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.