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, beyondlabels.blogspot.com 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.
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