The world economy is in a tailspin, our rupee is headed for 65 to a dollar and our government sits on its hands. Yet our media carries as its lead a spat between matinee idol Shahrukh Khan and a chowkidar. No wonder that disgust with, and disdain for, the media has reached epic proportions.
Leave aside the ruling party trying to sneak in press-muzzling legislation, as Rahul Gandhi confidante Meenakshi Natarajan recently did, even editors are suing each other for hundreds of crores of rupees — not because of misreporting but because their feelings were hurt. Even the legendary Sachin Tendulkar wants to be sworn in as Rajya Sabha member in the privacy of the Chairman’s chambers, away from the media.
Clearly, he worries Doordarshan might show Jaya Bachchan’s image during the oath-taking, but that is no excuse for Sachin to forget his civics lessons: Parliament is supreme because it represents all 1.2 billion Indians; his oath-taking is a service to his fans across the country. Similarly, the media is only serving a necessary duty for the nation’s citizens, and if it seems irritating then that’s because of the citizens’ voyeuristic demands. (Similarly, no matter how loathsome the political class might seem, they again get elected by the totality of Indians.)
Having said all that, you must admit what’s going on in the media is pretty revolting. (I admit it even though I’ve worked in the industry most of my adult life.) For me, part of the disenchantment has to do with al Jazeera, which has been available on my TV the past few weeks. Al Jazeera and the BBC somehow present a calm and soothing atmosphere even when they are telecasting images of dreadful calamities.
Yet you can’t condemn our TV channels for their noise (indeed, they are often engaging, and not just for news junkies like me) because that would be like stepping on the Delhi Metro and expecting everyone to silently stare at the floor (as happens in advanced countries); indeed one of the joys of riding the Delhi Metro is watching aunties and college students loudly and publicly play the role of the argumentative Indian. What’s annoying about our media, though, is its habit of navel-gazing.
This self-centeredness has its origins right in the city where I live: Mumbai. Yes, whereas everyone moans about how Delhi runs things, it is actually Mumbai which sets the agenda, and nowhere is this more manifest than in the media. Under the guise of being “apolitical” (whatever that means), there is a general disdain for civic sense in this megapolis. This is glorified as “minding one’s own business”. Well what’s the point of minding your own business if you forget your civics lesson or even your civic sense?
After all, Mumbai is such a crowded place that minding your own business could conceivably get people killed (if a terrorist struck, for instance). Apologies for putting it so starkly, but Mumbaikars need to be reminded that as a nation we will either live together or die alone (to quote the American TV show Lost).
The origin of a news sense which decides that Shahrukh’s tiff with a chowkidar makes for a lead story is Mumbai: after all, this is where the media began getting corporatized, where news became a commodity, and appeal to the lowest common denominator became a badge of honour. To put it in perspective, when American matinee idol George Clooney recently hosted a fund-raiser for President Barack Obama — a legitimate political event — the serious US news outlets gave it prominence, but did not make it lead (in India it is the opposite: Shahrukh’s proximity to Priyanka Vadra, which some say is to blame for his recklessness, is never reported). You could claim that the traditional media is booming in India and not in the US, but it is also true that more innovation, both in areas of content and revenue, is happening over there rather than right here.
Al Jazeera’s appeal also lies in its refreshing point of view, different than that of the West’s. I recently watched a fascinating show about Lebanese refugees in Berlin who made a living break-dancing while trying to avoid deportation. It is informative to get an internationalist Muslim perspective in these turbulent times; at the very least it provides a counter-point to what has been the dominant narrative. This led an acquaintance to remark that even India ought to have a voice on the global media stage. I laughed. It isn’t that we don’t have the money or resources to do so (Indian journalists work all over the world; our media barons are not exactly financially struggling, and some have even ventured into industries like power generation ); but we have got to stop being so myopic. Perhaps then, even our own countrymen, whom we are supposed to serve as watchdogs of democracy, will stop treating us with disgust and disdain.