‘Paa' lampoons TV activism

BY Ajitha Menon| IN Media Practice | 11/12/2009
Journalists often have a tendency to the sweep legal aspects of the situation totally under the carpet, and a sub plot in 'Paa' satirises this point.
Is it necessary to overlook the law to champion the cause of the needy, asks AJITHA MENON

In the recently released film 'Paa', there is an interesting sub-plot related to news coverage by the electronic media. The scenes are meant to expose the superficiality of the reportage on television news channels and the irresponsible manner in which reporters often operate, blinded by their own sense of power as opinion makers.


For those who haven't watched the movie, MP Amol (Abhishek Bachchan)-- in the mould of today's young politicians like Sachin Pilot or Rahul Gandhi -- wants to provide flats in hygienic surroundings to slum dwellers encroaching on government land. The slum dwellers have to sign an agreement to allow a private promoter to develop the land. Obviously, along with the flats, the promoter will also do his own extra development on the same land for profit.


While MP Amol is conducting a door to door campaign in the slums to convince the people to participate in the development project, the opposition is carrying out a similar campaign telling the slum dwellers that the whole project is just eye wash to evict them from the land. This scenario is being witnessed across several states in India today in the context of most developmental projects.


The media now makes an entry as the champion of the underdog, carrying out a smear campaign on television against MP Amol's allegedly nefarious plans to render the poor slum dwellers homeless. Now comes the interesting part: instead of retreating, Amol goes on the offensive, and sends several homeless people to encroach on the homes and property of the high-profile reporters.


The point is not the tit-for-tat action undertaken by the hero. And, one even wonders how many viewers would actually get this message. The point is that encroachers are encroachers, whether on government land or private property, and the law is absolutely clear regarding ownership of land or property.


And this is where the media in this country fails terribly. In any given situation -- particularly where the underdog comes into the picture -- the media often has the tendency to the sweep legal aspects of the situation totally under the carpet.  No doubt it is necessary to fight for the underprivileged sections of society, to champion the cause of the needy, and to awaken the government to its social and welfare responsibilities. However, is it necessary to overlook the law? And not investigate the legal situation at all?


In the film, the media pays no attention to the small matter of the actual ownership of the land. And, it is this point that MP Amol ramms home.


The concept might be utopian in a real situation in our country where corruption is rampant, and politicians generally do everything with a vested interest. In such a context, the media has to be a vigilant watchdog. However, does everything have to be negative? Proper investigation and the laying down of the facts are also essential in the coverage of any situation. However, this  is becoming all too rare today. It is this regular overlooking of the legal aspects of a situation by the media, that leads to continuing law and order violations in the country. The media fails in its responsibility to create awareness regarding the law of the land. If it fights for the rights of the people, should it not also enumerate their duties as well?


When was the last time that the media clamoured for the arrest of bandh supporters and party workers -- whose close up pictures they invariably beam with aplomb - damaging public property like buses, or setting police jeeps on fire simply because such activity is against the law of the country? In fact, the law never comes into the purview of the reportage of the rampant hooliganism taking place regularly across India on different issues. The only exception made is when party workers wreck the media's own offices over some news report against them! Then it has been all too quick to demand their arrest.


When encroachers on the pavements were being evicted by the Kolkata Corporation a few years ago, the media was divided on the coverage. While one side wanted the so-called 'eyesores' to go, and the city to have neat sidewalks, another side was yelling blue murder, accusing the government of evicting the helpless poor for its own interests.


However, the fact is that pavement dwellers were encroaching on public property. The legal aspect of this is again crystal clear, and this aspect was not defined by the press. The media has the right to question the government on the rehabilitation of these homeless poor. Indeed, this is not only justified but also needed. However, for the media to ask that 'how dare the government evict the poor from its own land?' can hardly be deemed correct or desirable.


Unfortunately, this kind of clarity and  distinctions relating to the law of the land -- that should be required when reporting on  any subject -- is what is often missing in news coverage. The main reason is that there is no in-depth investigation of any issue. The electronic media in particular is so dependent on 'sound-bite' journalism that all reporting is now absolutely on face value. Today, even mere allegations are passed off as 'news.'


A good example of this is the Singur episode (regarding the setting up a coach factory on acquired land) in which the Railway Minister, Mamata Banerjee, made repeated public statements about the railways being willing to set up an industry in the area: the Chief Secretary of West Bengal had barely announced that he had written to the Railway Board asking for its proposal , when the electronic media immediately put out 'breaking news' saying 'Government to give Singur land to Mamata.'


This is what television viewers saw and heard for a few hours. The discussion in the streets, buses, and tea shops was about how the government had cowed down before Mamata Banerjee. The public should not be blamed for jumping to this conclusion since that was the impression created by TV news. The question that arises is: why didn't the 'breaking news' say 'State government asks for Railway Proposal for Singur land?' The latter would have been more  exact and factually correct; but perhaps not juicy enough?


Matters became clearer only during the panel discussions in the evening, and more so when the next day's newspapers arrived. Most papers had the full story: the government had actually put the ball in Mamata Banerjee's court in a political manoeuvre to force her to take responsibility for her speeches, as well as act on them.  The Chief Secretary had not actually made a commitment to give the land to the Railways. The Tata's still hold the lease, and there is much red tape involved if the Railways want to take over the land. However, the electronic media overlooked all these essential elements in the story when they decided on how to word its 'breaking news.' In other words, 'incomplete' information can constitute 'wrong' information, even if it is aired for a short time.


The above is an example from a recent news story; however, there are incidents galore of this kind. I remember a news report in an afternoon Kolkata daily which said 'Mother Teresa Dead' in the headline. However, in the smaller print that followed, it was written that these were merely 'rumours doing the rounds of the city.' In fact, the Mother was in hospital, seriously ill. 


Students of journalism are always being educated about 'factual reporting' and 'credibility.' However, unfortunately, what we witness today is just a play on words. The news is twisted or hyped in a manner that has no relation to truth. In fact, one could say that the definition of truth itself in the media has become compromised by the individual reporter's interpretation, or the media organization's policy regarding its headlines.


Reporters should actually pause for a moment, and wonder 'what if the happenings in 'Paa' actually happened to them in real life?' It is not a pleasant thought! 


Shouldn't 'Don't bend the truth, be objective' be the first rule of journalism, in any case, and in all cases?