Feb 21, 2009

The complicity of India's news channels

It is quite easy to manipulate India's television news channels, because they are open to being used. Imagine a criminal telephoning India's television editors. He tells them of a violent crime he's about to commit, where his gang intends to harm people. He tells them the location and the time of the crime and asks them to send their crews to cover it. His motive for calling them is publicity. What would the journalists do? Warn the victims and call the police, one would think. And stop it when they saw a crime happening before them.Here's what India's TV editors actually did on January 24. A Hindu group named Shri Ram Sene told the editors they would attack a pub in the southern city of Mangalore, and that they could get the footage. The news channels scrambled their camera crews and went with the attackers.At the pub, called Amnesia, the men manhandled the youngsters inside. The group said it was doing this because of moral reasons; that going to pubs was not Indian culture. The attack was savage and it was filmed in vivid detail. Girls and boys were slapped about, thrown to the floor, hit on their head, kicked as they fled. Their helplessness and their shock was deeply disturbing. Just as disturbing was the animal frenzy of the men attacking them.The cowering girls in particular were humiliated as the men hunted them, with the camera crews following the men to get the right angle. The head of the Shri Ram Sene is Pramod Muthalik, a man who is now recognised across India. This is not because of what happened on January 24. India is hardly a stranger to violence. But because the act was filmed and shown daily for weeks. Our news channels have given him the standing that he was looking for when he gambled on that act of violence.Each time Muthalik is referred to, or the story followed-up, the footage from the Mangalore attack is repeated, because it is so compelling. It is disturbing in our culture to see upper-class women getting savaged.An advertisement film was made for the Shri Ram Sene on January 24. It was scripted and directed by Muthalik. It starred the boys that Muthalik had sent (he was not there himself -- clever). It also featured, involuntarily, the young men and women who were thrashed and molested. It was shot by the TV crews and freelance cameramen. Its broadcast, the most expensive part of advertising, was paid for entirely by the news channels. And it still is.Muthalik set about that day to become a national story. He knew what he had to feed the television stations to become a big story: upper-class women, violence, moralism. And of course he needed to reach his audience. And he did that through a single act.As they repeat the footage from that day, it is accompanied by high dudgeon from the television anchors, especially India's liberal English news channels. But this is a hypocritical indignation, because they are using the footage of the act, just as Muthalik used them to get the footage. The channels remind the girls, slapped, falling, fondled, of their humiliation every time they broadcast it, but they persist in doing it while insisting that they are on the girls' side.Muthalik, who has played his cards excellently, comes across as calm. And like dogs being thrown a bone, the television journalists have chased the stories that Muthalik has tossed in the air after that day. Journalism is reactive. The reporter responds to the world and the editor must pick and choose what it is of interest. He must also decide what is compelling.The repeated choice of Muthalik's story and the manner of its coverage make them complicit. After he was arrested, and released (more coverage), Muthalik had a press conference. He would now forcibly marry off couples seen in public together on Valentine's Day. This set the television channels off again and gave him more airtime than any other story that day.He came out in public and was shown as being garlanded and feted by a woman, in appreciation of his act, like a warrior coming out to battle instead of the criminal that he was. Muthalik understands what the channels want, and he gives it to them.They understand as well and keep him in play.India's liberals have helped his campaign along. When some girls said they would send Muthalik pink women's underwear as a gift, he responded saying that wasn't Indian culture and he would sent them sarees back instead. This got footage again but Muthalik was now winning the war in living rooms because the debate became cast in cultural terms, which the liberals cannot win. Then there have been Facebook campaigns calling for more pink underwear, in the belief that Muthalik should be fought rather than ignored.What happened on January 24 was one act of engineered violence. It should have been covered as a crime. It was covered as an epidemic.Nightly debates were held about how India was being Talibanised, though there was nothing at all to support this. What then happened on Valentine's Day was a disappointment to the channels. Nothing happened. Muthalik said this was because he had decided against going ahead. But of course this was bogus. With a handful of men, and an alarmed state, there was nothing he could have done.Newspapers did not cover themselves in glory with this story either. Muthalik got five tabloid front pages in Bombay alone. One could argue that this story was in the realm of the tabloid, which operates in the space of shock and entertainment. The tabloid is master of the episode, and its nature is to move on from one story to the other in search of the next episode.But in India, such events as the Mangalore attack also get tabloid-style coverage from the broadsheets and from the channels. Having reported the event, they should have moved on. But they didn't because the nature of television news here is to look at what the other channels are doing (India has five 24-hour news channels in English alone) and ensuring that they don't 'miss' the story.This makes our journalism even more reactive than that of others, and very little in journalism, whether print or television is through acts of creation.One problem that television stations have is the quality of their journalists. Television reporters in India are a notch below print reporters (who are also not particularly competent by global standards). There is no process of training and fresh reporters are let loose on their beats with marginal understanding of the world they are covering. The majority of English reporters in India, print and television, would also fail the test of language, which should be worrying given that they trade in information.English TV anchors depend heavily on stock phrases and cliche. Their questioning is long-winded and inevitably laced with a moral position. Information is rarely sought from the interviewee through precise questioning; what is sought is assent to the opinion that the anchor holds. This is something that comes naturally to the Hindi journalist, and he does it better.A second problem in journalism is that of internal integrity, which Indian media have surrendered, along with their independence.In the last decade, newspapers decided they would sell their editorial space just as they sold advertising space: through a rate card. People could have a story written about themselves or their product and the paper would publish this without informing the reader that this was actually an advertisement. All this was open and legitimate. There is little difference between this and the coverage of Muthalik, who also wanted to be covered, but with the difference that he did not have to pay.This softening of journalism has also touched television. During the promotion of the Bollywood movie Bunty Aur Babli, about two rogues, one news channel surrendered its journalism entirely and made up a fictional news bulletin. This would shock the news channel abroad, which takes itself, and journalism, quite seriously. But in India the channel knows that the audience is not going to punish it for monkeying around with the news.It's all entertainment for us, and that is something Muthalik understands well.In India there is no such thing as bad publicity. As the poet said: Badnaam agar hongay tau kya naam na hoga?
by Aakar Patel The writer is a former newspaper editor who lives in Bombay

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