Jul 252013
 

My column in today’s DNA

4 8 hours. It has been an interesting two days in terms of news coverage. The British royal baby and Bollywood royalty makeup dominated news.
“It’s a Boy” screamed the headlines, across the world. The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, did something that women, since the beginning of time, have been doing without much fanfare — she delivered a baby. A baby boy. The third in line to the British throne. The countdown to “The Birth” had been going on for a week. The news media probably showing far more excitement than possibly the family of the child. And, finally, when the expectant mother was admitted to the hospital, the coverage reached a fevered pitch. Post the official announcement by the British royal family there were two million mentions of the baby online. And, people began putting out the most inane things. One news handle tweeted “Kate Middleton in Labor: What to Expect -hopefully a baby?”

On television, in print, on social media there was no escaping the ‘Royal Birth’. Every minute of labour was documented. Speculations from the sex of the baby to the name began flying around. And finally when the baby was born the media behaved as if they had collectively undergone labour, and went advertising one of the most normal events — giving birth — as something that seemed like a cross between the second coming and an alien invasion. The British tabloid The Sun changed its masthead for the day; they called themselves ‘The Son’. Another British tabloid proclaimed “Our Little Prince”; the Times announced that “A Prince is Born”, USA Today had an infographic on the new born and where he stands in relation to the rest in terms of succession. Indian media too was excited about the Royal Birth. One will soon see stories of various Indians who helped deliver the child or were somewhere in the vicinity of the hospital when the child was born. The British satirical magazine’ Private Eye had the best possible take on the whole story “Woman has baby”.

A day earlier there was similar excitement about another equally ‘important’ story in the Indian media. The two superstars of Bollywood Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan had hugged and made up at an iftaar party hosted by a Mumbai politician. The hype in the news media that surrounded this (non) event was remarkable. From the genesis of the feud, to the history of the tussle, to the long bleak years and the final rapprochement — the hug was covered as though it was the end of war between two sovereign states, and every aspect of the battle, replete with characters, generals and battlegrounds was laid out. And now that the ‘Hug’ has been analysed to death, questions arise if it was a casual hug, a general hug or a hug to change history. The nation holds its collective breath to find out what happens next in this great crisis.

In the 48 hours that these two events were taking place, other things were also taking place in the world. In India, five states have been devastated by floods. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh are all facing the fury of monsoons. Many rivers have broken their banks and are in full spate. Millions of people have been impacted by the floods. Thousands have lost their homes, and hundreds their lives. If this was Hurricane Sandy impacting the US, there would be a raindrop by raindrop coverage of the discomfort to the citizens of America, on Indian ‘National’ TV news media. But, displacement and discomfort of fellow citizens matter very little.

In the last 48 hours the violence in Iraq escalated. The al-Qaeda mounted an attack on two prisons — the notorious Abu Ghraib and Taji, and allowed some of the most violent extremists to escape. It is estimated that over 500 of these highly motivated people are out on the loose. Ever since the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the level of violence within Iraq has been on the rise. Bombs, pitched battles on the roads, rocket attacks have all been part and parcel of everyday life. The al-Qaeda wants control of the government and establish its own form of Islamic Theocracy, while those in power wish to hold on to their positions. And, the battle has been on. This audacious direct attack on a heavily guarded prison camp has just upped the stakes. But, there is very little coverage either in India or outside. 500-plus of the most hardened terrorists out in the loose and there is very little media buzz.

In the last 48 hours relief and rehabilitation in Uttarakhand have become more difficult because of rains. Landslides and poor weather are making it tough to build back. It is just over a month since some parts of the state were devastated by floods, and rebuilding is taking more time than expected because of relentless rains. People are still staying in temporary relief camps, in tents in this weather. Little or no reportage.

There is something very damaged in the state of the news media. An attention span disorder that makes it flit like an out-of-control butterfly. There has been a skewing of priorities insofar as content is concerned. The fluff takes precedence over the real pressing issues. And, while there is space for the fluff, the frivolous and the fun, surely it cannot be at the expense of real issues. The aim of news is a lot more than to titillate and entertain. It is more than asking two strident spokespeople from two opposing parties something that makes them even more strident, less informative but more entertaining. There is a role to news beyond creating high drama. In fact, creating drama is not a function of news. Reporting drama is.

Mar 202013
 

My blog in last week’s Tehelka

Illustration: Ashish Naorem

Illustration: Ashish Naorem

This is a folk tale/parable based around the characters of the Mahabharata. I am not quite sure if it forms part of the main body of work comprising the Epic, or if it is a localised tale, but it is a tale that comes to mind often.

This story takes place a few years after Drona had taken over mentoring and training the 105 cousins – the 5 Pandavas and the 100 Kauravas. The Elders – Dhritarashtra, Bheeshma, Vidura, Dronacharya and Kripacharya – were having a conversation about the young men and their progress. Dronacharya and Kripacharya – like all good teachers – were being fairly forthright about their charges’ capabilities. Duryodhan is a hot head. Arjun needs to stop preening in front of the mirror. Sahadev should talk to people and not just animals. Bhim needs to stop reacting. Dusashana should stop harassing the dasis… And Yudhisthira – as the future emperor… At which point Dhritarashtra interjects. He says “why is it that everyone keeps assuming that Yudhisthira is going to be the emperor… why not someone else. Bhim is stronger, Arjun a better archer, why even Duryodhana wields the mace better.” Obviously Dhritarashtra’s grouse was that his eldest son – Duryodhana – was not even in consideration. He tells the rest that the principals of dynastic succession seem unfair, completely ignoring the fact that he is promoting his son, after all it is important to have the most capable person as the next emperor.

The rest agree – and a test is set for all the 105 pupils. The test was a simple one. Each of the 105 is given a gold coin and told to fill his room . “What do you mean – fill the room,” they ask. “That is the test,” say the elders. The boys had a few days to think through the problem and present the results to the elders.

The day of the test arrives. The examiners arrive at the boys’ rooms to check out the results. They first go to Duryodhana’s room. They open the door and a shower of hay falls on them. Duryodhan has used his one gold coin to fill the room with hay. The next room is filled with caked dung. The next one is filled with dry twigs. Another one is filled with wheat. Someone else has used rice husk, yet another with broken pottery. One cousin has got the nirmalayam (dried flowers) from the temple. And it goes on and on. Each cousin outdoes the other in terms of the items with which they fill the room.

Finally, the team arrives at Yudhisthira’s room – they open the door. Right in the centre of the room is an earthern pot – filled with oil. A large wick is burning. The room is filled with light. Yudhisthira returns the remaining change to the elders…

Every time I glance at Television News – this story comes to mind. Be it instant budget analysis, or the reading of the impact of the Arab Spring, or the implication of tsunamis and earthquakes on nuclear reactors – the tendency of news channels to follow the illustrious examples set by the remaining cousins and brothers is huge. None of the TV news channels try and illuminate the issue in a nuanced manner. It is about filling the airtime with voices till the break.

Screaming, screeching and sound bytes may make for short term audience acquisition. But sooner or later, you will find that you have to screech and scream louder – and that is most likely to deafen the audience.

With Doordarshan trying to regain lost ground and recapture audiences – maybe it needs to follow the Yudhisthira strategy, rather than the ones followed by his cousins and brothers. There is a space for a serious, no nonsense news channel that deals not in speculation or sensation, but in facts. The only problem with Doordarshan is that it is too tightly tied to the Government’s apron strings. If Manish Tewari wants to make a difference as the Minister for Information and Broadcasting – he has to do two things. The first is to figure how to make Doordarshan financially independent, and the second is to dissolve his Ministry. There can be a Broadcasting Ombudsman, but for a Democratic Republic to have a Ministry of I&B, is kind of in the 1984 territory.

Theoretically the Prashar Bharati Act has freed up Doordarshan (all of DD, not just news) from governmental control. But, until such time the Government of India is responsible for salaries and funding, and the Prashar Bharati Corporation is staffed by career bureaucrats, and a Minister is in charge, it will not be truly free. It will be interesting to whether the Government has the courage to let go of control of the Broadcaster. Frankly, in a broadcast environment dominated by over 300 news channels it makes no sense to hold on to Doordarshan. If you look at the figures, it is telling – out of 148 million households in India that have Television (out of a total of 220 million households), around 22 million receive only Doordarshan, and these households will, sooner rather than later, switch to the more sensational Private Sector channels.To survive and thrive, DD has to go back to the drawing board and deliver its Public Service Broadcasting Agenda in a manner that is attractive to the audiences.

To do that, there needs to be a mindset change at the corporation and at the ministry. They need to stop behaving like they are a manufacturing organisation that is in the business to business space and need to start behaving as though they are in the business to consumer space. That doesn’t mean dumbing down – it just means adapting to the 21st century. There is potential, there is a market, it is upto the bosses at Doordarshan to exploit this opportunity.

(Declaration: The folk tale is part of the oral tradition of stories that my grandmother told me. I have used it to describe the media on my blog)

Jul 232012
 

My column in today’s DNA

 

On a slow news day, a girl in Guwahati got molested by a gang of men, who saw nothing wrong in groping, pinching, punching, stripping, feeling up and mauling the victim. In fact, they seemed to take great pleasure in it. A news camera crew captured the act in full gory detail; every nuance of the violence perpetuated on the victim was captured as was every hand movement, every expression; as was the pride and joy shown by the molesters in hearing the helpless girl cry for help. The mob action seemed like a rite of passage – something that got the molesters their official entry into the club of Machismo. They had done it – succeeded in stripping a girl of all her dignity, in public space; in front of cameras and a gawking public. Without censure. Without being stopped. It finally ended half an hour after it started when the police rescued the victim. But, the ordeal did not end with the molestation. The news channel decided to air the tape without masking her face. The footage was uploaded to YouTube and went viral. Mainstream media that had completely ignored theAssamfloods for being unworthy of national airtime went to town with the story.

 

A study conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said that amongst the G20 nations, India, was the hardest country for a woman to live in; worse than Saudi Arabia. In the Danger Poll, also conducted by the same foundation, Indiawas the 4th most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. The first three on that list wereAfghanistan,Somalia andPakistan.India lags behind on every count that matters. It starts with birth. Rather, it starts by terminating birth. The Poll estimated that there are 50 million girls missing because of female foeticide. A 100 million women and girls are trafficked. 44.5% of all women are married off before the age of 18 – it means education comes to a grinding halt, dreams of economic independence remain unfulfilled, and lifelong servitude in a feudal set up beckons. The woman neither knows nor understands rights that she has as an independent citizen of the country. She is relegated to being part of a traditional society – which may have its’ own charms- but has never been woman friendly.

 

Public molestation of a woman is not new. It is to teach her and the men in her family a lesson. ‘Look I am doing this to you and yours – and you are powerless to stop me’. We have grown up hearing about Draupadi and her ordeal. Lost in a game of dice by her husband, dragged out of her chambers by her brother-in law, Dushasan , propositioned in an open court by another brother-in-law Duryodhan, she is told to take off her clothes. When she refuses the ‘vastraharan’ begins. An entire court of ‘Noble’ men stand by and do nothing while a woman is being stripped.. Draupadi was the daughter of a king, wife of another and mother to future kings, dressed modestly and visiting her in-laws. Theoretically it can’t get safer than this, yet none of this prevents her ordeal. It literally takes a deus ex machina to save her. But the story doesn’t end there. Draupadi vows not to tie her hair until it has been washed in the blood of Dushasan. Bhima swears to kill every single Kaurav prince to avenge the assault on Draupadi, to tear open Dushashan’s chest and drink his blood, and to break the thigh of Duryodhan who asked Draupadi to sit on his lap. It takes around fourteen years to fulfil all the vows – but fulfilled they are. Retribution for that act of molestation is bloody, brutal and complete.

 

In a modern world breaking thighs & tearing chests is not allowed nor is personal retribution. So what is the punishment for ‘molestation’? Two years. The men will spend a maximum of two years in prison and probably make bail after a year. The victim on the other hand has been handed a life sentence. What we saw in Guwahati is not new – it is a story mirrored in various cities, towns and villages. It may not happen in front of news cameras but it does happen. And, it happens for only one reason – the perpetuators know they can get away with it .That needs to stop. There needs to be smarter and better policing – surveillance cameras, more manpower on the streets, linked databases.  There need to be time bound trials. Finally, where there is crime, there had better be punishment. Hard jail time. Biting monetary fines. Make the punishment hurt.  Else arm every woman in India with a gun and teach her how to use it.

Jul 222012
 

There is no rioting in the NE , The riots are in part of one district Kokrajhar , Assam.

The North East is 7 continuous states in the North East of India + Sikkim.

 

You would expect news media (even group blogs) to get basics right.  I hope they change the head line.

I also hope that someone responsible – and i hope that firstpost.com  has someone responsible in charge – spanks whoever put out that headline.

———————-

A long time ago, when I was studying for my Masters at City, my group was in a Seminar on International Relations. The lecturer was talking about post the post colonial Britain, and said something about Afro Caribbean people. a classmate of mine (from Barbados) drawled from the back seat – “pardon me Peter, what is Afro Caribbean – we are either African or Caribbean and there is an ocean  between us. Unless you want to lump all blacks (her word not mine) together”. That class ended in chaos.

Editors in India have to erase the word North East from their lexicon. the states have nothing in common but geography. And, Geography means a rats ass in this word. Continuous use of that word to   represents ignorance, bigotry and deep rooted callousness.

Mar 042012
 

Brokering News

Brokering News is a documentary on the Paid News in India. The phenomenon has spread far and wide and permeates every aspect of news in India.

For most of us working in the media, the story of paid news is not new. When i was with a leading entertainment group, the anger against journalism as a profession and specific journalists or news companies, inside the company was huge. “chor hain woh log’ was a term i heard many times, especially when it came to the time when business results had to be published.  This is despite the fact that the company i worked for owned a news channel. But, in board rooms and office meetings we were told to be nice to journalists, to humour them and give them the ‘bhaav’ and treat them with kid gloves.

When we made our film Jhing Chik Jhing, and then were ready for publicity – we were told very clearly pay or there will be none. It is not called paid news. it is called a marketing tie up :D While you can argue that publicity for a film should be paid for, after all you are making profits out of the film … however, if you go to watch a film based on the reviews (which are part of the marketing package) then are you incurring a loss if it is a bad film ?  the same logic applies  when it comes to covering Politics or Business. The job of journalism is not to encourage or cover up for politicians on the take – it is to expose them. Similarly the function of journalism is not to cover up business wrong doings. For example, do you remember what happened with the ground water pollution in Kerala caused by Coke ? or do you know why the Metro in Mumbai has been delayed for so long – or indeed who is building it ?

Umesh Agarwal’s documentary looks at all these areas – be it film marketing, or sanitizing politicians or covering up business wrong doing. It further looks at the issue of who owns the media. the answer is that the same people own different news channels and papers and are also amongst the largest advertisers. The film looks at the main paid news cases of the last 5 years – be it the reporting on the Ambani brothers or the involvement of leading journalists – Prabhu Chawla, Vir Sanghvi & Barkha Dutt – with Nira Radia. The journalists claimed that they were cultivating an important source, but the fact remains that the incident eroded the credibility of not just the journalists but the profession at large.

A few years ago i stopped watching and reading the bulk of main stream media, and get my news from Government controlled agencies such as PTI, UNI, DD and AIR. For, if I am going to read biased news, i might as well know whose bias it is and compensate for it. I wouldn’t mind paid news, if i knew who was paying for it and how the bias manifests it self.

Do spend an hour to understand how the majority of those in the news business function. it is more business and less news. Don’t believe most things you see or read – it will lead to tremendous disappointment and disillusionment. There is a line that S.Y. Quraishi., the CEC, uses in the documentary “the fourth estate should not become the 5th column.’  Corruption – and the term paid news is a euphemism for corruption – corrodes a system from the inside.

The documentary raises important points. However, like most desi documentaries it tends to bludgeon you with its view rather than allow for any subtlety of any sort. I wish that it had featured views from honest editors and hones member from the journalistic fraternity . Also, the one thing i would like to see Indian docus do, as i would Indian films, is understand and appreciate the value of silence. there is no need to cram every second with sound … Having said all this , the film is a worth while excessive. Its an hour well spent in understanding who shapes your views and why . Umesh Agarwal needs to be congratulated to have the courage to go up against some powerful people .