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Issue No.: 561 | March 2014

Is Indian Media Becoming Shallow?

Firoze Hirjikaka
Grilling the accused on television debates where they either blatantly deny everything, or make ridiculous excuses, or put on an indecipherable show of aggression, serves little or no purpose except to provide entertainment.

If one were to go by the media, especially television news, here is a partial list of the topmost issues in India in recent weeks. The 1984 Sikh riots, the 2002 Gujarat riots, Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi hurling insults at each other and the clean chit given to Ashok Chavan in the Adarsh scam. What is the one thing all these headlines have in common? They have absolutely no relevance to the daily lives of ordinary citizens.

On 27th January, the Times Now television news channel broadcast a "historic" interview with Rahul Gandhi. I freely admit that I am among the minority who does not believe that Arnab Goswami is god's gift to television news (although he does), but nonetheless, parts of the interview made me cringe even more than usual. At the very start, Goswami made it evident that he intended to sensationalise the proceedings by provoking a pissing contest between Rahul and the man-of-the-moment Narendra Modi.  Even as Rahul started expanding on his vision for the future of the Congress Party and India, Goswami promptly brought in the 2002 Gujarat riots and Modi's role in it. In his usual blustering manner, he kept on interrupting Rahul's discourse till he was compelled to answer. Although Rahul was clearly reluctant to answer, Goswami kept pestering him to explain how Modi could be held accountable since the Supreme Court had exonerated him. Predictability, in a tactic that has by now become distressingly stale, he compared the Gujarat riots with the 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs. Rahul was left with no choice except to defend the Congress, which Goswami derided with ill concealed glee. He had his headline.

The above episode illustrates how shallow the Indian media has become at its relentless quest for controversial headlines, even if it is at the expense of hard news. Even worse, it has influenced the mindset of political parties and their spokespersons. Ever hungry for publicity, they have realised that it is controversies and incessant attacks on political opponents - rather than achievements - that gets them on the television; and they play shamelessly to the public gallery. The public unfortunately plays right into their hands and loses focus on the real issues that affect their daily lives. Take the relentless rehashing of the 1984 and 2002 riots by our television news anchors. It is bad enough that the Congress and BJP invariably try to justify one disgraceful episode in our nation's history by comparing it to the other. Our news superheroes actively encourage this sorry spectacle because it leads to heated exchanges which makes for great political theatre and consequently, higher viewership ratings. The reality is that these human tragedies are part of history and should remain there. Constantly reviving them not only vitiates communal harmony, they have absolutely no relevance today.

A major drawback of the media encouraging and giving publicity to antagonistic non-issues is that it lets our bankrupt politicians off the hook. Many of them are ignorant on matters of governance and woefully indifferent to providing service to the people who elected them. They are only too happy to grab the lifeline offered, attacking and denigrating each other, thereby avoiding answers related to the genuine issues the common man is concerned about. They are rarely questioned on their governance record; questions they would be unable to answer because governance is afforded the least priority in their scheme of things. Even when direct questions are asked, they are adroitly sidestepped by the politicians indulging in a shouting match with each other, creating such bedlam that the viewers cannot follow anything at all - which is the intention in the first place. Our media superstars, who fancy themselves as incisive interlocutors, can do nothing but let the drama play out.

Even when the interviewee is calm and collected, the anchor often fails to get to the heart of the matter. The Rahul Gandhi interview is a classic example. The shezada kept on expounding his lofty goals such as women's empowerment, allowing parliamentary candidates to be chosen by the people instead of a closed coterie of political leaders, and passing of bills to curb corruption. They sounded grand, but conveyed little real information. Goswami would have done a yeoman service to his viewers by forcing Gandhi to elaborate on his ideas, but hardly broached the subject. He probably is smug in the belief that he has scored a journalistic coup by rattling Rahul about the 1984 riots and getting him to admit partial responsibility; by pinning him down on the Adarsh scam and the free pass given to Ashok Chavan and so on. Even if some Congressmen are convicted for the 1984 riots; and Ashok Chavan is brought to book, is it going to make the slightest improvement in the lives of ordinary citizens? These news debates are systematically denigrating into a theatre of the absurd.

I am not denying that the media plays a valuable role in unearthing scams and the peccadilloes of the self styled high and mighty. It is because of these exposures that our politicians and other VVIPS are being held accountable for the first time in half a century. However, grilling the accused on television debates where they either blatantly deny everything, or make ridiculous excuses, or put on an indecipherable show of aggression, serves little or no purpose except to provide entertainment. The illegalities are rarely pursued to their logical conclusion, because they are deemed to be no longer topical. So the perpetrators continue to get away with a slap on the wrist; and nothing really changes. C'est la vie.

FIROZE HIRJIKAKA is a retired civil engineer, a blogger
and a freelance writer and a member of the Advisory Board
of Freedom First.






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Times of India
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