Dec 9, 2008

India - Do we deserve this ?


Apart from the terror attacks last week, civil society had also to put up with the media assault on its collective sensibility…

We are told people get the politicians they deserve. Do they also get the media they deserve? As chaotic and emotional as themselves, developing a destructive momentum which would leave societies elsewhere gaping in disbelief?

Consider what purposes satellite television served during and since the terror assault on Mumbai. A non-stop, news-generated soap opera that you could plug into whenever you wished. A source of leads for the terrorists, which they could plug into whenever they wished. A platform for hyperventilating for outraged citizens, mostly of a class pursued by advertisers. A pillorying point for politicians. And a site for war mongering, no less.

There was a consensus emerging last week among the class of people we describe as civil society, that the terror assault was magnified by a media assault on our collective sensibility. If you go by the emails whizzing around and even an online petition to stop live TV coverage of terror attacks, Indians with an Opinion developed a temporary allergy to Messrs. Goswami and Sardesai, and Ms. Dutt. And presumably to the buccaneers at Headlines Today, though they are not mentioned as much. The Hindi channels paled into insignificance this time around, though they tried hard enough. The virulence was in the English news channels and viewers are reacting sharply. What has happened to the city of Mumbai and its people is bad enough, without television coming in to queer the pitch in the post-attack blame game.

Setting the tone

First, TV sets the tone with its labelling. Here is a sampling: “India’s 9/11”. (In case you thought it was anything less.) “Maut ki Aatank”, “Enough is Enough”. “Aatank ka DNA”. “Mumbai is angry”. “Sharm karo netaji”. “Aatank par halla bol”. “Pak under fire”. “CM refuses to apologise for insult to martyr”. And so on.

Then there is the editorialising which was a constant, and reached a high point in the anti-politician sentiment that was whipped up. Times Now anchor: “Vilas Rao Deshmukh is clinging stubbornly to his post”. NDTV’s Jaipur correspondent on the BJP and Congress running ads against each other in Rajasthan — “The slamfest advertising is a clear sign of how low our politics is sinking”. “Pranab Mukherjee gave the Pakistan ambassador a dressing down.” (Can’t recall the channel.) Zaka Jacob railing for at least half an hour on Headlines Today on the need to bring the Kerala CM to account. The clear pandering to middle class disenchantment was completely unabashed.

Newspapers come out once a day in cogent packages, telling you whatever they could ferret out and make sense of in the last 24 hours. TV fills time, whipping up controversies and keeping them alive. Muqhtar Abbas Naqvi, Mr. Achutanand, Mr. Vilas Rao Deshmukh’s terror tourism — all three provided fodder for at least two days running to channels which found no time at all for the aftermath of the shootings at the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminal.

Then the war mongering. First Simi Garewal getting a platform to rabble rouse on “We the People”, suggesting that the government should attack terror camps across the border. (That is when she was not suggesting that slum dwellers in Mumbai fly Pakistani flags.) Then rhetoric like this on News 24: “Desh ke jawan se milega aapko mu tod jawab”. Then the polls. Imagine a news channel anywhere else running a poll saying, “Do you think India should attack terrorist bases in Pakistan?” (Times Now). Are we now playing Risk on news television?

Finally, TV being a hyperventilating station meant that you could get a trendy Mumbai crowd to suggest that a million people should stop paying taxes to teach the government a lesson. Or run a vox populi sound bite as Times Now did saying Muqhtar Abbas Naqvi would be slapped by a 100 people if he came to Mumbai.

In October this year the free-wheeling news channel fraternity instituted what passes for self-regulation. The News Broadcasters Association set about doing a self-regulatory exercise in order to keep the government off its back. They appointed a News Broadcasting Standards (Disputes Redressal) Authority and laid down procedures just cumbersome enough to ensure that they would not be flooded with actionable complaints. And do we know where and how to file these complaints? No, because the scrolling of this information that the channels are supposed to do, is not done.

The name of the authority is revealing. Its task is to redress disputes, not reorder the boundaries of day-to-day functioning with laid down guidelines. Not to actually say, in times of covering a terrorist operation, you will ensure that you do such and such, or don’t do such and such.

Just a ritual

This is entirely in keeping with what has become the norm since 1997 when a draft law was presented by the ministry for information and broadcasting. Attempting media regulation in India has become a ritual which keeps the demands for accountability at bay. There seems to be a tacit understanding all round that nothing and nobody will actually be reined in. Last fortnight the NBA secretariat issued an advisory on the second day of the attack, advising restraint but not being specific.

If Justice J.S. Verma and his fellow civil society eminences — Dipankar Gupta, Ram Guha, Nitin Desai, and Kiran Karnik want to weigh in with enforceable regulatory guidelines that ensure that the media is an asset and not a menace in times of national stress, the time is now. Otherwise it will be clear that they are just letting their names be used by a bunch which is determined to cling to its freedom to run amuck.

Correction: In the column of November 23, the references to Massachusetts should have read Connecticut.

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