My column in today’s DNA:
If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to have heard it fall, does it make a sound?’ is an old philosophical question on which there has been much heated argument over the centuries. The debate is a consequence of a school of philosophy that believes that events exist from the point of view of the observer. If there is no observer, then there is no event. Others, especially scientists, maintain that events exist irrespective of the presence of the observer.
In an era of 24-hour news channels, this philosophy can be revisited. If an event occurs, let’s say a protest, and there is no media coverage, then as far as public consciousness is concerned, does the issue even exist? Groups and causes that can articulate their view in media-friendly chunks have their issues become part of the public debate. Groups and causes that cannot, do not exist as far as the public space is concerned. Political and civil society groups of all hues and shades are beginning to realise this. They have realised that media coverage works best in the media centres — Mumbai and Delhi. And, protests work best when conducted in the full glare of the media. They realise that if there is no observer for an event, then the protest is as good as being dead in the water. For example, Irom Sharmilla has been fasting to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for over 10 years, and it is just now that the protest has been noticed. And, that is because Anna Hazare’s 12-day fast brought Irom Sharmilla’s decade long fast into the limelight. Similarly,38-year-old Swami Nigamanand Saraswati died trying to save the Ganga from pollution caused by illegal mining. After 68 days of fasting in Haridwar he passed away. His death was covered by the ‘national media’ because it coincided with Baba Ramdev’s little drama at the Ramlila grounds. But his cause, that of saving the Ganga, is largely ignored.
Media coverage is not about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘important’ or ‘unimportant’ a cause is. It is about being part of the media’s line of sight and being able to keep catching their attention. Once the media starts paying attention, then the idea is to keep engaging the media on a constant basis, so that the cycle of publicity continues.
Today, packaging of news surrounding the protest is as important as the protest itself. Every successful protest is handled like a product. And, in a modern world, the product attributes are not as important as the packaging and promotional hype surrounding it.
That is the reason for the insistence on Jantar Mantar by Team Anna. Anna could have fasted anywhere else in India. After all, Gandhi fasted wherever he was — his ashram, jails, various cities — location didn’t deter him. But, in a modern India which is wired 24/7, it is important to be where the media is. If Anna Hazare had fasted in Ralegaon Siddhi would the event have been part of pan national consciousness or would it have been like Nigamanand Saraswati’s fast, mentioned in passing by regional news while being largely ignored by the ‘national’ media?
The recent attack by members of the ‘Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena’ on Prashant Bhushan — a core member of Team Anna — in full view of a television news crew is taking this philosophy one step further. The issue raised by the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena becomes part of national consciousness, overnight, because it was sensational, violent, jingoistic and on tape. We would not even have heard of this fringe organisation if they had hit someone without the TV crew being present. They were mimicking the acts of Sri Ram Sene a few years ago. The Ram Sene protesting against declining ‘moral’ values — decided to go to the nearest pub and beat up a few girls who were drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. But, before they went to teach the girls a lesson, they called the camera crews.
As a result, an intolerant, violent, extreme fringe organisation became part of pan-Indian consciousness.
News focus on strife, violence, drama and sensationalism to increase ratings, has led to it becoming the launching pad for many a fringe organisation. These groups thrive on media coverage. Their philosophy is immaterial — their rage is what sells. In its blinkered focus on only ratings, news channels have unleashed a genie that needs to be put back in the bottle.