the posts in question, and while i think Pradyuman's conclusions on some of them are a tad harsh, and I also have issues with his tone of voice, he certainly is well within his rights as a critic to come to those conclusions, and his tone of voice is his privilege to choose.

Let me put it this way. If an actor or director thought the Times of India's movie critic was being unduly harsh, would s/he sue the ToI? If the ToI's literary critic savaged Salman Rushdie's next book, would Mr Rushdie have a case for slander against the ToI? Would a court look at such lawsuits seriously?

Another complication is that this is untested water. India doesn't have - as far as I know - any laws that cover publication over the web by individuals. What are our rights as bloggers, as web publishers? Do we have the same rights as members of the mainstream media? No one seems to have a definitive answer.

Secondly, I haven't actually seen the letter that Pradyuman got from the Times of India's lawyer, so I can't comment in detail. From what Pradyuman told me on the phone, they have said that he has vested interests and stuff like that. That sounds pretty thin to me. If Pradyuman can afford the time and money a legal defense can cost, I would say sue them for that insinuation. They're questioning his professional integrity.

(An anonymous blog has said that it will post those letters and i look forward to seeing exactly what they say.)

Should he fight it? I don't know. The legal process operates very slowly in India. It would mean lots of court appearances, sacks of money for lawyers, years of disruption to his life. On principle, i think he should fight it. The lawyer seems to be using scare tactics, relying on the Group's deep pockets to keep Pradyuman quiet. In his place, I probably wouldn't. Precisely because of those deep pockets.

Why are there so few media critics in India?

Good question. I'm afraid I haven't a clue. If i could hazard a guess, it's because people in mainstream media are wary of taking on other organisations. And on the web, there just isn't enough of a user base to make it a force. Not yet. But that's changing as we speak... erm, type. Maybe this situation will get people looking at the net more seriously. If a blog with under 10,000 readers can get a media giant's knickers in a twist, perhaps more experienced, qualified individuals will look at the net as a legit channel for their views.

Why does it seem like everyone has to be anonymous when criticizing the media in India?

Do you get that impression? Yes, there are anonymous blogs and the like, but Pradyuman, for instance, made no attempts to conceal his identity. I know of and read quite a few other blogs where the writers are quite open about who they are and very upfront about their views. I'm nowhere near being in the same league, but i have taken swipes at the media, and have made no attempts to conceal my identity.

Do you think this petition and uprising in the blogosphere will cause trouble for the Times, or will they ignore the whole thing?

Too early to tell. The petition seems to have had a rather low impact, from what I last saw. There were less than 200 signatures on it.

The blogosphere? In India, it's still a small force, and a rather inward looking bunch with (and I'm sure I'll get clobbered for this) an inflated idea of its own power and importance. I think the people who think that they will take the place of mainstream media are talking through their hats. Whatever it is that they're smoking, I want some. Potentially, we bloggers do have power: the power to make mainstream media look to its laurels; the power to keep them on their toes. We won't replace them. We can become a valuable part of the information chain, and we should show we have the responsibility to handle that. Right here, right now, no, we're not yet ready to change the world.

Ironically, it will take a certain amount of attention by mainstream media to change that. It's already happening. It started here with our tsunami blog (pardon my arrogance on that matter), and was aided by events like the media coverage to the factoid about the word 'blog' being the most looked-up word in an online dictionary, bloggers being Time's People of the Year, and suchlike.

So, to answer that question more directly, the blogosphere can cause trouble for the Times, provided there's a certain amount of attention brought to the situation, not just from online media, but from the conventional media as well.

Will the Times ignore it? I'd love to know. I'm watching. How they treat this is something that will tell all of us a lot about the Group's character.

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