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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Media and Anna-A Perfect Tango

 

There is an old Chinese curse, ‘May You Live in Interesting Times,’ generally attributed to the 19th century story-teller Kai Lung. Scholars debate as much regarding its origin as whether it is just a saying or a curse. The track record of 2011 unambiguously lends this saying a cursedly attire if we look at how tumultuous and interesting the year has had been so far. What began as an Arab Spring was succeeded by an Indian Autumn; Pearl Roundabout and Tahrir Square receded into background while Delhi’s own Ramlila Ground came to acquire the centrestage. The architect of this precocious autumn in Indian political climatology was none else than a septuagenarian Gandhian from Maharashtra, Kisan Baburao Hazare, aka Anna Hazare. Whatever be the individuality, nationality or modus operandi of the 2011 unrests, they were marked by certain similarities in terms of overall character. Resentment against corruption and corrupt governments and the consequent collective actions in form of uprisings has been the common theme. Citizen Kane’s famous line, ‘If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough’, seemed to lose its erstwhile sheen for there was no dearth of interesting news making events and incidents.

Media, in general, and the Indian Media, in particular, desperately sets its eyes upon such interesting times as it is then that it finds its role consummated. In a nation where 24 hour news channels have become an inescapable reality, media seldom gets such opportune moments where the compulsion to manufacture and fabricate news becomes redundant given the magnitude of the news itself. Such a lifetime moment was Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade. It is easy to gauge how our news channels might have behaved then! What followed was a blanket coverage of whatever small or big, trivial or noteworthy, unfolded at the Ramlila Ground. And, with this all the vestiges of civility and all the euphemisms were gone baby gone, gone into background, pushed into backyard. While our print media got lost in such expressions as ‘Government relents, Anna hardens’, little realizing what every word connotes; our news channels kept on flashing the exact seconds and hours of Anna’s fast. ‘Anna to Gandhi,’ ‘Anna Ka Anshan’, ‘Mai Hoo Anna’ were some of the most visible motifs blatantly at display. And, if this was all falling short of stoking up popular emotions, we had a campaign against corruption getting metamorphosed into ‘revolution’, ‘August Kranti’!

If this was revolution, then the Ram-Janmabhoomi Campaign was also a revolution. There was nation-wide mobilization and participation in form of Hindu kar-sewaks and they finally achieved what they had aimed at and brought irreparable chinks in our already fragile social structure. And, what about the Mandal agitation? Did our enlightened reporters and news anchors have the slightest inkling; leave aside comprehension, of what a revolution is? And, how could a movement for a bill be suddenly described as revolution? What radical and profound changes did it bring, or for that matter, how far was the old established order changed? If this was a revolution, then I must accept that we are a nation of revolutions. Thanks to the binocular effect that media presents, we had to perforce look at Anna as Gandhi and his cohorts as Nehru, Patel, and Sarojini Naidu. Such captions as ‘Desh Mei Laakho Anna,’ ‘India is Anna’ deluged our mental and emotional constructs. Sanity seemed to have been inebriated with Anna looming large and gaining strength day by day in geometric progression. What began as persuasion got covertly converted into dictation when Anna indulged in such slogans as ‘laao ya jaao’, forcing the government and parliament to kneel down in abject surrender. Media coverage was so insulated from moral considerations that it had actually begun to believe in ‘the public has the right to see all that I am seeing’ and Anna gleefully embraced their acts, ‘Yeh Prajtanatra ke chauthe khambe ne dikha diya ki woh baki teen khambo se zyada majboot hai’. News channels were in a mode akin to Sensex type reporting: ‘Anna ke Anshan ke 270 ghante poore hue’. While some were content with showing how small children were making ‘paani par Gandhiji ki rangoli,’ others were more than happy in orchestrating six-year old girls perched atop their fathers’ shoulders with a banner showing, ‘Sarkar corruption hatao warna chappal khaao’. This is not news by any yardstick of responsibility and accountability; this is stoking up passion, creating hysteria and mobilizing an entire nation towards anarchy.

Anna Hazare’s eyes and ears, perhaps, did apprise him or might have selectively informed him regarding how he was being portrayed all across the nation and the globe. The thin line between supporting anti-corruption and espousing whatever was happening increasingly got blurred amidst the din which was in full bloom on our television sets. And, wasn’t Anna ‘loving it’ all? A crusader for Lokpal Bill suddenly became the modern avatar of Gandhi. Does Anna not have an identity of his own, does he needs such props for the validation and vindication of his movement? It was sad to see him delivering one speech after another like our well-seasoned politicians, with the portrait of Gandhi lurking in the background. He had suddenly become omnipresent. Switch on to any news channel you would have found him. Sign into your Facebook account, he would already be there in postings of YouTube videos self-proclaiming about his credentials. At one point of time, Anna appeared to have beaten Aamir Khan when it came to self-promotion and the advertisement of his own production. And, our media was there to ensure that he remained invincible at any cost. Poor Ramdev would have been catatonic trying to figure out, where did all his anulom-vilom and lauki ka juice go wrong? After all, he, too, had blown the same trumpet!

The way Anna Hazare and the anti-corruption movement were projected by our media demands serious analysis. How could the tango be so perfect? The same media was silent when two of its time-tested protagonists were accused of involvement in the 2G scam and several of its maai-baap were found to have been complicit in the Commonwealth Games scam. A mountain out of a molehill wasn’t created then! And, to add to the horror, the same two media celebrities were found to participate in discussions and host shows after being in hibernation for quite some time. If this wasn’t archetypal hypocrisy, then what was it? Thanks to media, if there is one word that now the whole of India must be remembering after Jai hind, it is corruption, for day by day autopsy had been conducted on this word: corruption in bureaucracy, corruption in parliament, blah blah blah. However, while this surgery was being done by some of the most accomplished and venerable media surgeons, they did not consider it appropriate enough to have a small peek at what was rotting inside their own purulent body. How could it go unnoticed? How could the same lens which generally displays prismatic colors be so monochromatic? How could you be so munificent and overtly generous at one place and silent in other? So if this wasn’t a diversionary tactic, what else was it?

Such was the fascination, fixation, obsession and enamorment with Anna complete, that whenever he wasn’t visible, the cameras automatically veered away to his team members. It was pitiable to see Kiran Bedi waving the national flag while Aamir Khan and his group were performing the ‘Mitwa’ song. Seemed ‘Radha kaise na jale’ song from Lagaan was being enacted live before the entire country. Commentators on News 24 kept on discussing the prospects of Raju Hirani and Aamir making a film on Anna while IBN7 kept on flashing ‘Anna ka wajan 7 kg ghata’. A day earlier, when the government had rebuffed Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal, the duo were found to be complaining like five year kids before the media, ‘aaj hame data hai’. ‘Aaj Hame Data Hai,’ ‘Anna ka Anshan kaise tootega’ were repeatedly shown on all news channels as though some nuclear buttons had been advertently pressed on. There was not even a single channel which didn’t try to vilify the ruling party. What was grey was made to look pitch dark with little or no efforts made to understand the other side of story. Parliamentary democracy had been hijacked and the government put under immense pressure to the extent that the Prime Minister had to speak and speak loud that ‘I am not corrupt’. Never before were government and governance customized to look so dystopian and every dissenting voice made to appear phthisical! The entire Lokpal Bill Movement became a media-facilitated showdown between the government and Anna.

Even Big Boss edits sensitive scenes and conversations before going on air. But, in the live nautanki at the heart of Delhi, news channels kept anxieties building up, emotions running high and the entire nation on the edge. The atmosphere was kept histrionically charged up and finally it became so pervasive that even Arnab Goswami, the most famous face of Times Now and normally one of the most balanced anchors, lost his senses and began predicting events on the day of catastasis, the sizzling Saturday, a day branded by him as historic. He was so ecstatic that he began to behave like a tarot-card reader while the parliament was debating the Lokpal Bill. One of his constant refrains was ‘this is a historic day……celebrations going all across the nation’. May be I am being a bit myopic and failing to configure the hidden historicity in Arnab’s perceptions, but so surcharged was the atmosphere on the last day of the ‘haar-jeet’ muqabla that he forgot that he was a news anchor and tried being Irfan Habib and Yogendra Singh at the same time, fretting and fuming at anyone expressing a neutral viewpoint. The very lynchpin of a democracy is consensus and acceptance of diverse viewpoints, whatever they are and howsoever acrid they may be.

While surfing on Facebook, I found, “Anna ka Andolan ab Desh ke chhote chhote gaao-kasbo tak bhi pahuch raha hai….aur tod raha hai jaati, dharm aur umr ki simaaye….Paanch saal ka bachha ho ya chhiyanve saal ka boodha, koi ab beasar nahi…Dekhiye Maurya ki khaas report.” To me it looks more like the old Vicco-Vajradanti ad, than a sensible news report. Maurya TV was not alone in being blessed with such ‘vishesh’ and ‘khaas’ reports. And, give me a break, what is this ‘khaas’ report? A newsman and news channel are supposed to present what is happening with full fairness and objectivity. The principle of free speech doesn’t entail so much subjectivity where the real issue gets clouded. Why has the obsession with scoops stooped to such a level? In the twelve days tamasha at the Ramlila Ground, gossip news and tabloids which had little social value simply fed the voyeuristic needs of ignorant people. Media’s Anna or Anna’s Media ostensibly triumphed, yet the already oxymoronic concept of media ethics and real journalism lost.

Reflecting on post-Watergate journalism in ‘The Idiot Culture,’ investigative journalist Carl Bernstein noted, “Good journalism is popular culture, but popular culture that stretches and informs its consumers rather than that which appeals to the ever descending lowest common denominator. If, by popular culture, we mean expressions of thought or feeling that require no work of those who consume them, then decent popular journalism is finished. What is happening today, unfortunately, is that the lowest form of popular culture – lack of information, misinformation, disinformation, and contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives – has overrun real journalism.” Our media, amidst Anna’s fast and break-fast, went light years beyond redemption and reproach.

………….Amitoj Gautam…………………….

(amitojgautam@gmail.com)