The year(s) that changed the Indian media

In 2014, when Mr. Modi swept to power as the PM, people spoke and wrote about a changed India. Now, 3 years later, I think that what it changed more was the Indian media and journalism landscape and that in turn has led to the changes in India we’re seeing now.

(I get that some of these are generalizations and that they are not always true about all issues but they are true about many issues a lot of the time.)

Think about it: you have a Prime Minister, who calls himself the pradhan sewak, but refuses to hold press conferences, does a few interviews, maintains only one-way communication (radio, election speeches, Twitter) and the media accepts it without putting up a fight.

Even that would be okay if the media decided to spend its time researching policies, trying to deconstruct the one-way communication, and doing whatever it could to compensate for the loss of direct questions. What did the media do? They simply accepted the change of communication rules and reported what the PM said, throwing a critical opinion in every once in a while.

Compare that with what the media did during the UPA II regime. It was the media that brought the corruption and other issues to the fore and harangued the government. Now, next to nothing!

The media now spends an inordinate amount of time outraging about issues that are peripheral, or important but not critically important while letting the critical issues go by. Instead of applying critical thinking to the government’s actions, the media accepts what the government is saying and chooses to focus on the “distractions” that conveniently seem to crop up. What the public loses when this happens is the right to be informed about what the government is doing and this in turn slowly leads to weakening of the institutions that are supposed to do the checks and balances.

As I was writing this, here’s what the Executive Editor at India Today tweeted:

More than 350 cows at the Gorakhnath temple Gaushala. Several calves ran to Yogi Adityanath as he reached & gave them Gur & their feed

Of course, this is not a representative sample, and this is a tweet, but it is exactly the sort of thing that the government is happy to have the media focus on, while it does bigger things that don’t get reported too well or not at all.

And, what better way to end this post than to point you to the excellent Meghnad‘s column at Newslaundry: Finance Bill 2017: You’ve just been punked. (As, an aside, while the Finance Bill 2017 was being passed, the media was focused on what the UP CM ate for breakfast and other food-related issues.)

This is peak crisis time for Indian journalism. I really hope that they make it. In the meanwhile, go to the non-traditional media sites like Scroll, The Wire, Newslaundry, which have done a way better job of reporting and critical analysis than the traditional media.

PS: Meghnad’s piece Media failed to cover Finance Bill because Parliament reporting is non-existent gives an excellent account of how the media fails in reporting what goes on in our Parliament.

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On speaking truth to power

A few days ago, our Prime Minister, who, in the past has called the media “baazaru”, was chosen to give out the Ramnath Goenka awards for excellence in journalism. This is a PM who refuses to have press conferences, who gives creampuff interviews to friendly journalists, but I’m going off track here.

Raj Kamal Jha, the editor of the Indian Express, in his vote of thanks to the PM, gave a 5-minute speech that was hailed as courageous and exemplary. I had a Twitter exchange with Mitali Saran, someone who regularly speaks truth to power in her column, about this in which she said that the courage that Jha exhibited should be the baseline in journalism.

After Donald Trump won the US presidential election, some of the pieces written by journalists, columnists, writers in the US were great examples of speaking truth to power. Here’s the first paragraph of David Remnick’s piece in the New Yorker:

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.

I can’t recall reading anything as withering by someone in India about anyone so powerful. The US has a great commitment to freedom of speech but it still takes courage to write something along these lines. So, I was thinking about what Mitali said about the courage being a baseline for journalism and wondering why it is not also a baseline for citizens in democracies.

Why should we not expect (us) citizens to speak the truth to power in their own way? Why should it fall only to the activists and the journalists to tell the truth, especially given how easy it is for anyone to publish what they write or create? One reason might be the intimidation tactics used, for example, where a post on Facebook might get you arrested. I get that the fear of intimidation is real and you wonder whether speaking up is worth it, but the problem in such a situation is that it serves to embolden the powerful. And, unless more people refuse to be intimidated and cowed down, how is this situation going to change?

Also, as long as you don’t indulge in hate/racist/misogynist/etc. speech, there should not be be a fear of speaking your mind or the truth to power whatever that power might be. A democracy will be more vibrant when citizens speak truth to power. India’s current laws are not super-friendly to free speech–at least free speech the way it is in the US–but we are a democracy and we do have some freedom of speech.

If you have a “this is not my problem” mindset, I’ll just share what Garry Kasparov, yes that Kasparov, said in a tweet:

Famous last words throughout history. People saying “It’s not my problem!” until it is a bigger one. Small battles now or big ones later.

With Brexit and the US election, the world seems to be moving towards a situation where the discourse is being dominated by the far right. The discourse tends to be one of xenophobia, of faux-nationalism, of racism, and other such things that should’ve been left behind a long time ago. But, these things are making a comeback, and in a tangible way. Just read the timeline of Shaun King to get an idea of the number of racist incidents in the US just days after the US election.

The threats are real. The question is whether you are going to speak up when you can or wait until maybe you won’t be allowed to or when it’s too late.

I think it’s time.

[1]: Ms. Saran seems a bit too formal

Old news is not sexy news

The recent verdict in the Bhopal gas tragedy case — tons of stories here — has set off widespread condemnation by everyone in the media. Questions are being asked about the role of India’s corporates who have remained relatively silent in the aftermath of the verdict. The outrage seems to be everywhere.

This wasn’t the case before the verdict. I don’t remember reading much about the tragedy in the last few years. Maybe a mention during the anniversary, a story here and there but nothing like the deluge of news we’re seeing now. This is not limited to just this story but to other news stories as well. The Nithari killings are another that come to mind.

News stories typically seem start with lots of coverage to the point where there’s an information deluge and then everything just fizzles out. It’s like we’re outraged for a while, things cool down, and then we move on to the next story where we can rage about the injustices.

One problem is that India’s justice system is slow, so things take their own sweet time. In today’s fast-paced age, our attention is easily diverted by the next new thing. Plus, our brains are wired to seek out relative differences and so we get bogged down when we keep seeing something over and over.

This is where the media’s role in balancing coverage and then sticking to a story, long term, would help a great deal. Maybe once the initial frenzy over a story has fizzled out, media outlets could periodically throw stones into the metaphorical pond and create some ripples. If you refuse to let a story die, people will take notice — they don’t have a choice. It’s tricky to achieve a balance but anything else would be better than a start-stop-wait-wait-wait…to infinity-start-again kind of strategy.

The analogy that comes to mind is that of a dog who has got hold of something and refuses to let go no matter what. We need our media to be that kind of watchdog.

Another gem from the Upper House

Yesterday it was about “unpardonable acts”, today it’s about reality shows. I kid you not. Today’s Deccan Herald’s Politicos can’t face reality shows how our politicians are highlighting the important issues. (Read the full article please, it’s short and sweet.)

Members cutting across party lines raised the issue and demanded that the government regulate such shows to “prevent” them from polluting the minds of the people. Raising the issue during zero hour, Kamal Akhtar from the Samajwadi Party gave an example of a new television programme, Sach ka Samana, where a celebrity is asked to face a polygraph test.

He said the programme anchor asked a female contestant obscene questions — in the presence of her husband — like whether she would have physical contact with another person. When she replied in the negative, the polygraph test proves her was answer wrong, Akhtar said, wondering what impression this would create on her husband.

What impression would it create on her husband is that he needs to up his game if you know what I mean. But, physical contact with another person, not a man necessarily, could also mean that her husband’s not a hugger or that he doesn’t snuggle up to her in bed or that she needs more hugs from other people around her. Or maybe she likes shaking peoples’ hands.

Nobody’s forced the contestants to be on the show. They’re adults, they’re in the show for the chance to win money. And if they’d watched the corresponding English-equivalent (The Moment of Truth), they’d have gotten a good idea of what the show was about. Maybe they should’ve read the fine print as well. If you’re getting a chance to win what seems like easy money, you have to be smart enough to realize that there almost always will be a catch. (No free lunch, that sort of thing.)

Plus, the whole point of reality shows is to create “simulated drama” so that the show itself is compelling for people to watch. Would anyone watch a show where they asked the contestants questions about whether they flossed or not? People want stuff with more “masala” and TV channels are giving it to them. If we really want to stop such shows, not watching would be the best way to do that–if everyone stopped watching, the ratings would plummet. Because people are watching, the shows are hugely popular and everyone and his aunt is creating a reality show.

But, I’ve digressed. What in Voldemort’s name is the Rajya Sabha doing wasting time discussing reality TV shows. What’s next: a discussion on whether Western toilets should be banned because they’re “from the West”?

I’d better not be giving them any ideas.

That place far, far away: Manipur

Two articles on Manipur, brought to my attention by the India Together, give voice to the goings-on in Manipur. The mainstream media in India pretty much ignores most of the North-East, especially the smaller states. You may hear about Assam occasionally, but Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram are names you may hear in school, during Geography lessons, and maybe during the elections.

The first article is titled Disturbed in Manipur is by the excellent Kalpana Sharma.

The votes from Manipur in distant northeastern India might not determine which party comes to power in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. But one thing is certain. The women of Imphal, its capital, are clear what must happen if any party wants their vote. “We have had enough. If the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is not removed, we will not vote”, said an impassioned 78-year-old Ima K. Taruni.

Taruni and dozens of other elderly women, the Meira Paibi or Torch Bearers, were waiting quietly and patiently outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal on March 7, expecting Irom Sharmila, the iconic human rights campaigner who has been on an indefinite hunger strike for eight years, to be released from the security ward of the hospital. Sharmila and the Meira Paibi, who were also on a relay hunger strike, have one demand – remove the AFSPA. They hold this draconian law responsible for the insecure lives they lead in their own State as over 55,000 members of the Indian armed forces are granted total immunity for any of their actions.

The second article/opinion piece is titled Making news in the Northeast and is by Ammu Joseph, another journalist whose articles I’ve linked to previously on this blog.

…The channel, like most other “mainland” media, does not have a correspondent stationed in Manipur – so this was an opportunity to get some real-time news from a far-flung corner of the country without much effort or expense. But the initial response to her enthusiastic effort was: “This happens every year — so what’s the story?”

Lakme and other Fashion Weeks happen every year. Miss Indias and other beauty queens are crowned every year. Blue-chip companies announce their quarterly and annual results every year. Job placements happen in the IIMs every year. Cricket matches are played through the year with scarcely a break. Star-studded Bollywood films are released practically every week. The Sensex and Nifty go up and down every day and film stars’ romances wax and wane almost as regularly. The media cover all these happenings faithfully despite their invariably repetitive nature.

But a woman who is so serious about a political struggle (with widespread popular support in the state) that she is willing to sacrifice her life for it is not worth a mention merely because her short-lived respite from more than eight years of imprisonment occurs every year?

What more can I say? Read both the articles: Disturbed in Manipur and Making news in the Northeast.

Predictions for 2009 general elections

We won’t know anything till all the votes have been counted. Seriously.

You can read what the various surveys say, you can listen to the experts, but all you’re going to get is speculation propped up by statistics, tied together with what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls narratives.

I think the media should just say, “We don’t know,” and move on to actually covering the candidates and their parties, instead of speculating on who’ll win and by how much.

And it’s okay to say that you don’t know because elections are complicated. You don’t know how many people are going to show up to vote, you don’t know who they will vote for, and you don’t know how the presence of different candidates (or parties) may decide who will ultimately win.

But, that won’t stop them, so here’s my prediction.

It’ll be the UPA that will win if they keep their coalition partners happy. If not, the NDA will win, but only if they don’t lose any more partners. But, you have to watch out for the Third Front because it seems to be gaining ground, as both the NDA and UPA have relationship (partner) issues.

So, in summation, it’s either the UPA or the NDA or the Third Front. Remember that you heard this prediction first on this blog.

News and views for Bangalore’s citizens

This falls into the ICBIHWATA* category.

Citizen Matters is a publication about Bangalore that publishes “in-depth news, analysis, features, opinions, and information/event listings, covering city public affairs, community and culture in our city.”

Citizen Matters is a mix of journalistic pieces, opinion pieces, and blogs. They use a combination of staff writers, freelance journalists and citizen journalists to cover nemma Bengaluru.

If you check out the site and read the articles, you’ll get a much better idea about the site than if I keep on about it. So there: I stop.

Visit Citizen Matters if you want an alternative view of Bangalore.

*: I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Written About This Already.

Remembering Amita Malik

Sevanti Ninan, no slouch of a media critic herself, writes a beautiful obituary of the legendary journalist and media critic Amita Malik.

Most of us who write on film, TV and radio today are pale shadows of the woman who led the way. Amita Malik was that unusual critic who was a very competitive reporter at the same time, and a confidant interviewer of the accomplished and famous. She combined the reviewer’s instinct for recognizing a dud, the story getter’s natural aggression and the TV anchor’s easy confidence.

It was a rare combination. It produced a body of writings on film, radio and television, a number of radio and TV interviews with international film stars and directors, and an engaging autobiography of a colourful life. She was enough of a specialist to sit on film juries at home and abroad, and pull off an interview with a notoriously interview-hating Igmar Bergman. And enough of a news reporter to wangle interviews with people ranging from Indira Gandhi to Nirad Chaudhuri to Shiekh Mujibur Rehman.

I remember reading Amita Malik’s columns way back when and thinking at that time that she had strong opinions. I don’t know why or when her columns stopped appearing (in the newspapers that I was reading) because I’m a loss to remember when I last read her work.

The Hindu has a news item about her passing away.

The line between journalists and citizens

Kalpana Sharma poses an interesting question in her piece Journalists as citizens.

Should we as journalists just watch and record what is happening? When your duty as a citizen calls upon you to act, you must set aside your supposed “impartiality”, if indeed there is such a thing, and intervene…

When the Sri Rama Sene in Mangalore proudly proclaimed that their purpose was served by the repeated telecast of the pub incident on January 24, when five women sitting in a pub were molested and assaulted even as the camera kept recording every blow, the Indian media should have paused to think.

When a six-year-old girl was tortured by two UP policemen for allegedly having stolen a small sum of money, in full view of television cameras recording every blow, the media should have paused again.

This is something I’ve thought about: should journalists intervene and provide help directly or should they record the event and help indirectly? It’s a difficult question to answer.

One point to consider is that if the people feel that journalists would interfere then they may not be allowed to be there in the first place. A lot of the access that journalists get is because of their impartiality and because they are observing and reporting. If they are seen to be interfering, then they might lose that access. And that isn’t good for journalism as a whole.

But as Ms. Sharma says in the article, there are other ways to help: journalists can call the police or alert someone in the government or even other media persons.

It’s a tough choice and in the end it depends on the person and the situation. It’s definitely not as simple as some people make it out to be.

NDTV gets schooled on how the Interwebs work

I somehow completely missed this development in the blogging world. I came to know about it just now, only after I read this post from Mridu.

Long story short: Chyetanya Kunte writes a post (scroll down to read) about NDTV’s coverage of the Mumbai 26 November terrorist attacks, specifically about Barkha Dutt’s reportage. Ms. Dutt and NDTV do not like his post very much and their lawyers threaten to sue. Kunte posts an unconditional withdrawal. The blogosphere gets a hold of the story and the story goes “bacterial”*.

Brief theoretical interlude: The 5th law of blogging states that blogging about a particular topic is multiplied n-fold (n > 1000) when there’s even a whiff of controversy.

So, the best thing to do would’ve been to ignore the blogger or for NDTV to post a rebuttal. By doing what NDTV did, they’re going to get a great deal of negative publicity, they’ve come out looking like the bad guys, and they’ve ensured that more people will hear about this story. Not exactly the thing they’re hoping for I’m sure. Remember the 5th law of blogging.

If you want a better summary, Prem Panicker’s When ‘free speech’ bears a price tag is a nice, balanced take on the situation.

* — I’m sick of viruses being given credit for everything.