Anna agitation - a non-stop reality show

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Practice | 26/08/2011
The frenzied coverage of Anna Hazare’s fast by the media surely gives it epic proportions. This is apart from the significance of the movement against corruption itself.
NUPUR BASU says the time for the media to take stock of its role in the movement will be once the fast is over
Ever since the satellite television boom we have seen severalepic moments on private channels. There was the Kargil conflict - dubbed as Indian independent media’s first “war” coverage, the Gujarat earthquake - Indian independent media’s first disaster coverage (the Tsunami followed a few years later), the IC 814 Kandahar hijack - independent media’s first hijack challenge, Gujarat riots post Godhra - independent media’s first major communal conflict (there was no private television during the demolition of Babri Masjid and the riots that followed), the terrorist attacks on Mumbai – independent media’s biggest terrorist attack coverage and so on.
The Anna agitation is indeed the first major people’s movement. In fact it will probably not be wrong to describe it as India’s latest reality show. The movement has taken the nation’s capital and other urban centres by storm. The breathlessness of the coverage and the unevenness of it can perhaps be understood keeping the “first” factor in mind. The “first” has been used as a justification for pulling out all the stops during coverage. From the time Team Anna member Kiran Bedi went into Tihar Jail and filmed the first interview with Anna on fast and put it on You-tube and it was picked up frenetically by the channels, it was clear that anything was going to be fair game in this coverage.
The last time Anna had rallied supporters, I had written in these columns that Indian channels had tried to turn it into Tahrir Square. But this time Ramlila Grounds did begin to resemble Tahrir Sqaure without violence. The coverage is still on as the stalemate continues. But it is truly after the dust settles on Ramlila Grounds that the media will have to take stock of how objectively it really covered the events that unfolded in the last two weeks in the country.
Did most of the channels reveal a bias in reporting the event? Did the journalists who were covering the fast become cheer leaders for Team Anna? Were these journos, who were born several decades after India got independence, being unfair to Gandhi by likening Anna to him?
Arnab Goswami of Times Now clearly led the charge. He openly took sides with the agitation perhaps seeing it as a culmination of the channel’s exposures in recent months on corruption. Running supers like “India for Anna”, “Nation swept by Anna wave” and inviting SMS appeals to support the Anna cause and directing traffic towards the agitation venues, was all part of Arnab’s strategy to put the channel’s weight behind Anna. The rest followed. He was not alone in this adulation. CNN-IBN’s Sagarika Ghose said: “Anna is a noble soul!” Even senior journalists belonging to an entirely different generation, like Prem Shankar Jha, described Anna’s speech on the 10th day as “better then Nehru’s speech-Tryst with Destiny”!
The Hindi channels were indulging in their trademark melodrama. Having deployed cameras mounted on cranes, the Bollywood set was firmly in place. Cutting to pictures of the colourful crowds waving masks of Anna, holding aloft posters of Bhagat Singh and walking the streets with blazing flames (which we were told were being churned out on an industrial scale to meet the demands of the Anna supporters), providing top angle shots of surging masses to catch a glimpse of Anna with hair raising patriotic songs as the backdrop was their response. They played “Sarfaroshi ki tamanna aaj hamaree dil main hain...”, and zoomed in on posters of Anna which read “lage raho anna bhai”, and “kaliyug ki mahabharat”.
Visiting Ground Zero on Day 8, negotiating slushy ground strewn with banana peels, crowds of screaming school children and youth, we made our way to the media enclosures. The team which has been closely advised and joined by ace television people like Manish Sisodia and Shazia Illmi had made sure that the first ring around Anna was the media. One could see the battery of cameras – some hand held, some tripod mounted, some crane mounted. The channel firepower was visible to us first hand. Channels whose names one had never heard of before (ones which one had seen only on hoardings like Samata, Sadhana etc) were all there with their vans and multiple reporters and cameras.  Many journalists on the ground were cynical of the coverage they were part of but confessed that they could not turn the tide as their ‘bosses” wanted pro-Anna stories.
As one reporter from one of the most prominent channels confessed: “We have become the PR agency of Anna!” Forty percent of the youth here are drunk but we dare not say it on air, the TV journo added. Another very senior journalist said: “We have started this manic coverage and now do not know how to get out of it. We are behaving as if there is no other news happening in India - the mass graves found in Kashmir and Kanzimohi wanting to drag PM as witness did not find the news slots they deserved.” He forgot to mention the terrible floods all over the country that had made thousands homeless.
The journalist also suggested that the Information Minister had missed out on the opportunity to call channel heads and ask them to tone down the coverage as they had done in earlier instances of the Kandahar hijack and Mumbai terrorist attacks. Imagine a journalist himself suggesting state censorship - such was the level of helplessness in having to stay pitched at such a hyped coverage. However another senior journalist from a Hindi channel said that the protest was “unprecedented and it deserved unprecedented coverage” totally justifying the cranes deployed to mount cameras in film-set style.
Farah Naqvi, journalist and filmmaker on Sagarika Ghose’s programme, Face the Nation, on the 10th day suggested that the media had been partisan in the Anna coverage. ”Media cannot and should not become part of the story. That is a scary scary situation for democracy,” Naqvi stressed.
Earlier in the day Information and Broadcasting Minister AmbiKa Soni lashed out at the media coverage on Doordarshan: “Media has every right to report the way they want , but that does not mean that you completely blank out theother point of much so that you do not provide a level playing field for everyone.” Soni had a point .But she must also remember that most times governments do not allow a level playing field to civil society movements. DD’s own coverage was biased, but representing the other side. So when the balance tilts, as it did in this case, it tilts completely.
 By Day 10 however, media fatigue had begun to set in.  From the afternoon on after the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Opposition leader had jointly urged Anna from Parliament to give up his fast...the pressure began to build on Team Anna to give up the fast. Said Nikhil Waghle ,Editor in Chief of IBN-Lokmat: “It will be a flawed decision of Team Anna continue to sit in Ramlila Grounds even after Anna has broken his fast – the TV cameras and media will leave and the whole thing will become an anti-climax”. The statement is loaded. It suggests that media was perhaps the main source of oxygen for the entire Anna agitation. A fact that has been acknowledged by many.
It was time to bring in the authentic voices that support the-end-fast theory. What better than on getting Gandhi’s progeny on air .  While describing Anna as truly inspirational, Mahatma Gandhi’s son Gopal Krishna Gandhi said on CNN-IBN on Day 10: “Mahatma would have broken the fast at this juncture.”
The most profound voice came from another of Gandhi’s grandsons, Tushar Gandhi. “When Bapu fasted , there were no losers or victors..and is because he did not see the opposite as adversaries or enemies- he had to make a point about an issue and he would make it through the fast” Tushar Gandhi said on Star News in a programme called “Gandhi se Anna tak”.
Gandhi had no satellite channels to cover his freedom struggle.  Anna has. 
In an amazing split screen on channels on the 11th day, viewers could watch Rahul Gandhi speaking during zero hour in Parliament on one window, while on the other Anna Hazare was shown in the Ramlila Grounds holding a now familiar orange microphone raising the slogan - “Inquilab Zindabad”.
The reality show goes on.
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More