Though there is almost nothing that the media love as much as a debate on freedom of expression, there’s one aspect of this debate that rarely, if ever, gets discussed: how do we handle the Offensive Publicity Hound (OPH)?
If you watch TV regularly, you will know what an OPH is. For instance, when Karan Johar announced that he was a father ---- through a surrogate ---- a politician called Abu Azmi appeared before the TV cameras to denounce Johar and to make innuendos about his sexuality.
Some of us may, quite reasonably, wonder why Azmi, a wealthy Mumbai figure who has successfully fought off criminal charges and a jail sentence in the past, has any locus standi when it comes to Johar’s personal life. He is not generally regarded as a guardian of public morality and is not an expert on relationships or fatherhood.
But of course, most TV channels did not wonder about this at all. No sooner had Azmi declared his intention to attack Johar than the OB vans were dispatched and reporters rushed to the spot to get him on camera. Later, after the breathless-reporting phase was over, many channels organised discussions on the subject.
As there really was nothing to discuss --- it is not as though Azmi raised questions of a moral or philosophical nature — all of these discussions followed the same format. One participant (perhaps Azmi himself, on some channels) was required to be outrageous. Another was required to be as shrill (hysterical is even better) from the opposite perspective. And the other panelists arranged themselves artfully in the middle, taking moderate positions but trying to be at least a little controversial so they could keep getting invited back to such shows.
Azmi’s outburst is only the latest in a series of incidents where OPHs have managed to colonise television prime time. Broadly, the technique employed is always the same: say something really offensive and outrageous, ideally involving a famous person (a Bollywood celebrity is a perfect soft target) or a minority community (something along the lines of “why doesn’t such-and-such Muslim condemn Pakistani terror?”) and hey presto! you are the subject of the evening news.
But some OPHs go even further. Had anyone heard of the obscure organisation (no, I’m not going to fall into the trap of naming it) that invaded the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmawati and roughed up the director?
Probably not. But now the organisation has been named on national television and its leading lights (I use the term loosely) have appeared on prime time debates to discuss their objections to the movie. (Their objections? Well, they haven’t read the script and don’t know what the movie is really about, but hey! It’s good to keep these filmi guys from attacking the honour of our community, right!)
I could go on. But you probably know of all the other instances. An obscure maulvi somewhere who complains about how a woman is dressed. A so-called sadhu who wants Muslims punished for eating beef. And so on.
You have to ask yourself: would any of these people have even made these statements or launched these assaults if he or she had not been sure of getting media coverage? They have all learned that the best way to get on to the media is to be offensive. And the more outrageous the better.
All of us in the media know why the OPH strategy works. Newspapers, these days, often take their leads from the previous day’s TV news. And 24-hour-TV is an all-devouring, hungry monster that demands to be fed “news” even when none can be found. So the channels look for something or the other to feed the beast.
And as for the debates, don’t blame the channels, blame the viewers. The ratings will tell you that the kind of TV Indians like to watch most in the evenings is one where there is little footage, only talk. And the talk that gets the highest TRPs is the kind that is constructed like a Battle Royal on the World Wrestling Federation. Anger and conflict are essential. Outrage is useful. And the threats of simmering violence are always welcome.
So even while events of consequence that will change the lives of all of us take place outside TV studios, the debates on many channels will reflect an alternate reality. Karan Johar’s children or some ‘insult to our martyrs’ will be angrily debated by a small group of men and women who nobody had heard of till they began appearing on TV: screeching small-time politicians, deliberately provocative mullahs, weeping soldiers, saffron-clad medievalists and the like.
The Offensive Publicity Hound knows how to make himself famous in this environment. A single insult, a well-delivered jab at a celebrity or even an act of violence is all it takes to be on prime time news these days.
When we in the media argue with each other about the publicity we afford these people, two arguments are usually offered. One: our hearts are in the right place; we always condemn their actions. And two: they also have freedom of speech.
Both arguments are specious. If 20 OB vans do not land up outside Abu Azmi’s house, he is not being denied freedom of speech. He can still say what he likes. He is being denied free publicity; an entirely different matter.
And as for the condemnation from high-minded anchors, well, Azmi and the other OPHs don’t really care what journalists think, anyway. What’s important is to get on to television.
In fact, there is only one key issue here and it is not freedom of speech.
It is editorial judgment.
As long as the Indian media regard every outrageous crank and every attention-grabbing delinquent as being worthy of coverage, we demonstrate an utter and complete lack of judgment. We show ourselves to be no better than the louts who seek to hijack our TV screens.
So let’s go back to covering the real news. And to focusing on the real issues. Let the Offensive Publicity Hounds bark emptily into the darkness.