I didn’t own a mobile phone till I became a journalist. Even then, back in the mid-Nineties, I was always vaguely embarrassed about it (remember this was still a time when your sabziwallah didn’t take orders for potatoes on the phone). I felt then that I had become like the rest of my pinstriped, cuff-linked, yuppie friends on Wall Street, and would always offer defensive explanations on why I owned a cell-phone.
Looking back, and then forward, at how our daily lives have become desperately dependent on the mobile, the reverse snobbery of those years seems hopelessly daft.
Today, as any television journalist would testify, the mobile phone is the 21st century equivalent of the note-pad and pencil — all news breaks now arrive via sms. But more importantly, the cellphone is no longer a symbol of either ostentatious spending or class hierarchy.
On the contrary, for India’s once-notoriously passive middle-class, the mobile phone has become an unlikely tool of democracy and activism. The simplicity of the technology has empowered those who used to believe they were too irrelevant to have a stake in the system. Indians who sometimes did not even bother to vote during elections have now found a new, albeit hostile and demanding, relationship with the political process. When NDTV 24x7 (along with several other television channels) opened the lines to get viewer support for the Justice for Jessica campaign, even we were astounded by the response: 200,000 text messages in just two days. Yes, we know what the critics say — this is lazy, shortcut, air-conditioned activism; think of those who actually sweat it out under the smouldering sun, devoting years of their lives to fighting for others. But that’s a frightfully limited and prejudiced prism to look through. A campaign driven by text messages is simply the modern equivalent of a signature petition. And just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it is not earnest or straight from the heart.
There is, of course, a dangerous flip side: popular opinion is often bigoted, blasphemous and banal. Every day in our newsroom, we see hate-filled messages streaming into our computer systems — whether it’s the Mohammad Afzal mercy plea debate, religious riots, reservation or caste discrimination. Thankfully, we can screen and censor these messages most of the time (except when they are going on ‘live’). Even so, there is always the danger that majority opinion can steamroll enlightened thought, and we, in the media, must be mindful of that.
But here’s the larger point: much as we hate the thought, we won’t always be able to moderate and mediate public opinion. If there’s one prediction I’m willing to make for 2007, it’s this: new technology is all set to shape India’s new citizen, and will challenge both the wisdom and relevance of conventional media. For good or for bad, and sometimes for both, that is how it’s going to be.
It’s already happening in the rest of the world. The magazine Time formally acknowledged the trend by making ‘You’, the information-age user, the Person of the Year, for “seizing the reins of the global media, and for framing the new digital democracy and for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game”. Global networks in America were forced to stand up and take notice when home-made videos posted on YouTube.com snapped up more eyeballs than any of their prime time shows. And, writing in the New York Times Review of Books, Richard Posner described blogs (online diaries) as the “gravest challenge to the journalistic establishment”. America is grappling with the ethical contradictions of the New Media: it was a blog writer who first exposed US Congressman Mark Foley’s sexual abuse of young boys, but there are as many, if not more, examples of online writers who get it wrong, and get away with it, because they are accountable to no one.
Personally, the onslaught of new media makes me shudder more than just a little bit. We have already seen some media blog writers in India crouch like cowards behind fictional names and identities, just so that they are able to lash out at people who they wouldn’t have the guts to criticise to their face. On many of these sites, salacious gossip and sexual innuendo have been dressed up as journalism. The personal lives, real and imagined, of colleagues are now being dragged on to the comments section of these sites. And the worst part — it’s all being defended in the lofty name of free speech.
At least, right now, despite the growing sensationalism of mainstream media, there are still a few conservative gatekeepers keeping watch. This past year, several networks refused to broadcast the MMS images of the alleged Kareena Kapoor ‘kiss’ or the pictures of a young DPS school girl filmed having sex with a classmate. But the time is not far when our refusal will be irrelevant — anything you want will be just one Google search away.
Yet, we must admit the merits of the democratisation of the media space; “the many wresting power from the few” is how Time describes it. Technology has both empowered and energised the news gathering process. Journalism is no longer a one-way street, where we-the-wise hand down information. It’s now a dialogue box, where people talk back. (So what if their comments sometimes make you worry for the future of India?)
And let’s face it — many of us are already dependent on our viewers to send in the first pictures of a train accident, a religious riot or even just images of the morning fog. In a country as large and diverse as India, people will always be ‘on the spot’ before reporters are able to.
So, as long as new-age ‘journalists’ don’t hide behind anonymity (and, therefore, escape accountability) let’s welcome them to the club.
Anyway, it’s not like we have a choice.