Many years back most of the national English language dailies gave prominent headlines about the elusive con man Charles Sobhraj having been caught by police in Nepal. It immediately earned the newspapers valid criticism that such news, considered ‘juicy’ by the media, wasn’t worthy of being of such value as being given in headlines in a country beset with problems of poverty, disasters, disease, infant mortality, lack of infrastructure and corruption. Right-minded people, angrily writing to the ombudsmen of these dailies, pointed out that whilst such news could pass muster in western countries who have gotten over their basic problems of subsistence and hence required such news to fight boredom; in a developing country like India, such news, at best, could find a small mention on an inside page.
A few decades later, some of these newspapers covered themselves in ignominy by giving a six column ‘news’ of the Indian cricketer Yuvraj having hit six sixes in an over; the earlier incidents of such six-columns news being to cover the 1971 War with Pakistan; and the 1975 Declaration of Emergency. Not many eyebrows were raised; the reason being that coincident with our GDP growth, the dumbing down of the Indian society had begun in real earnest and it was either gleefully instigated by the Indian media (with an eye on their TRPs) or reflected in their reports. (Read: ‘Indians – Bartering Character For Prosperity’)
The electronic media is even worse. With the rapid mushrooming of channels, there is an unhealthy race to break news irrespective of whether it is news-worthy or not and in many cases without even checking the authenticity of the news. (Read: ‘Breaking News – Indian Style’)
Therefore, three days back, by giving the ‘news‘ about a naval officer’s wife’s allegation that “navy officers indulge in wife swaps”, on the front page of the newspaper and repeating the story on an inside page, the media has displayed its penchant for scurrilous writing so as to remain a topper in circulation. The same newspaper carried the news about Lieutenant Commander Abhilash Tomy having been ceremoniously received by the President of India after his solo, unassisted, and non-stop circumnavigation around the world apologetically, almost as an aside. The feat accomplished by the young sailor surpassed any other sporting/adventure feat in the country but the media wasn’t impressed. Good news just doesn’t sell. We have seen the media personnel at their worst in the Radiia Tapes expose’, bringing out the unhealthy nexus between the media, the politicians and the industrialists. Radiia tapes were, once again, a reminder that News coverage is not a public service; it is a no-holds-barred commercial venture and the media-men are not averse to acting as power brokers and middlemen in Indian politics.
Lets therefore critically examine the news worthiness of media items and shun scurrilous coverage. How is it that an expose of Swiss bank accounts of prominent personalities is invariably accompanied by denials by the same people on the front page itself? It is these slants and nuances that make the difference in public perception; and the media is well aware of it. Lets say I have to write an article titled: “MOST MEDIA PERSONNEL ARE POODLES OF POLITICIANS AND INDUSTRIALISTS” and credit this quote to one of my friends and publish this in my blog and somewhere in between in the same blog I bring out the good work done by some of the media in exposing corruption, it is of no use because the title would have done enormous damage to the reputation of the media despite the fact that my circulation may be in hundreds as compared to lakhs of the newspapers.
A few years back the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) of the US Navy visited Mumbai. Even though he is one of the most influential people in the world, very few media personnel attended his press conference. The reason was that most media personnel went to cover Abhishek Bachchan’s wedding with Aishwarya. Some of them were turned away from there since they were not invited but like poodles they didn’t want to miss the mega event. They are simply the most irresponsible media in the world now and their dumbing down is reflected in our society’s general dumbing down.
Manmohan Desai used to make trash movies about brothers getting lost at birth and getting reunited in the end through charms or tattoos on their arms. Trash or not MD laughed all the way to the bank because of the “popularity” of his movies like Dharam Veer and Amar Akbar Antony. In a press interview, once, he claimed that he was giving to people what they wanted. The same argument is given by our media for such scurrilous coverage. Their coverage has as much substance as Manmohan Desai’s movies. The liquor baron, Ponty Chadha, also “gave to people what they wanted”, ie, illicit liquor. The Indian media, Manmohan Desai and Ponty Chaddha all appear to be chips of the same block.
Lets, for argument’s sake, take it that there is some truth in the naval wife’s charge; however, the way the newspaper has covered it is still scurrilous. It is not worthy of a front page coverage unless the intention is to show navy officers in poor light and thereby maintain or increase the paper’s circulation. A few years back the same newspaper championed the cause of bar dancers in Mumbai on the front page for several days. And then it puts up claims that its national circulation is better than the combined circulation of the next two papers. Is it any surprise how they manage it?
About six months back they were taken to the court on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) about the quality of their contents (dumbing down). They managed to win the case in the court but the fact of their being taken to the court is indicative of the gap that exists in the newspapers’ understanding of what the people want and what people really want.
In the year 1997, on 31st Aug, I watched the aftermath of Lady Diane’s demise and funeral on the BBC. Every time the camera caught a uniformed guard resting or relaxing, it instinctively moved away. For our media, a soldier resting on his bayonet, taking off his cap or lighting up a cigarette is the only ‘newsworthy’ item of their coverage of the armed forces.
Take the present front page ‘news’ for example; what is the message that the newspaper wants to send? That wife-swapping is a common practice in the Navy? That unless they voice it on the front page, the Navy would merrily go on with wife swapping with impunity? And worse, national security is grossly undermined by wife-swapping amongst naval officers.
There are many events nowadays that display the general dumbing down of the Indian society. However, two of the events that are representative of this phenomenon are the IPL and the Religious Fests. Both are supported in a huge manner by the media, both electronic and print. IPL has as much to do with a game of cricket as Shiela Ki Jawani has to do with Empowerment of Women. Similarly, our religious fests are also mega commercial opportunities and have very little to do with bringing us close to godly or righteous living. (Read ‘Who Are The “People” Whose “Sentiments Need To Be Respected”?’, ‘State Sponsored Noise’, ‘Greatness of India and its Decline’ and ‘A Quieter Mumbai – Is it a Pipe-Dream?’)
It can be argued that the Indian politician does not want Indians to become educated and more aware; because, if they do, they would certainly not vote for his divisive politics, hood-winking people, corruption and the like. Similarly, it doesn’t appear to be in the interest of the media to focus on real issues affecting the nation because then the trash that goes in the name of ‘news’ won’t sell and the media loses money.
What then is the solution? Our experience with the failed campaign for Lok Ayukta shows that the people who have much to gain from a corrupt society in terms of power and money cannot be expected to pass laws curbing their own powers. Similarly, the media cannot be relied upon to curb its penchant for the sensational and scandalous because of the TRPs that are translated into more money, influence and power. Therefore, people at large have to do the needful themselves. Fortunately, Indians are belatedly realising the power of the social media. We, the people, have to be our own watch-dogs and expose and repel any attempts to be scurrilous and scandalous.
I just did.
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