News or Reality TV?

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Practice | 31/05/2008
Do we, citizens of this country, actually need protective laws to save us from the ugliness of media?
PADMAJA SHAW wonders why news channels chase the lurid instead of the relevant.

Indian commercial television is in terminal decline. Specially the news channels.


A couple of weeks back a young Indian woman, Jyothirmayi, was murdered by an Indian student in UK. Her family is from Vijayawada. TV9, the channel that pompously sports the tagline ¿for a better society¿, pounced on this story digging up the family, any one remotely connected with the victim (including people shooting the breeze at the street side tea-stall) it appeared. In their anxiety to ¿break¿ the news, they put out unverified information about the victim and the aggressor being classmates in India, being ¿lovers¿ in UK and such other details. Unfortunately, the anchor of the bulletin was a woman, the reporter was a woman. The reporter held forth extempore about loose behaviour and over-familiarity of the victim that could have led to her murder! This, when neither the family nor the UK police or any one has given any information to them, based completely on the need to spin a story from the basic information. To hell with the family.


The shattered family had to plead with the channels to leave them alone to cope with the loss and trauma.


Now there is  Arushi murder case in Delhi. It suits the Delhi police ¿force¿ fine so far to let the media run amuck and destroy all evidence. The force could teach a trick or two to our young enthusiastic journalists about spinning a yarn that can be made to stick without a shred of evidence. The journalists were breathlessly repeating every thing the official said (the official referred to Arushi as Shruthi at least thrice during the press conference!) about the two families. Serious aspersions about their personal affairs like wife-swapping, and Arushi-Hemraj affair were thrown about by this official with impunity and no evidence, and instead of questioning the official for proof, the media ended up hounding the families.


Entire news bulletins were devoted to the case and the great analytical skills of the daring young reporters on the streets of Delhi, who repeated the same information ad nauseum, and attempted to whip up passion about ¿how can a father kill his own daughter?¿. The need for careful investigation, real experts from forensic departments and other material evidence is completely forgotten.


Does the police have the right to think aloud about motives at a press conference without adequate ground work? Can they build the story on the spot, while answering the questions from journalists? Can the Talwars and Durranis sue the police force for floating the rumours about their life style, and their dead child? Can they sue the media for spreading the police statements and spicing them up further to cater to the prurient curiosity of the viewers? Do we, citizens of this country, actually need protective laws to save us from the ugliness of media?


It is universally acknowledged that the Indian police force does not set much store by diligent investigation. It is either third degree confessions or the art of cooking up evidence and planting evidence for a quick and dirty solution. It suited the state to pander to this in the case of left-wing extremism. Encounters and illegal detentions and gross violations of human rights are tolerated by the state in such cases and now it has become the style of functioning of the police, about which senior retired officials are aghast. One finds that media plays footsie with the police because they need them


While these kinds of cases are meaty with possibilities, where the ¿force¿, bless its soul, is with the journalists, one hardly sees similar guts and passion on part of the journalists when it comes to the murder of a young social activist, Lalit Mehta, who was killed for tracking the implementation of NREGA programme in Chattisgarh. This may not deserve even a mention on a prime time bulletin and the invisible hands at work can rest assured that no misplaced media attention will be wasted on such trivia.

Dr Binayak Sen is under illegal detention for a whole year and the issue does not exist for the electronic media. There was no murder. No muck to chase. Ironically, this kind of reporting has an oxymoron to describe it – human interest! Which human¿s interests are served by this frenzy? Jyothirmayi¿s shattered family? The Talwars and the Durrani¿s? Or is it the corporate interests? The extended advertising breaks on the channels between prurient, gushing gossip that keeps the cash coming in? The SMS frenzy – ¿are urban fathers turning killers?¿ ¿TYPE QOTD Y for yes, TYPE QOTD N for no¿; ¿do you think the Durranis are innocent?¿ (I just heard about them from the policeman at the press conference, for heaven¿s sake!) Never mind. ¿TYPE QOTD Y for yes, TYPE QOTD N for no¿ Half the revenue for the channel and half for the phone company. Keep it coming.


Reviewing ¿The Fourth Network¿, a book on Fox Network in America, the reviewer says, Murdoch is a baffling creep: "the poster boy of the cultural contradictions of capitalism," as John Powers calls him in Sore Winners, "whose enterprises subvert the very institutions and values he claims to be conserving." If one watched some of the big brother English news channels like the IBN-CNN or Times Now, the reporters expressed outrage at how obtrusive the media has been and how they may actually have destroyed the evidence, while being senior participants in the enterprise. The channels would merrily go on nevertheless to milk the story in its various possibilities through the day. This was a tragic twin-murder but the impact is confined to Delhi and the families. Does it deserve to hog the entire bulletin, every bulletin of the day that goes to the entire nation?


But Dr Binayak Sen¿s detension or Lalit Mehta¿s murder would certainly be of great consequence for those hundreds of dedicated people who are working for the poor and fighting for justice in this country. That, one would have said, was human interest.


Two likely outcomes are possible from this madness. One: The viewer gets sick and tired and keeps his own counsel and learns to do without the media. Two, it leads  to complete depoliticization of the population into chasing individual lives and crimes, instead of focussing on the issues that impact larger number of disenfranchised lives. The corporate media is drunk on its money-spinning abilities. More so, the news channels, which seem to be a new genre of reality TV for us. Sadly, one does not see good sense prevailing any time soon.



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