The Good, The Bad, The Ugly of Indian Media

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.

 

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Where News Is No Longer News!

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”…Thomas Jefferson (to Edward Carring in 1787). Such is the power of news and the constructive role it can play in a nation’s destiny! Jefferson, the third President of the United States of America and the architect of her Declaration of Independence, clearly saw the indispensability of a free press in the evolution of a nation. In his lexicon, democratic functioning was dovetailed with the performance of press, the crucial medium between the government and the governed. He spoke at a time when morning newspapers used to be the sole reliable way of getting information about the nation, locality and the world, to some extent. There was no radio, television, internet, satellite telecommunication then, and not even commercial electricity. What they had was a printing press and still they managed to lay the foundations of a healthy journalistic tradition and a vibrant democratic nation. The character of press and the principle of free speech were envisioned to be the arbiter of the character of nation.

Now, taking a cue from Robert Zemeckis’ 1989 science-fiction ‘Back to the Future, Part 2’ let us catapult ourselves, with a little bit of latitudinal shift, straight way to 2011 India where we have almost every means of communication and information at our disposal. Science has given us so much that we are facing a problem due to plenty. What to read, what to see, what to believe! We have multitude of news channels which have littered our daily information landscape with news every second, every minute, every hour, or to cut short, news every moment. Broadcast media has surpassed the extent newspapers and radio enjoyed once. Each passing day, channels are mushrooming faster than any bacterial growth could ever happen and so are the news reporters and news readers who somehow prefer to be recognised as journalists. Little do they realize what they, in actuality, are and what ‘real’ journalism means! Gone are the traditions of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of checking, cross-checking facts before bringing out stories, their places have been usurped by the Stephen Glasses of today where imagination, fiction and fantasies have more roles to play than sheer facts. The famous Watergate scandal that finally led to the nemesis of Nixon is a great reminder of how journalism should be conducted, how raw facts need to be processed and refined with substantiation before coming out with ‘breaking news.’

We, in India, are very fortunate to have a media that has less to do with such hard work and journalistic ethics by keeping real issues under cover and showing what they want to show. Our news channels are more interested in Rani Mukherjee’s marriage and Aishwarya Rai’s pregnancy than what goes on in the North east. Salman Khan’s singlehood has almost become a national priority with our news channels deliberating and devoting considerable time on this issue. It is debatable what gains will the news channels have when Salman finally takes the nuptial vows! ‘Begaani shaadi mei Abdulla diwaana’. Or, when M. S. Dhoni turns thirty, why should any of our news channels miss this historic moment? Full length stories were aired on MS on July 7. God knows what will happen to the same MS when he returns from a glorious tour of England where all the Nawabs, little masters, turbonators of Indian cricket, failed to harness their collective potential and protect modicum of dignity. The same media is not going to spare any chances in vilifying them while they are back from overseas to the cozy land of IPL. There will be full one-hour shows with some of the so called experts of cricketing world, who never excelled during their own lifetimes, carrying out the surgical operation of every individual member of the Indian cricket team. And, then ‘joote chappal ki bauchhar’! Former England captain Michael Vaughan was not wrong when he commented that the biggest challenge of the new coach, Duncan Fletcher, would be to handle the Indian media.

Now, if we set aside the issue of what is shown for a moment and divert our attention to how that is presented, we will find our news channels into a situation where they seem to be putting up stiff competition to all the comedy circuses and laughter shows on air. Our news-readers don’t read, they shout and some of them even try to imitate Bade Bachchan’s baritone voice. English news channels are still tolerable, what happens on Hindi news channels is beyond imagination. Much like our revered Bollywood, our news readers and reporters have to be actors, comedians, etc, at the same time. Poor souls! Guys who seem to come directly from ‘charwaha vidyalaya’, and have problems even in wearing a tie properly are presented as news readers/presenters. You can give them even Gucci or Armani brands; they will still preserve their originality and cling to their debased base. But, the same person becomes watchable whenever a disaster or a terror attack strikes our country which we ironically have in plenty. Interviewing family members of deceased is their pet habit with such queries, “aap bataye abhi aap kaisa mahsoos kar rahe hai; in massomo ko insaaf kaun dialyega; etc”?

This utter lack of sensitivity is not confined to those belonging to the ‘charwaha vidyalaya’ ilk, even such a celebrity news reporter like Barkha Dutt lost her mind during Mumbai terror attacks when she asked: “As you wait here, outside the Taj, even as you hear the sound of gunfire and explosions from inside the hotel, tell us what thoughts are going through your head?” Another learned gentleman from the media fraternity had to ask this: ““Are you angry with the terrorists for killing your children?” They were not reporting news; they were spreading panic in the entire country and so working in collusion with perpetrators of the attack. Where does this irresponsibility come from? May be, bulk of the media ‘industry’ suffers from some severe deficiency of cranial capacity. But, the real reason is lack of empathy with those suffering. Just give them any information regarding a sex racket being busted; they will parachute to the venue with all their crew and equipments. The entire treatment of Uma Khurana case where she was accused of pushing her students into prostitution was dealt with such recklessness that finally the lady was lynched by a mob of furious mob on the Aruna Asaf Road in New Delhi. Have we forgotten the stories on Aarushi murder case? Even Dada Kondke or Tinto Brass would have sulked and turned into cavemen.

As we, Indians, are fond of spices, how could our news channels be far behind? Every news item has to be made sensational, ‘jhakaas’ and ‘masaaledaar’, as though the viewers have specially ordered for their butter and kadhai chicken. We don’t need memory pills to remember how the media consistently pursued the Nithari murder or the way Maria Susairaj case was handled. The Kannada starlet, all of a sudden, got transformed into a celebrity with news pouring in about her candidacy for the Big Boss season 4. If this wasn’t enough Ram Gopal Varma made a movie on her. I wish there was a movie on Mother Teresa or the plight of poor and hapless women in the Sonagachhi area of Kolkata. Our media and Bollywood seem to be going hands in glove when it comes to the portrayal of something that is sensational. Who cares for responsibility and accountability in today’s India where everyone from doodhwaala to dookanwaala, daftarwaala, policewaala, laal-baati waala and newswaala have become quislings to market driven economy. Even a little bit of sincerity, grace and self-regulation has to be imported from Mars or Venus. A difficult proposition!

The purpose of news is to provide us with a real understanding and perception of what goes around us. They are representations of reality, not reality per se. Television news especially has the twin responsibility of delivering an account of the experience on one hand and the experience in itself, on the other. If carried out with sincerity, it can serve to keep us educated and enlightened at the same time. But, with the disappearance of the concept of appointment news and the ensconcement of real-time news, a viewer gets to see what is meant to arouse emotions, evoke opinions and keep them glued. Thomas Carlyle’s fourth estate has become commoditized and customized, meant to suit several purposes at the same time. News has no longer remained ‘news,’ it has become pure entertainment and voyeurism. And with this, the principle of freedom of speech has come to mean everything except speech in its strictest literal sense. Freedom of speech and expression has been replaced by freedom of slander, sensation and expediency. With the shadow world becoming more real than the real world, public good and social welfare have been castrated from the avowed goals of journalism and media. Journalism which was once described as a ‘craft’ has become a ‘trade’ in an age where economics has become the new gravitational force dictating terms to what should be shown; and the new Coriolis Effect where the Indian media lies prostrate and keeps veering away and away. These must have been quite late realizations for Thomas Jefferson who had to revise his conviction of 1787 in 1807 when he said to John Nowell, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” Mr. Jefferson was quite lucky in some senses, he received this enlightenment without a Bodhi tree in just twenty years and let us not forget, he had to experience only newspapers and press during his lifetime. News channels hadn’t emerged then.