The dynasty: inverting news values

BY AMRIT DHILLON| IN Media Practice | 20/05/2015
When a headless body turns up in a topless bar or a man bites a dog, it is news. In India, it is news if Rahul and Sonia Gandhi speak.
AMRIT DHILLON muses on this strange phenomenon. Pix: Gandhi speaks in parliament.

When Rahul Gandhi starts doing something he should have been doing for 11 years, is that news? Yes and no. Yes, in that his conduct is new and different and the change must be noted. No, because how can it be news for an MP to speak in Parliament? Unless of course, he was born with a non-functioning larynx and, after a voice box transplant, is able to speak for the first time. 

Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have done some voodoo on news values and the language that reporters use to describe their behaviour. They have been supremely successful in managing expectations to suit themselves. 

The obvious example is Sonia Gandhi realizing long ago that she is timid, a bad speaker, unable to speak extempore and answer questions, has a strong accent, and lacks mastery of the issues she will be questioned on. 

Therefore she decided to wall herself off from the media. I cannot recall Sonia Gandhi ever submitting herself to a tough interview, the kind politicians the world over have to endure. Rajdeep Sardesai, Rajiv Shukla, Shekhar Gupta, and Vir Sanghvi (and perhaps others) have interviewed her but they were as soft as souffles.

Even after last year’s general election defeat, she and Rahul held a press conference that lasted just over two minutes in which  they accepted their defeat (while Rahul grinned away) but arrogantly walked away without taking a single question. 

Generally only African dictators get away with this level of unaccountability and lack of media scrutiny. But the Indian media has consistently let Sonia Gandhi get away with a brazen disregard for her obligation to explain her party’s policies and decisions. 

She has been never accosted on this matter, never put on the mat, never aggressively attacked for behaving like a haughty empress rather than an elected leader who must answer questions. No one ever told her, either you are in politics or you are not. You can’t be half in and half out, just as you can’t be slightly pregnant.

Instead, we have the opposite. While treating her with kid gloves over her imperiousness and lack of accountability, journalists are beside themselves with excitement if she ever deigns to speak, as she sometimes does once in a while in Parliament these days.

Look at what happened recently when she criticised the government for leaving certain posts such as the Central Vigilance Commissioner vacant and for lack of transparency and good governance. Her delivery was feeble, her voice high-pitched, her tone unconvincing and her manner - not surprising when you need notes, even after all these years - lacking authority.

Reading the papers, though, you would think this speech had been a Churchillian tour de force. They said she ‘slammed’ Modi; she took the Lok Sabha ‘by storm’; she ‘tore into’ Modi; she ‘hit out’ at Modi; Sonia ‘skewered’ the PM; and, this one had me chuckling, she mounted a ‘blistering attack’ on the government. 

Labour leader Denis Healey famously said, years ago when he was criticised by the mild-mannered Geoffrey Howe in Parliament, that an attack from Howe was ‘like being savaged by a dead sheep’. If Modi had been in Parliament that day, that’s how he would have felt.

But for the papers, the very fact that she had spoken at all was newsworthy and since it is such a rare event, they went gaga over a set of trite, anodyne remarks.  The  coverage she received was a PR person’s fantasy.    

This bizarre dynamic between the Gandhis and the media has subverted normal news values. Another example was when Sonia Gandhi led opposition MPs in a protest march from Parliament to Rashtrapati Bhavan against the land acquisition bill in March.

This was hailed as a piece of extraordinary political leadership. But she is in politics, for God’s sake. She is the president of the Congress Party, not the Avon Lady.  She is meant to do things like that.

Rahul Gandhi too has been allowed to get away with speaking in Parliament only twice in 11 years, before his most recent speech on April 21 which had the media in a tizzy. Again, it is normal for the Congress’ prime minister designate to speak in Parliament. The story is not that he did, but why he hasn’t for so long. Why did he become an MP if he neither wanted to question the government nor propound his own views?  The media has allowed him to get away with this outrageous conduct.

The normal activity of speaking in Parliament, as he did on his return from an extended vacation, turned into a huge news event, relayed non-stop on television channels. Do newspapers report a CEO turning up for work? Or a policeman doing his job?

Did any reporter try to get a scoop on where he went for 56 days, a disappearing act no other politician would be able to get away with? Or did their media houses not encourage it? Even after his return, has any journalist thrust a microphone at him and asked him point blank where he was for 56 days?  

True, he has been criticised in some quarters but really it’s been pretty gentle stuff. Anywhere else in the world, he would have been booed off the political stage – or laughed off – long ago.  

But the Gandhis are different. They expect the media to hold them up to a different standard from others and much of the media obliges most of the time.

It is a measure of their status in Indian public life and their success in managing both media and public expectations that whenever they do a mere five per cent of what they are meant to do – according to their own voluntary choice to be in public life, mind you, and not from any external imposition - it is deemed to be a news event.

This has gone on for too long now for it to be rectified. Journalists are barely aware of how distorted their news judgement is when it comes to the dynasty. We’ll just have to live with it. But it is very strange nonetheless.

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