When Sergio Leone conceived and brought out his magnum opus final of the Dollars Trilogy, ‘The Good, The Bad, The Ugly’ in 1966, little could he have realized that his classic would, someday, enter the English language as an idiomatic expression. Today, what began as a noun has turned into an adjective for anything that has seen upsides and downsides; times, good and bad; phases, rosy and crimson; and progression, from lethargy to vibrant and decadent; during the same time span. The evolution of Indian Media over the ages in general, and the last two decades in particular, vividly brings out the germaneness of the title of this spaghetti western. Touted as the fourth estate of India’s democracy, mirror of the society, bulwark of freedom of expression, and a myriad of other such garnitures, while Indian Media, comprising both traditional and non-traditional communication forms, saw and experienced sublimity ‘once upon a time’ which is hazy now, it presents a highly convoluted, diffident and morbid picture today with whit by whit erosion insinuating in its leviathan moral pedestal. In an age of extremes where ‘reason’ has somewhat been marginalised and pushed into abeyance, sensitivity has kowtowed before sensationalism; quality lays prostrate before mediocrity and substandardness; sheer economics of market has relegated that erstwhile penchant of media to serve into oblivion and the concomitant metamorphosis of ‘watchdogs’ into ‘lapdogs”. Though this decadence has, no doubt, afflicted all the mainstream constituents of modern globalised world, yet the rot is most akratically visible in media whether press or television, the greatest interface between us and the outer world. The nefariousness of this rot turns out be more nefarious when the suddenness of the slide is looked at.
The term ‘‘media,” coined by Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher which in its most primitive sense connotes a facilitator or a middleman is an imperfect lens to perceive and access the variegated facets of what constitutes day to-day life on a scale greater than personal experiences could ever proffer. Media, as an institution, reflects the state of a nation, how vibrant it is, and it has an intricate responsibility in nurturing a nation’s identity, weaning its overall personality and representing and ventilating popular opinions and grievances. It has the rare distinction of being an entity which is neither elected by the exercise of franchise nor appointed by the executive or nominated by someone holding the reins of power, yet it is omnipresent and exercises enormous influence on the rest of the estates whether in terms of shaping public opinion, catapulting issues to the plane of discussion or agenda-setting, inciting comatose governments into action or making way for supposedly better people to replace those ensconced and blinded by the comforts that come as a natural corollary in the White House or 10 Janpath. Coming back to Marshall McLuhan, one of his famous expressions was ‘‘‘the medium is the message’’ implying the form of medium is personified in the message it carries; and the subsequent “the medium is the massage” signifying the impact that a message carries with itself. Indian Media, not only has forgotten these primary analytical concepts, it has veered away from its track, lost its core values and transgressing all the moral boundaries that comes attached with responsibility and accountability. Whatever was good, slid anonymously into bad, and what was bad surreptitiously took ugly attires.
A mere cursory peek into our recent past shows how serious journalism in the form of The Harijan, Young India or the Indian Opinion, when in the hands of someone of the stature of Gandhi, became lethal tools of satyagraha and harnessed in fullest towards overthrowing the foreign yoke. As tradition dies hard, the trend sustained even when the young Republic was in its rudiments and the types of Nehru at the helm of affairs. Time machines are not required to make a perusal of how committed press and investigative journalism engendered tectonic shifts in the Indian power structure by unearthing scandals of the magnitude of Bofors Guns, the reverberations of which are felt even today when even surmised involvement, tagged with the clause of ‘foreign descent’ thwarts the prime-ministerial ambitions of Sonia Gandhi. To have presided over the destiny of this South Asian giant would have been an altogether surreal experience for her! Isn’t it? It was the hyperactive Indian media only which unearthed the 1996 Fodder Scam, followed by the Operation West End led by the Tehelka team of Tarun Tejpal. In some senses Tehelka marked the coming of age of Indian media as it showed for the first time on television how everyone ranging from Indian politicians to defence officials was saleable, how our Big Bosses were fallible when it came to slipping between the belt and the trouser. Though it was some sort of déjà vu for many, images of licentiousness, corruption, moral depravity in full vividness were new to ambivalent and conservative India. ‘Sab Kuchch bikta hai, har koi bikaou hai’ firmly got imprinted in the popular psyche.
Though the Tehelka sting, finally lost its sting amidst chicanery by those arraigned and brouhaha caused by inculpation and feigned innocence; it opened a can of worms when some of the television channels, trying to resuscitate their falling TRPs, trans-substantiated it into a full time vocation with a new nomenclature 360-degree TV News. With the CNN effect in its full bloom and market exigencies becoming the arbiter of worthiness of events or issues as news, investigative and serious journalism began to make way for sensational journalism. Still, the worst hadn’t yet arrived, as the 2005 sting operation exposing Members of Parliament heartily accepting envelopes in lieu of asking questions on the floor of the House, raised an issue of utmost national concern. It showed which way our parliamentary democracy was headed and how responsible our leaders were! Mumbai Rajdhani seemed consciously to have jumped tracks to some other destination in the North East. Reminds me of the popular Kishore Kumar song, “Jana tha Japan, pahuch gaye Chin samajh gaye na…” Meanwhile, while the mainstream media was still trying to decode and adapt to the changed environment after the burst of news channels, too possessed and obsessed with the ‘breaking news’ syndrome, there happened the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, which fully vivified McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the massage’. 9/11, as it is known in common parlance, India too had its own plagiarized version, 26/11, popularly known as Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008. Whatever civility and decency that was left in media, suddenly vanished. Vulgarism, mixed with puerility, even by some of the most known and revered faces of Indian television, put to shame what Media had been known to stand for. A rich history of 200 years had been ossified without any compunction. Care for public sentiments, national interests, empathy, were all jettisoned for what, ‘pehle mai, to pehle mai’.
A new bunch of Airtel broadband plans have come under queer advertisement caption, IMPATIENCE. The leading internet service provider might have got this idea from the conduct of our media; after all we derive ideas from our immediate surroundings. Apart from the general decline in the overall standard of what is shown on Indian television and printed by the Indian press, a new factor that was to propel the already existing slide was the takeover of media houses by big business. The selective reporting shown in the case of the Commonwealth Games; silence over some issues and over-emphasis on some, exemplifies what a journey has the media covered! The recent Radia tapes where two of the most recognized faces of Indian media were found to be hobnobbing with politicians and a lobbyist, in some senses, brings the circle to a close. Why? Where else would you slide? You have already reached the Mariana Trench of corruption! What a journey from criticism to containment, containment to cooperation, cooperation to collaboration, collaboration to complicity!
The Indian media can, however, take some solace from the recent Rupert Murdoch’s episode where sensitivity and care for common man’s sentiments were crucified at the altar of partisan interests. What made this whole Murdoch affair more ghastly was the naked ghoulishness with which police, ministers and almost all the who’s who of contemporary power fulcrum were found to have been complicit in a crime against humanism and humanity. A Faustian Pact, indeed! As far as Mr. Murdoch is considered, I can only recollect the maxim from Oedipus Rex, “no man should be considered fortunate until he is dead”. Now, if there is something special for an 80 year-old Australian, there should be some for our own media, too. In Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, there is a passage worthy of notice: `Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ Alice speaks to Cheshire Cat. `That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat. `I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice. `Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat. `–so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation. Our beloved media is fortunate; it hasn’t to suffer from Alice’s predicament, it has already reached beyond somewhere, nowhere.