So what if their newspapers are better written, their television channels often slicker to watch and their internet portals way more sophisticated than ours? Till not so long ago, I still argued that Indian media organisations could more than hold their own against their Western counterparts, and even scored over them in ways that made me proud.
After all, our news bulletins weren’t hosted by blonde bimbettes blinking blankly at the teleprompter. We didn’t invade the bedrooms of our political representatives and snoop about in their underwear drawers to uncover news. We didn’t send photographers on bike chases and helicopter swoops to get pictures of sunbathing starlets or private wedding ceremonies. Interviews and images were never auctioned here to the highest bidder. Tabloid journalism was held in fierce contempt and while it was okay to flip through the film rags at the dentist’s or the hairdresser’s, no self-respecting person would ever confuse gossip with news.
We may have been boring at times, but we were not banal or boorish. What we said was much more important than how we looked. And to us, gravitas was much more important than glamour or glibness.
Really? Now, every day, I wonder how much of this I can claim anymore with a straight face. And on bad days, it feels like the media are for morons. This week especially made me want to hide.
Have you ever heard of Jahnavi Kapoor? She’s apparently a two-bit actor, who was pretty much consigned to oblivion. Well, on Friday, she decided anonymity was an unbearable enemy; it was time to grab her 15 minutes of fame. What followed was a tacky little melodrama — a suicide attempt outside the Bachchan home in Mumbai; a televised demand that Abhishek Bachchan marry her instead of Aishwarya Rai; and tearful claims that she had been dumped at the altar. It was worse than the worst Hindi film. Perhaps the young woman was unhinged, insane or on drugs. Who knows? She’s not even the point.
What was most galling was the eruption of excitement across television channels (with a couple of honourable exceptions). Breaking news bands in flaming orange, yellow and red swept across a zillion screens. Journalists stormed the starlet’s home in Kashmir and then acted outraged when her mother threw them out. Some declared importantly that they were trying to hunt down the woman’s nine-year-old son for deeper insights into his mother’s outburst. And for the rest of the day, Kapoor went studio-hopping to tell her alleged tales of woe.
This was more than a moment of media madness. This was a moment of shame.
There was a time when journalists, especially those of us who work in television, lived for the adrenalin rush of breaking news. The crushing pressure of impossibly tight deadlines, the challenge of thinking in real time and the sense of being part of history as it happened — this is why we loved our jobs.
Once upon a time, news breaks were mostly about riots, assassinations, war and violence. Over the years, as channels mushroom and turn into pathetic clones of each other, the definition of breaking news has got more and more mindless. Today, if a traffic light stops working, it is breaking news. If the Prime Minister sneezes, it’s breaking news. If it rains or snows, look out for the breaking news band on your television screens. And if an asinine starlet claims suicidal lust for a big film star, well, what can be bigger news than that? Very few organisations are independent-minded enough to ignore the collective hysteria of the rest.
There’s another peculiar and dangerous divide emerging within the electronic media. Hindi news is much more determinedly populist and lowbrow than the English channels. Look back at the last week. Whether it’s the Bachchan wedding or the innocuous kiss between Richard Gere and Shilpa Shetty, these have been major news events on our Hindi channels. Some even led with discussions on whether the ‘kiss’ was immoral and antithetical to Indian culture. Others breathlessly recounted the colour of Amitabh Bachchan’s sherwani — all without any humour or irony. Doesn’t all this reflect a deeply bigoted and patronising assumption about the Hindi-speaking universe? The subtext is obvious: those who speak English want more intelligent and substantive programming; the rest represent the lowest common denominator.
It’s not so much that I feel strongly about a celebrity’s right to privacy. Frankly, calibrated elusiveness is sometimes as much of a publicity strategy as exposure. And, in a country where the rich and famous allow cameras right into their homes, the privacy claim is full of humbug.
It’s more about what we regard as newsworthy. Sure, when two of India’s biggest stars get married, it’s a perfectly legitimate entertainment story. But does it deserve saturation coverage? Does it require reporters to stand by the wayside for hours on end, with real time updates on who is wearing what? Do we really need to spend reams of newsprint and hours of airtime on who held hands, who got drunk and who was the last to leave? There was something utterly pathetic about how a hundred cameras went scrambling for a nanosecond of footage each time the gates at Jalsa opened to let a car inside. Is this peek-a-boo voyeurism now the future of Indian journalism?
Newspaper editors needn’t get too lofty and judgmental. It’s fashionable to treat television as the convenient whipping boy, but let us remember that Page 3 was the brainchild of the print media. The carpers may do well to count how many newspapers front-paged the wedding story this week. And for now, I’m not even getting into the sex surveys, fashion trends and gossip columns that routinely claim first lead or cover stories in both newspapers and magazines.
The hysterical competitiveness in the media bazaar has subverted the traditional hierarchy of news. In itself, that’s not a bad thing. Time was when the tedious workings of the political world were automatically placed at the top of the pyramid. Now, channels and newspapers have been forced to showcase stories that effect our everyday lives — education, inflation, personal security and campaigns for justice. Twenty-four news channels especially don’t allow for a moment of laziness.
But are we going to take all this brilliant, bustling energy and waste it on brainless adventurism?
And, if so, can we really call ourselves journalists?
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, ndtv 24x7