Ashutosh's media histrionics

IN Media Practice | 25/04/2015
As every party shamelessly exploited Gajendra Singh's suicide for their own ends, AAP's spokesman Ashutosh outdid them all with his studio tears.
There was little the viewer could do to prepare for what AAP spokesperson Ashutosh unleashed during an interview on Aaj Tak on Friday. One moment he was in conversation with Megha, the daughter of Gajendra Singh, the farmer who hanged himself at Jantar Mantar during an AAP rally earlier in the week. The next, he was bawling his heart out, pleading with everyone from Rajnath Singh to Sonia Gandhi not to politicise the death of the farmer. 
For Aaj Tak, Ashutosh’s reaction was a godsend. No editor would rebuff the massive TRP boost such a clip would bestow on the channel. Ashutosh himself is a former media head, so he understands the power of such visceral reactions captured on screen. The question is whether he really felt sorry for Megha and could not control himself or whether his reaction was a well-thought-out ploy to evoke sympathy and thereby change the narrative around the suicide. 
It would be cynical, if no less true for that, to claim that Ashutosh was merely playing to the gallery. Since Gajendra Singh’s suicide on Wednesday, a series of charges have been levelled against the AAP for not doing more to prevent the tragedy. AAP chief and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has apologised for not cancelling the event and abandoning his speech even after Gajendra had killed himself. The Delhi police, meanwhile, smell a larger conspiracy and have named AAP in the FIR.
To be sure, this is not the first time that Ashutosh has lost his composure on screen. As the IBN7 chief reporting on the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, he had seemed to be on the verge of spilling tears while speaking about the massive crowds that had gathered at India Gate to protest against the atrocity.
However, the duration of his Friday outburst, if it can be called that, makes one suspect. He kept crying for a good five-odd minutes, even as Gajendra’s daughter listened to him in silence. At one point, it got too much and it was she – the girl who had lost her father – who felt the need to console Ashutosh by saying no one was blaming the political class for the death. 
Even if Ashutosh’s tears were genuine, the irony of a man crying over the death of someone whose daughter is in the same frame was not lost on anyone. 
Meanwhile, reports of Gajendra Singh having been in touch with Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia added weight to the contention that the AAP may have tried to derive political mileage from the suicide. Cynics also wagged that the threat of a CBI inquiry was making the AAP leadership run for cover. 
It is against this background that Ashutosh’s crying spell was judged. But if it was aimed at scotching rumours about the party’s intent and presenting them as the guardians of public morality they keep advertised themselves as, the move, at first blush, has not succeeded.
It is the omnipotent barometer of social media buzz on which I base that opinion. Expectedly, the channel kept running Ashutosh’s clip on loop and by evening #AshuCries was trending on Twitter. While a few reactions on Twitter and Facebook sympathized with Ashutosh, most saw his act as a “drama”. 
Ashutosh’s action also begs the question if, in the intensely competitive and unnecessarily cacophonous media climate of today, an over-the-top reaction is not merely endurable, it is practically mandatory. 
In the glut of opinion and rhetoric, not to mention slanging prime time debates, might this not herald a trend of politcos wearing their heart on their sleeves in order to connect with the viewer? Nothing gets eyeballs as good theatre does, and Ashutosh’s crying was nothing if not that. Whether it will exonerate the party in the public eye remains to be seen.
Beyond this specific melodrama, however, Gajendra’s suicide raises broader questions related to media coverage of farmer distress. If it had not been for his choice of location -- a political rally in the heart of Delhi with cameras galore -- it is unlikely that the media, and consequently the political class, would be so bothered with the issue. 
Everyone from the Prime Minister down made sombre speeches in Parliament even though farmer suicide is hardly a recent phenomenon. The Prime Minister said as much in the Lok Sabha, as he sought the House’s opinion on dealing with an age-old problem. Yet, going by the reactions, it would seem that farmer suicide was a completely unexpected development in this country.
It would not be out of place to assume that this outpouring of grief, real or feigned, among the political class is directly correlated to the media coverage of Gajendra’s suicide. 
On Wednesday night, nearly every channel held panel discussions on the farmers’ plight in this country. The land bill, which the Opposition is determined to squash, was a significant point of debate. Most channels were interested in probing the so-called conspiracy behind the incident. Even as the discussion was welcome, it was impossible to shake off the feeling that the issue had been deemed worthy of prime time debate only because something grave had happened in the heart of the national capital. 
Of the channels I watched, only Abhigyan Prakash and Ravish Kumar of NDTV India travelled to the hinterland to tell us why life for the farmer was so difficult. 
Meanwhile, the AAP media circus continues unabated. For a party that has always prided itself on outsize media support, such a state of affairs must definitely hurt. No sooner had they extricated themselves of the Yogendra Yadav-Prashant Bhushan suspension issue than this happened. 
With Kejriwal’s apology and now Ashutosh’s outpouring, the media, if no one else, can continue to have a field day at the party’s expense. 
Such articles are only possible because of your support. Help the Hoot. The Hoot is an independent initiative of the Media Foundation and requires funds for independent media monitoring. Please support us. Every rupee helps.
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