Friday, May 10, 2013

Evolving media ethics in the 21st century social matrix

Randeep Wadehra

Recent coverage of certain incidents and events impel us to ponder over our media’s intended role in the evolving milieu. This is especially true of television news channels, where views are churned out almost simultaneously with retailing of news. There is hardly any attempt at sifting grain from chaff. Consequently, more often than not, grain is discarded and chaff served. It has happened in Sarabjit’s case, too. The news TV went hammer and tongs after Pakistani panelists whenever the latter tried to point out that Sarabjit was a convict in the eyes of Pakistani judiciary. We were prepared to accept the Indian government’s tepid explanation that Sarabjit had mistakenly crossed over to the Pakistani side while returning home from fields in an inebriated condition. Did our talk show anchors even pause and ponder over this excuse? Sarabjit’s murder was certainly unjustified and our media rightly denounced it as a case of human rights violation. However, the manner in which some of our anchors behaved with Pakistani panelists on the Sarabjit issue was undesirable. They were not the ones who had perpetrated the fatal attack. The Pakistani guests had every right to defend what they thought was the incident’s correct version. High decibel condemnation cannot be a credible alternative to truth. For example, in the Times Now debate, the Pakistanis were supposed to accept mere allegations as proof; not that their conduct was exemplary.  Moreover, when Sanaullah Ranjay was fatally attacked in the Jammu jail, the sense of outrage of our media and human rights wallas became conspicuously somnolent – barring the NDTV. Shouldn’t there be an expression of indignation in this case, too? This is where a journalist’s professional ethics come into play. It is not too late. Rahul Kanwal and Arnab Goswami et al must redeem their profession’s ethical standards by interrogating the concerned Indian officials with the same vehemence and sharpness in the Sanaullah case. As for Sarabjit being anointed as martyr, now we will have to redefine the statuses of the likes of Bhagat Singh, Abdul Hameed (remember him?) and countless others who voluntarily laid their lives for their country, and not strayed into another country in an “inebriated state”.

To be fair, TV debates have their positive moments, too. Since India has a rich tradition of public discourse going back to the Vedic times, it has strengthened, and not just tolerated, the traditional right to dissent. Consequently, the process of influencing and even gauging public opinion through TV debates has become a powerful element in the country’s political matrix. Often, we watch debates that are highly critical of the governments in power in various states as well as at the centre. At the same time, pro-government views too get fair amount of airtime. In the process, heterogeneity becomes the hallmark of Indian political and socioeconomic debates. Even at the height of anti-China jingoism in the recent Daulat Beg Oldi confrontation, one witnessed panelists counseling restraint as also palpable hesitation on the part of leftist politicians to unambiguously castigate the Chinese intrusion. In any other country – democratic or not – this would have been damned as leftist perfidy, triggering off public outrage and convulsions on the political firmament.

Moreover, even as the media tries to speak for the “inarticulate and the submerged” it often becomes a facilitator for the emergence of new vested interests that eventually prove to be no better than the established ones. Let us hark back to the Anna Hazare Movement, when the entire political establishment went into a tizzy in its attempts to negotiate this new challenge. The media lionized Anna, but forgot to investigate some of his acolytes who, later on, proved to be mere opportunists, reaching for power by riding onto Anna’s shoulders. This new group has quickly adapted itself to Delhi’s self-serving political culture. Now, while Anna has been more or less placed in the freezer, his former acolytes are using every trick to retain media attention in the hope of notching a few Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 elections. However, no TV media journalist has yet asked the AAP worthies such uncomfortable questions that they usually fire at other politicos. Kid-glove treatment?

Admittedly, the staid, textbook process of newsgathering and dissemination is now obsolete. The content need not be authentic. Its source may be dubious, or the “news” item itself may well be a piece of fiction, but as long as it serves the main purpose of attracting eyeballs, it will be aired. Ethics be damned. The tendency to sensationalize flourishes. The Arushi case is a prime example. One really wonders what would have been the fate of those domestics, who were first damned by the media as murderers, had not the police and CBI investigations been fair and impartial. There have been so many other instances where media pundits had prejudged issues or taken sides – their biases being the offspring of socio-ideological predilections, the function of vested interests or plain callousness; or, even a deliberate resort to sensationalism to augment viewership.

In 1949, the then Daily Mirror editor, Sylvester Bolam, had written that sensationalism “does not mean distorting the truth… It means the vivid and dramatic presentation of events to give them a forceful impact on the mind of the reader. It means big headlines, vigorous writing, simplification into familiar everyday language.” He had also contended that it was “a necessary and valuable public service”. Our new age TV journalists subscribing to such views will do well to revisit the fate of the News of the World scandal its subsequent shutdown, and remember that Bolam was jailed for indulging in sensationalism. Sensationalism obfuscates and thus hides, if not kills, truth.

The electronic media has once again come under the scanner even as it tries to investigate others, raising in the process all those questions again that have remained unanswered so far, or elicited unsatisfactory responses. What exactly is the role of various news channels in a democracy like India? Does it speak for the “inarticulate and the submerged”? Or, has it become a platform for unbridled sensationalism? All those headlines featuring murders, rapes, and rubbish… one is unable to understand their purpose. Is it to inform or merely excite or, more insidiously, demoralize the general Indian public? We await the answers.

Published in The Financial World dated May 10, 2013

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