Media should isolate the voices of the lumpen fringe

by Rajdeep Sardesai

American pop art icon Andy Warhol was probably right: everyone is looking for their 15 minutes of fame, only the time has now been compressed to a 15-second soundbite. In 1998, Jai Bhagwan Goel, the rotund, fire-spewing, self-appointed leader of the North India unit of the Shiv Sena, called us with an ‘invitation’ to send a camera crew to cover his proposed attack on the cinema house screening the film Fire. We did ring up the police but as in cinema, so also in real life, the men in khakhi landed a wee bit late. The theatre was attacked, the show was stopped and Goel was arrested, but made it to the front pages and prime-time news. A few days later, out on bail, Goel landed up in office with a box of sweets. “You covered the event very well, thank you so much,” he smiled through his wide moustache.

I haven’t met him since, have heard little about him, but for a few hours, he was a newsmaker. Goel may be history, but there are enough others to take forward his legacy. In the last few weeks, we’ve had Muslim activists in Tamil Nadu, Dalit groups in Rajasthan, Kashmiri clerics in the valley, VHP middle-level functionaries in the national capital, each relishing their moment in the media sun. A majority of these are unelected, so-called fringe elements with limited news value, but a disproportionate noise and nuisance value.

Representational Image. Reuters

Journalists have lost their moral compass. Reuters

The slope of cultural intolerance is now a slippery one. An intellectual debate at a literary festival can quickly descend into a demand for the arrest of one of the country’s most eminent social scientists; a group of raucous protestors in Tamil Nadu can be used by a chief minister to ban a film; a fatwa of a cleric can silence the voice of a music band in the Kashmir valley and the rantings of a few can stop a painting exhibition.

Yes, an absentee state in the midst of chaos has been guilty of abandoning its primary role of law enforcement. But what of us in the media? In 1998, there was only one 24 x 7 news network. Today, there are more than 300 round-the-clock news channels, carnivorously devouring every morsel of news, the noisier the better. Where once the aim was to shed light on a news story, now the dominant agenda is to ‘manufacture’ heat in the studio. News has been replaced by noise, sense by sensationalism, history by histrionics; the medium is the same, the message has drastically changed.

The result is a qualitative change in the way news is now disseminated and perceived by viewers, and more worryingly, in the way in which it can shape the national agenda. Take the recent Indo-Pak fracas at the Line of Control. The dastardly beheading of an Indian soldier and Pakistan’s reflexive denial rightly led to indignation in the country. But when justifiable anger threatens to turn into uncontrolled jingoism in TV studios, to the point where the Indian government is forced to send back Pakistani hockey players, stop trade relations and almost rupture diplomatic ties, we must ask ourselves whether war-mongering hysteria is what must define the media’s collective responsibility.

It’s a sense of responsibility which must again determine our coverage of the lumpen fringe. Yes, there is rising cultural intolerance, and there are caste and religious ‘mobs’ determined to have their voices heard. But by providing them constant exposure, have we almost ended up ‘legitimising’ them in prime time? In the unfortunate incident in Kashmir involving an all-women's band, did we make enough of an effort to seek out the voices of reason and moderation or does it suit us to paint every Kashmiri with the brush of religious extremism? A fulminating Asiya Andrabi-like anti-India figure fits a stereotype we wish to create of the average Kashmiri; the voices of young Kashmiris who express solidarity with the girls get blanked out.

Yes, 24-hour news TV is at one level an ‘amoral’ medium which cannot always be expected to conform to a traditional news value system; there is a ‘democratisation’ of space in television that allows for a range of voices to be heard. But the question we must ask ourselves is whether we have abandoned the search for a diversity of opinion in our desire to reduce complex debates to black-and-white polarisation. Do we have the skill and capacity to explore the grey crevices of major issues or have we got carried away by the surround sound that turns every news event now into a controversy, often contrived?

It would be easy for critics to blame the television rating point system as the ‘evil’ responsible for the declining standards. Yes, weekly TRPs do reduce journalism at times to tabloid-like box office, but would a more sophisticated measurement of content really change the manner in which we choose to do news? The truth is, we have lost the moral compass that should define journalism’s priorities. Maybe we have got carried away with our celebrity status, maybe just being on camera is a drug that prevents us from separating right from wrong and rediscovering our inner conscience.

Journalism can still be an agent of change for a better India, the camera can still unmask the corrupt, humble the powerful, celebrate the good. But for that, we need to be ready to take the road less travelled, not of instant soundbites and repetitive drama, but of informed opinion and real stories. And, maybe, make a genuine attempt to isolate the voices of extremism instead of amplifying their shrillness.

Post-script: Maybe Jai Bhagwan Goel was born in the wrong era. I fear that if he were around today, he’d be a fixture on prime-time TV. The power of wisdom has now been sadly replaced by a circus-like cacophony.

(The writer is editor in chief, IBN 18 network. e-mail: rajdeep.sardesai@network18online.com)