Saturday, 22 December 2012

Where is the voice of sanity?

When emotional crowds justifiably agitated over a horrific crime go out control, what should the role of the media be? Should it try to bring some sobriety and perspective into the debate? Or should it further stir up the frenzy and add to the shrillness?
My training as a journalist tells me it should be the first. But when I see crowds going berserk on Rajpath and Vijay Chowk, and television channels proudly claiming they have their best professionals and three cameras there to cover the `historic moment’, I am beginning to think that it is the latter that is the norm now.
As young people scream incoherently into television cameras and mikes, saying this should be the last rape ever (!!!), the culprits should be handed to us and we will punish them, excited television reporters are and anchors scream even louder – `this is people’s anger manifesting itself’, `young people getting agitated and demanding answers’, `people are getting frustrated’.
One can understand young people getting over-excited, but what explanation could be there for seasoned reporters and anchors to add to the lynch-mob hysteria, asking leading questions guaranteed to get only certain answers from those being asked those questions,
fulminating about police resorting to tear gas and lathi-charge (what are they supposed to do when crowds go berserk and try to break police cordons in a high-security area) and whipping up passions by talking about police high-handedness (prompting a desperately-seeking-relevance L.K. Advani to ask the home minister to ensure restraint by the police) and government `dishing out platitudes’. Did any one point out to the crowds blocking the roads to two of the busiest hospitals in Delhi – AIIMS and Safdarjang Hospital – and demonstrating loudly on Friday that they were not being fair to other patients? No. Everything is justified if it makes for great television.
Colleagues who walked down to Raisina Hill to join in the protests came back shocked and shaken. In a rally to protest rape, lewd remarks were being passed about girls, MC/BC abuses were being hurled freely (at a rally in support of women’s dignity, mind you) people were climbing lamp posts and asking their friends to take their pictures, garbage was being thrown at policemen. But on the news channels, there was only a passing reference to some lumpen elements having crept in.
What came across on Saturday was the desperate attempt by television news channels to milk the protests for whatever TRPs they were worth. Actually, it seems more than that. There seemed to be a bit of orchestration as well to ensure eyeballs on a weekend when news is normally thin. Parliament was over. Narendra Modi had got a decisive mandate in Gujarat. It would normally have been a relaxed weekend. Would the crowds have swelled to such numbers if different channels hadn’t launched different `campaigns’ and asked people to join in?
Times Now had a line running at the bottom of the screen, `Why can’t politicians ask for an emergency session of Parliament to pass a stricter law’. Its reporters and political editor dutifully went around asking the young people, `what do you want the government to do’, following it up immediately with `do you think there should be a special session of Parliament to pass a law’. Obviously, the youngsters said yes. By evening of Saturday, BJP leader Sushma Swaraj was asking for an emergency session of Parliament.
Did anyone stop to think about the folly of rushing through such an important legislation? Don’t we have enough problems created by poorly-drafted legislation passed with hardly any discussion? Haven’t we learnt any lessons from Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which has lent itself to so much misuse?
Headlines Today had this line on the top of its live coverage - `Govt deaf to protests’. What did it want the government to do? It wasn’t clear. The channel was more incoherent than the protestors. The answer was provided by another channel, which decided that someone from the government should come and talk to the protestors. “Shouldn’t Rahul Gandhi come here and show solidarity with them?” That then became the favoured chant as they went around asking the young people that question. Maybe by the end of the day Rahul Gandhi would turn up there.
Lest this piece comes across as a rant against the electronic media alone, let me point out that the print media has not been much better. It’s just that the hysteria is not so graphic as on television screens. I was appalled by a Times of India heading on 20 December: `Shaken by a tsunami of protests, govt comes out with some half measures’. These measures were about ensuring that buses remove dark films from their windows and keep the lights on inside the bus at night, that they are parked with the owner and not the driver during off-duty hours, more policing. The bus on which the girl was raped passed five police pickets only because curtains and dark films on its windows ensured that nobody could see what was going on inside. These are half-measures?
If the media is going to behave so irresponsibly, how is it any better than the politicians it keeps criticising? And who is going to provide a voice of sanity that is so desperately needed?

Monday, 17 December 2012

Burying the Bizarre

How cruel can you get, Delhi? screamed the headline of the lead story in Sunday’s HT City, the colour supplement on happenings in the Capital. The story was about how crass Delhi-ites now showcase live installations at weddings. An `Ice Man’ dressed only in a dhoti and fake ornaments on his torso who stands on ice for hours greeting guests and having money thrown at him. Young girls becoming human bars with their skirts doubling as tables. Human fountains, with the fountains attached to the headgear of girls who have to stand still for hours.  It was a disturbing peak into a depraved Delhi.
But should this story have been buried in HT City? Shouldn’t this have made it to the front page of the main paper, to highlight the depths to which Delhi has sunk? Why is it less horrific than the story of gang rapes that regularly make it to the front pages?
There is a clear human interest angle in the story – a man dances on ice for six hours and gets paid a measly Rs 1500. Girls who double up as live bars complain of being groped. If the desperation of a tribal woman who sells her child for food can make it the front pages, why can’t the story of these people? Surely it must be a pressing need for money that pushes them to this work?
Or – and I do hope I am wrong on this count – is the placement in HT City a kind of promotion of such fads, with the heading only serving to have a reverse psychology kind of effect? After all, it is well known that these colour supplements have a large promotional element in them.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Omerta is Broken

As some of my posts on my other blog, would have shown, I am no admirer of Arvind Kejriwal and his fellow agitators for the Jan Lokpal Bill. I have found them to be extremely unreasonable and dogmatic in the way they conduct themselves.
But I have to grudgingly thank Kejriwal for one achievement – making the Indian media break its self-imposed censorship over the Gandhi family. Read this excellent piece by R. Jagannathan in Firstpost.
His article deals only with the Robert Vadra issue, but can we forget the collective media silence over Sonia Gandhi’s health? I will let another article in The Hindu encapsulate that whole issue.
Such deep concern for the Gandhi family’s privacy stands out in sharp contrast to the complete disregard for the privacy of other public personalities. That right wasn’t available to the Prime Minister or to his predecessor, Atal Behari Vajpayee. In both cases, stories in the media about their health went into excruciating detail of their ailments, complete with diagrams, and their dietary habits. Subramanian’s article makes the point that no media organization reported on Vajpayee's failing health till the government itself made the disclosure. But in Gandhi’s case even after it was known that she was in the United States for treatment, no one bothered to try and get the details.
Or take the case of an even more private matter – state of a marriage, which had no bearing at all on the public office – in the case of Omar Abdullah, as I pointed out in this post.
Why also has no media ever reported about the silence of the government even on RTI requests regarding Sonia Gandhi? It is well known that the RTI activist whom Narendra Modi quoted on his now-denied Rs 1880 crore figure never got a reply to his question. Firstpost has filed RTIs on her foreign trips but hasn't got a reply. Why has this never become an issue in the media?
It isn’t just about the way the Gandhi family is reported on. It is also about the fawning attitude the media has in any interaction the Gandhi family, especially Sonia, has with it. These interactions are always on their terms, by the way. I don’t recall seeing any interview where Sonia Gandhi has been subjected to aggressive questioning the way all other political leaders are. If there is any such interview, I would be grateful if someone can let me know so I can correct this statement.
Meanwhile, two episodes have etched themselves permanently in my memory.
One is Sonia Gandhi’s first press conference at the Congress office on Akbar Road. This must have been in the late 1990s or early 2000s. It was touted as a big thing and lots of people came armed with questions. But the whole show was a carefully orchestrated one, with the Congress media managers having identified which journalists were to be allowed to ask questions. Others who kept raising their hands to ask a question were ignored. There’s probably nothing new about it, it happens in other parties as well. But what stood out in this case was that no one protested at this blatant rigging of a press conference nor was anything written about it.
The second episode is the sight of a now-celebrated aggressive television anchor, who had managed to interview Sonia Gandhi briefly (in his reporting days), asking a senior Congress leader, sycophancy writ all over his bearing - `did Madam see my interview? What did she think? Did she like it?’
Is it any wonder then that it requires a Kejriwal to get the media to start looking into the Gandhi family son-in-law’s business dealings?

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

When Statements Go Unchallenged

Incidents of atrocities against Dalits in Haryana are increasing, says Prakash Javdekar, Rajya Sabha MP and spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party on a television show to discuss the issue in the light of the horrible incident in Hissar, Haryana, where a Dalit girl was gangraped and her father committed suicide because of the humiliation.
He is from the BJP and there is a Congress government in Haryana, so political grandstanding is inevitable.
“Crime being committed per lakh [population of scheduled caste] is the highest in Haryana,” asserts P. L . Punia, Congress MP and head of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes on the same show. Grandstanding on his part is also inevitable, given his official position.
“Why is it that only Dalits get raped by upper castes, whether it is Khairlanji [the 2006 carnage in Mahrashtra] or Haryana?” asks activist Kancha Ilaiah, another participant in the show. He too can be forgiven for being dramatic – he has made a name as a Dalit scholar and activist and is expected to take a certain position.
But is it the job of the media to let all these statements go unchallenged?
NDTV anchor Vishnu Som did not ask any of these gentlemen to substantiate their statements with figures. I am providing the link to the show here.
Does Javdekar have any firm numbers on the rise in atrocities in Haryana?
We don’t know.
Is Punia basing his statement on some study? Can he give any numbers on how many crimes per lakh of population, which is the state with second highest crimes per lakh population? We don’t know.
Can Ilaiah back his startling claim with data? Are upper caste men really raping only Dalit women? Are they not raping upper caste women? Then what about the cases of rape of upper caste women? Who are the perpetrators?
We don’t know.
Okay, so let us concede that Som, in his hurry to wrap up the programme, forgot to ask follow up questions to the panelists.
But does a newspaper have that same excuse?
Punia repeats the same statement in an interview to Economic Times published the following day (Tuesday) and that is taken as the heading of a five-column anchor on page 2: Maximum Anti-Dalit Crimes in Haryana: Punia. Once again, there is no attempt to ask him to elaborate. Nor is there any attempt to double check on one’s own. The newspaper adds to the whole campaign by saying “several cases of atrocities on Dalits have taken place in the state,” mentioning the Mirchpur incident as the most serious. The only other anecdotal example it gives (again no numbers) is of a wall being constructed around a Dalit village in Hissar last year.
Som does fall back on one report. He mentions a 2010 report of the ministry of social justice and empowerment (the report is not named), which apparently mentions that there is an increase in crimes against Dalits between 2009 and 2010 in Kerala, Haryana, Bengal, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. But there is no mention of what is the percentage increase or disaggregated figures on the states, which could, perhaps, show that the increase in Haryana is more alarming than in the rest. In fact, the other figures in the report contradict the thesis that Haryana tops in atrocities. In that report, quoted by Som, Rajasthan tops the list of states with registered crimes against Dalits and five states – Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh – account for 70 per cent of registered crimes.
When my boss got excited by Punia’s statement and wanted me to do a story on this, I took the trouble of checking things out. I downloaded the 2011 statistic of the National Crime Records Bureau. Here’s what I found. In 2011 Uttar Pradesh topped the list of registered crimes against Dalits  with 22 per cent of cases, followed by Rajasthan with 15.4 per cent, Andhra Pradesh 11 per cent, Bihar 10.7 per cent and Karnataka 7.4 per cent. Haryana is only 1.2 per cent.
The only report of the ministry of social justice and empowerment report I could find online was the annual report of 2009-10, which takes figures from the NCRB and that report too showed Haryana was way below several states in terms of Dalit atrocities.
I couldn’t find any report on the website of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.
Maybe Javdekar and Punia were basing their statements on some other data or reports, which they were privy to. Maybe Som had access to a ministry report which is not online or I couldn’t find it because I didn’t have the name.
Maybe Haryana does, in fact, top in atrocities.
For me, which state tops in atrocities is irrelevant. Would it be better if some other state topped?
What is relevant for me is that people on television discussions and newspaper articles, whom people will believe because they are experts (as my boss did) are allowed to go unchallenged on facts and figures they dish out. By journalists, whose job is to challenge people.
What is also relevant for me is that television and print journalists are not checking facts properly and are satisfied with vague numbers and generalized statements.

Friday, 16 September 2011

When private is made public

For a long time, we in India prided ourselves on the fact that our media is not voyeuristic about the personal lives of those in public office. We watched with amusement as politicians in the United States and Britain quit public office following the outing of a stray dalliance or an adulterous affair. Heck, we said, we have Karunanidhi with two wives who keeps getting elected as chief minister. We are more mature and less priggish about these things than the Westerners, we said smugly.
I don't know whether the media refrained from writing about private lives of politicians because of the general disinterest in them or whether the disinterest came because the media exercised commendable restraint. But the fact remains that Indian journalism respected the privacy of those in public office. (I am not using the term public figures because that would cover film stars as well. The issue of privacy is a tad complicated in their case because often film stars use their personal life for publicity. Film stars who want to keep their private lives private manage to do that.)
So we knew about that minister's affair with this media baroness, this politician's dalliance with that film actress, why one lady journalist got more scoops out of one ministry than all other journalists on the beat put together, how one politician and the daughter-in-law of another were an item. A journalist who didn't have a salacious nugget wasn't considered worth his/her salt. But this was all reserved for gossip sessions while taking a break from work, in the club, chilling out with friends.
There was one golden rule: these were not things to be written about.
If ever one did, no names were taken.
Alas, that seems to have changed.
Nothing brings this out more than a chief minister having to put out an official statement about his marriage. Omar Abdullah, chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, had to do this after two newspapers went to town about his impending divorce and the reasons for it. These were mainstream newspapers, not tabloid rags.
Why did they do that? How was it at all relevant to his performance as chief minister? I have interviewed Omar Abdullah once when he was a junior minister at the Centre and he came across as a bright young man, but apparently there are enough reasons to criticise his performance as chief minister. Shouldn't the media have been content with that?
The depths to which the media has plumbed comes across in the way a newspaper described one woman he has been linked to - "a divorcee and has been in two live-in relationships since her divorce". That statement - the piece was written by a woman journalist - makes the woman in questions come across as some floozy constantly on the make. Why make a woman whose private life no one knew about the object of sleazy gossip?
When did the Indian media start changing? And why?
I think it all began with TRP-hunting television news. My mind goes back some years to when India TV aired clips of some MLAs with call girls in a hotel. Then there was the CD of former governor of Andhra Pradesh N D Tiwari with call girls in the Raj Bhavan. Both were disgusting and uncalled for. And I think the media fraternity was wrong to not have come out and openly condemned these practices.
The print media has, by and large, remained restrained. The only example I can think of is stories about Capt Amarinder Singh of Punjab and his Pakistani friend, Aroosa Alam. But that perhaps had more to do with the fact that Alam was seen in public with Singh and the fact that she was a Pakistani. The media may have restrained itself if she had been an Indian or of any other nationality.
That Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar were an item was pretty well known but the media never wrote about it till the whole controversy about her getting sweat equity in the Kochi IPL team. So the matter became public only because it was perceived to be a misuse of office. I emphasise perceived. I am not saying there was a misuse. Maybe there was. Maybe there wasn't. I don't know.
But even this excuse is not there in the Omar Abdullah case. There is no public interest involved in the state of his marriage or love life. The media had no business in reporting about the impending divorce till it actually happened (maybe not even then) or commenting on the reasons and his future plans. Whether or not he remains married, or remarries will have no impact on the way Jammu and Kashmir is governed. If the attempt is to show that he is more interested in affairs of the heart than in affairs of the state, it won't work. There are many senior politicians in office who indulge in serial dalliances. If that doesn't affect their image as serious administrators why should this affect Omar Abdullah's image as an administrator? If he is misgoverning the state, identify other reasons for it - lack of experience maybe, or immaturity, or closed mind, wavering mind, wrong advisers, or whatever. Don't drag his private life and the people in them into it. 
If the media has done this to discredit Omar Abdullah as a chief minister, then it has become a willing tool for his critics. And that speaks even more badly of it than if it were merely indulging in tabloid journalism, bad as even that is.
There is no doubt that the media has crossed the line in this case. And if it doesn't step back, media ethics, which is already under immense strain, will suffer one more blow.
But does anyone care?

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Act, Mr PM, Act

The Prime Minister has said, yet again, this time in the context of the bomb blast at the Delhi High Court, that "we will not succumb".
So we are expected to go around our usual business - breakfast, office, household chores, school, college, back home, saas-bahu serials, trip to the mall, dinner and bed. Just to tell the terrorists that we are not "cowed down". 
But why not show that we are not "cowed down" - and the steely resolve with which those words are said - by carrying out the death sentence on Afzal Guru, Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar and Rajiv Gandhi's assassins? And fast-tracking the prosecution of Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab?
Wouldn't that be a better way of showing India will not tolerate terrorism in any form? And that terror attacks cannot be used to blackmail us into inaction (in this case stopping the hanging of Afzal Guru)?
In fact the latest terror attacks should be used to tell political and other groups pleading for clemency to these above-mentioned worthies (for that is what they are to these groups, never mind that each of them has indulged in senseless killings) to stop pleading their case. They never showed any mercy to the people they killed, why should they be shown any mercy?
Does this sound churlish, immature? Perhaps.
Should I exhibit more sagacity and moderation? I see no reason to.
I see no reason why India should come across as a soft state, which people can come and bomb at will.
There is a time when sagacity and moderation have to be set aside. This is such a time.
Of course, there will be the usual arguments against death penalty itself. But as many people have pointed out, why does death penalty get debated only when high profile or political convicts are involved?
Perhaps there is a case against death penalty. Perhaps there isn't. Perhaps we need to debate it.
But after Guru, Bhullar, Rajiv Gandhi's killers and Kasab are hanged.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Too Special By Far

 Journalists in Mumbai have stepped up pressure for a law to make attacks on them non-bailable and cognisable. This has come in the wake of the tragic killing of investigative journalist J Dey last week. Apparently this demand is a long-standing one. First the Maharashtra government had a meeting with journalists on this. Now the Union law and justice minister Veerappa Moily is promising a Central law on the subject.
This is absolutely uncalled for.
Dey's killing is extremely sad and brings home to a lot of us the perils we face while going about our jobs. Ours can be a hazardous profession and this article highlights this. In some north-eastern states and Jammu and Kashmir, journalists are routinely threatened by militant groups. I was in Ayodhya in 1992 during the Babri Masjid demolition and journalists were attacked.
But is a special law to protect journalists the answer? Definitely not.
Ours is not an ordinary profession. Journalists relay information to people and in doing so are privy to a lot of information that is not in the public domain. Their reports highlight problems, expose corruption and other misdeeds and help shape public opinion, among other things. That gives them power and prestige but also makes them vulnerable.
There are other professions whose practitioners also face hazards. Doctors, for example, do get attacked by relatives of patients whom they couldn't save. They also go into remote areas where their lives are endangered. So are engineers engaged in the construction of large projects like dams and power plants who could be attacked by people opposed to the project. Remember the case of Satyendra Dubey, the National Highways Authority of India engineer who was killed for fighting against corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral highway project? Or Manjunath, the Indian Oil sales manager, and Yashwant Sonawane, the IAS officer from Maharashtra, both of whom were killed by the oil mafia when they were checking adulteration of fuel?
Why shouldn't all these professions also get special laws against attacks on them?
And, like the Indian Express pointed out today, if special groups are to get special laws to protect them, does this mean that it is okay for all the others to have to make do with less stringent laws? The state is supposed to protect everyone from attacks on their person.
Journalists have got too accustomed to special privileges - government accreditation to allow them easy access to government offices and Press stickers for their vehicles to enable them to go to places in the course of their duty where others are not allowed (e.g. riot-hit areas, areas under curfew), to name just two.
Asking now for a special law to protect them is carrying things a bit too far.
The proposal needs to be nipped in the bud.