Society's Watchdog Or The Government's Cuddly Chihuahua?

Of late, certain TV channels have become passionate cheerleaders of Modi Sarkar.

26/09/2016 4:42 PM IST | Updated 27/09/2016 6:44 PM IST
Dieter Spannknebel

This chuffed CXO from a multinational financial services firm was a revelation. He looked at me, with an incongruous mix of scorn and amusement. "I don't know why you guys have boycotted that lunatic motor-mouth." I answered gently, "You just answered your own question... Why should we indulge such insufferable madness?" Then came the Novak Djokovic double-handed backhand down-the-line: "Because it's so damn entertaining, man. The whole nightly ritual of a bloodfest. After a stressful day at work, it is almost cathartic." I stared at him, dumbfounded. I still am. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why some of India's belligerent news channels have a high market share. Because like my wealthy corporate acquaintance, there are many who enjoy the bloody mud-wrestling, where at least one, if not many, is inexorably crucified. Without being heard. Judgement precedes argumentation. Truth is eviscerated, logic confined to the dustbin.

It appears as if some media channels await a private briefing from the I&B Ministry to decide their prime-time hashtag.

Of late, certain TV channels (thank god print at its core remains sensible) have become such passionate cheerleaders of Modi Sarkar— whether it was the Kanhaiya Kumar-JNU imbroglio, the #BMKG hyper-nationalism drama, the harassment of Teesta Setalvad, Dalit atrocities, the beef ban controversy— they would outshine even their IPL counterparts. It appears as if some of them await a private briefing from the I&B Ministry to decide their prime-time hashtag. Joseph Goebbels is still alive. After the Uri terror attack, electronic media (barring some exceptions, thankfully) is scraping new lows in their competitive scramble for TRPs. War-mongering fanatics go on bloodthirsty rants, ably coaxed by frothing anchors. Fake stories are being circulated. One gentleman suggested that even if 500 million Indians die, it is fine. The truth is that TV has metastasized into an uncontrollable monster. This is India's Frankenstein moment.

Rupert Murdoch, the emperor of media leviathan News Corporation, shuttled on a transatlantic flight over a tumultuous weekend that saw a popular British Sunday tabloid bite the dust, never to rise again. That was in 2011. News of the World (NOTW) was founded prior to the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, but closed with a 72-hour notice period in tragic infamy on account of startling revelations about its covert hacking of private mails and messages, in a manner both macabre and sleazy. For Murdoch, the closure was not a generous act to protect the Holy Grail but a calculated trade-off for acquisition of the more alluring BSkyB. Greed is a driving ambition, often meeting a ruinous end. It was a sordid saga that ought to have woken up media titans every-where. Particularly in India, which has seen two slimy, shady tapes: Radia and Essar. But clearly, they are still snoozing. But do corporate profits, TRP ratings, hashtag trends on Twitter, the fragile and fat egos of celebrity editors or even hidden political agendas justify the low-brow insanity that is dished out by some rogue TV channels day in and day out, ostensibly in the larger public interest? Hell, no!

Some TV channels genuflect shamelessly to promote Modi and his government... As someone correctly said, the conscience of an editor is purely decorative.

Despite much pious pontification, the Press Council of India report on paid news accumulates dust in dark dungeons. The mainstream media refuses to share its embarrassing content with the same aam aadmi it professes to protect daily. It does manifest our questionable standards, the media's inability to smother its own insuperable demons.

Dilip Padgaonkar once famously stated that The Times of India editor's was the "second most important job in India". That was not hubris or an exaggeration; it was a near-factual assessment. But today no media big gun can make such lofty claims. Fortunately, the media is now more democratized; so truly there are no king-makers. Dissemination and distribution is at rapid speed. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and several independent online news portals and blogs gathering high speed on the social networking highway, media activism has also assumed formidable power to influence public opinion, so far considered the sacrosanct preserve of an elite club. Social media has made, according to some, "lamestream media" out of traditional forms of information dissemination. But then they too carry risks in the Age of Internet Stormtroopers—primarily right-wing trolls..

Investigative journalism has become comatose in an age of commercially dictated news content. Something is gone missing. The Indian media has played it safe by ensuring a "commodification of news". When did we last hear of a major scandal involving Big Business exposed by the mainstream media? The pink papers perhaps prefer to blush crimson in the company of generous billionaires. Remember, Sahara's massive fraud on unsuspecting small investors was hardly covered by electronic media. In India, where our daily lives resembles a cacophonous collage of absurd and horrendous tales, news television often degenerates into "infotainment". The truth is that good news is boring. It's like breathing. It's predictable, monotonous, rhythmical, but it is also necessary. Or else we have the kiss of death. We are too often lamenting India's imminent demise, our own pornography of grief. It is time we appreciated that even thorns have roses. At least one channel had begun to share a daily dose of cheer, but it fizzled out in the flood of negativism that sells.

When did we last hear of a major scandal involving Big Business exposed by the mainstream media?

Competitive journalism is natural marketing warfare. After all, newspapers and TV channels are not in the charity trade; they are ruthless business ventures like investment banks. The trouble is that they are meant to be society's watchdog not a cuddly Chihuahua for the government in power. The Fourth Estate, for heaven's sake! Some TV channels have become hopelessly pusillanimous, genuflecting shamelessly to promote Modi and his government. It is farcical to watch. As someone correctly said, the conscience of an editor is purely decorative.

Rest assured, one day there will be a blood-fest, but this will involve the media industry itself. Such business models are usually unsustainable. The chickens have a knack of always coming home to roost. Until then, I guess my old friend will have his nightly tryst with 9pm bloodletting. As for the rest of you reading this, good night and good luck!

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