The JJ story: The day after

BY Sanjay Bharthur| IN Regional Media | 30/09/2014
Jayalalithaa's conviction attracted some interesting coverage from Kannada news channels, particularly TV9.
But SANJAY BHARTHUR was intrigued at how some channels took their eye off the ball, lulled by the 18 years it took for the verdict. PIX: Jayalalitha

Judgment day for J. Jayalalithaa naturally attracted media attention. With the court located in Bengaluru, Kannada news channels, particularly Tv9, mounted  non-stop coverage. National English news channels also tracked it, albeit with caution, and by balancing it with coverage of Narendra Modi in America.

Tv9’s reporting was spot on. With an interesting and relevant panel that included a Kannada speaking advocate (with sympathies for Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK party) from Chennai, B. V. Acharya, the former special prosecutor for the case, and other legal experts, the channel analysed the pros and cons of the judgement.

The discussion was refreshingly different for those of us accustomed to anchor-dominated shows that privilege the anchor and not the views of a cross section of people. In an unrelated observation, the former I&B minister and current IT minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, paid tribute to what he called the maturing of the media while obliquely hinting at the raucousness of some anchors. “Earlier, we used to outshout each other. Anchors spoke more, some still do it. But the process of maturing has started.”

What perhaps Tv9 did was to break the news much before other channels that Jayalalithaa had been convicted. Headlines Today’s T.S. Sudheer reported that the police had pleaded with them to avoid breaking the news because of their fear of law and order problems.

Sun TV channel, owned by Jayalithaa’s rival party, the DMK, was cautious in its coverage even though, though its contacts, it may have got the news around the same time as Tv9. They, however, implied that some Kannada channels were reporting that she had been convicted.    

Arnab Goswami of Times Now did not have the advantage of breaking the news early but tried to catch up later while also simultaneously promoting the line that the nation was awaiting the snub that India would give to Pakistan in Modi’s speech at the UN.  

The day after the judgement, The Hindu gave banner treatment to  the Jayalalithaa story with Mod’s speech placed below. It offered a number of stories on the judgment, its implications and the build-up to it.

In a front page editorial, it applauded the verdict and called for immediate action to contain any violence and ensure the safety of Kannadigas because the judgment was pronounced in a Karnataka special court.  

Given that the case had dragged on for 18 years and that Jayalithaa’s political fortunes had risen in the interim, public memory of the corruption charges against her had waned and there was a sense of people being caught off guard by the judgement.

The media attempted to refresh memories, both of the case and of the involvement of Jayalithaa’s friend Sasikala. In fact, the silence of the media leading up to the judgment is intriguing. Corruption was an issue in the recent elections in Tamil Nadu yet there was a perception somehow that this was just another case which a mighty political leader would sail through.

The lack of public debate about alternatives to her leadership, given that she cannot stand for election now in the next assembly elections in 2016, is either the result of apathy or the belief that the AIADMK will manage, despite the blow.

Although analysts point out that her grip over the party will continue, if the conviction is not overturned by the Supreme Court, the period of her incarceration will prompt other AIADMK leaders to start harbouring ambitions.

The one factor mitigating the possibility that the party may crumble from these pressures is its strong performance, not just in the assembly but also the Lok Sabha elections. Subramanian Swamy, who is now credited with initiating the accusations against Jayalalithaa, will smell an opportunity for the national parties to step in.

Yet, the Dravidian factor that unites the polity in Tamil Nadu may offer stiff resistance, notwithstanding the emergence of youth as a factor that is expected to weigh nationalist agenda and aspirations.

The Dravidian parties derive their strengths from self-respect movement and affirmative action particularly with regard to education and employment. With these goals now a reality as far as TN is concerned, they may look towards national parties for enhanced opportunities and mobility.  

With state elections due in 2016, the public, and particularly the media, have a huge responsibility to contain any knee jerk reactions to the conviction and to allow for a smooth transition. The debates and coverage in the Tamil news channels, which have clear political biases, will be interesting to watch.

The tabloid press will push the news in many interesting ways, including analysis of the assets that have now been declared as ill-gotten. The nature and trajectory of Jayalithaa’s friendship with Sasikala will also be dissected, along with other juicy tidbits.   

The fact that the media failed to treat the case as a developing story and that analysts and politicians have failed to discuss, as the trial neared completion,  what would  happen if Jayalithaa ended up in jail, are a reflection of the way a personality can dominate political discourse.

Yet, with the judiciary playing a more visible role, it could be argued that the dynamic of media coverage needs to change. Whether it will is another question. The nexus of dominant interest groups in media ownership is acute and public discourse on the state and governance is likely to shrink.

Yes, a Subramanian Swamy or a Prashant Bhushan may have the resilience to doggedly pursue an issue (with or without political motives). But the media’s infatuation with sensational news raises the question of whether it can keep coverage focussed on a story for long enough for the public to grasp its importance and be ready for the denouement.   

There are few other cases in Indian politics of persons holding high office being unseated by court verdicts. The closest parallel is June 12, 1975 when the Allahabad High Court held Prime Minister Indira Gandhi guilty of violating the Representation of People’s Act.  

This judgement, with no television channels and radio news controlled by the government, took more than 24 hours to reach the people. Today’s media is certainly quicker to break the news and yet, oddly enough, perhaps because of its concentration on chasing new and ever more sensational stories, it was caught unprepared for the verdict on a court case that began in 1996.


(B. P. Sanjay is Professor of Communication, Sarojini Naidu School of Art & Communication, University of Hyderabad.)

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