A range of outraged critics have expressed their fury at the media’s coverage of the Elizabeth Hurley-Arun Nayar wedding. Similar fears of ‘trivial’, ‘sensational’ media were voiced during Aamir Khan’s wedding, the Chatwal wedding, and before that the Rakhi Sawant kiss episode and other incidents involving celebrities. Ah, the degraded media! Why has it sunk so low? The media are peddling celebrity culture. The media are peddling religious stereotypes. The media are misrepresenting economic facts. The media are creating heroes out of nobodies. The list of complaints against the media is as endless as the Milky Way.
Unfortunately, the critics have missed the point. They are unable to come to grips with the animal that is 21st century media in India. They are trapped in socialist-style elitist pronouncements about The Death Of Old Standards. Today’s media are a beast that mutates constantly. It is incorrigibly intimate, it is seductively omnipresent, and like all technology, it is amoral. Yet, it is a patchy and rough democratic service. The patriarchal baritone of The Times of India in the 1950s and 1960s has given way to a high-pitched cacophony. But it is a cacophony that is pushing the envelope of democracy. The socialists crave a media run by the government where the masses must be fed ‘improving’ programmes and reports about crops, education, space research and social justice.
The elitists are profoundly uncomfortable with any media that actually treats Indians as human beings and not as statistics; human beings in full technicolour and not in black-and-white phoney photos of so-called ‘sober’ journalism.
Certainly, the Hurley-Nayar wedding was a media tamasha. But the shrill complaint of who-on-earth-even-knows-Elizabeth-Hurley, was nothing but disingenuous hypocrisy. The unpalatable, yet inescapable, truth is that almost everyone who consumes English language news knows who Hurley is, right from her safety-pin dress to her colourful love affairs. Just as everyone who consumes news also knows about the Khairlanji assault, farmers’ suicides, the Jessica Lall case, the Nithari killings and Mayawati’s ticket distribution. Scan the blogosphere or the comments on websites and you’ll find that there’s an information and analysis overload. The accusation that the media are ‘misleading the public’ assumes that there is a public out there waiting to be misled. This may or may not be the case.
When the accused in the Nithari killings were attacked outside a Ghaziabad courtroom, venerable lawyers thundered that the media had pre-judged the case and motivated the public to strike the accused. That, this was a case of ‘vigilante justice’. Sure, the media have been guilty of errors of judgment in the Nithari case. Lurid stories of cannibalism have been printed without any caveats. There is still no evidence linking the accused with the skeletons, apart from the narco-analysis confessions that are not admissible in court. But the accusation that the media fuelled ‘citizen vigilante-ism’ fell flat on its face when it was later revealed that the individuals who apparently attacked Pandher and Koli were loyalists of a particular political party seeking to score points against the UP government. They were not enraged citizens after all.
Today’s news-oriented citizen is far too empowered with information from all sides to act according to anything but a good understanding of situations. Everyone — or at least everyone who consumes news — knows everything, or almost everything, and are able to critically judge for themselves. This knowledge is the result of the information superhighway that runs through our lives. Information is being bombarded via mobile phones, television sets, computer screens and radios. The same media that expend newsprint and videotape covering Elizabeth Hurley, will also expose how members of Parliament falsify their identities, how coastlines are threatened by smugglers and how children are victims of trafficking. A newspaper may carry Sushmita Sen on the front page but will also carry reports about bogus voters in electoral rolls. The sheer size and diversity of the media prevent them from being any one thing: media today cannot be described in just the single word ‘sensationalist’.
Just as the internet can be a source of wisdom or pornography, so also the media, more specifically the television media — an avalanche of images and information and analysis, all of which, in the end, become a patchy form of democratisation.
The Jessica Lall murder case, for example, would have been buried in the crime pages of the doughty old broadsheets a decade ago and crime reporters would have got two centimetres of space. Pride of place would have been hogged by patriarchs of the editorials who would have eaten up newsprint, lecturing readers about delicate Indo-Pak negotiations over Sir Creek and Wullar barrage. Today, not only has the Jessica Lall murder case become a serious intervention in India’s criminal justice system but the fact that the case has featured on the front pages or on prime-time television bulletins has created a nationwide engagement with the legal process. A farmer who doubles as his own bullock would have been a rural report buried in an inside page. Today, he becomes headline news and helps focus attention on a neglected region. Tabloidisation has its own value.
Of course, the avalanche of images is often thoughtless and voyeuristic. Yet, the media have created a national conversation, a growing consciousness of a pan-Indian identity on issues, which may be restricted to the television and newspaper consuming classes at the moment but which is growing every year. To quote Kenneth A. Myers, former producer of the American National Public Radio, “Television is the dominant medium of pop culture. It is the most significant shared reality of our times and, of all mediums, plays the most culturally unifying role.” Television, and all media to some extent, undoubtedly simplify debates that perhaps need deeper consideration and disseminate binary polarities where there should be none. Yet at the same time, media today have created an extraordinary immediacy between subject and viewer. Whether politician, celebrity, farmer who is his own bullock, orphan, or lottery king, it is the Indian individual who is slap bang in the centre of the media universe today, not the Indian policy or the Indian government handout.
While personality-oriented media may have its pitfalls, yet it focuses public interest far more sharply than joyless editorials based on government documents. Today’s media live by the dictum, ‘nothing that is human is alien’. Be it farmer suicides or a £ 2 million wedding.
The writer is Senior Editor, CNN -IBN