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The man is the medium

Kejriwal is like a stringer, delivering stories that get great play, without too much due diligence by those who publish or televise his charges. Chanakya writes.

india Updated: Dec 15, 2012 21:33 IST

It seems to have become a calling with him. Lobbing one bomb after another, designed to shake up Indian politics and business. It would be all too easy to dismiss Arvind Kejriwal, the modern-day nemesis of the rich and powerful, as someone whose moves are aimed only at maximising the publicity he can garner — and he gets this in heaps — and, through this awareness more grease to his political elbow. I have watched with interest the career path of the slightly built, bespectacled Kejriwal who began his anti-corruption campaign as part of a team with another unlikely agit-prop activist, Anna Hazare, in the forefront. Today, Anna seems to have washed his hands off his protégé after the latter’s plunge into politics, a dirty word in their lexicon when they started off. So we have Arvind fronting the Aam Aadmi Party, which has vowed to work for the ‘common man’s needs’.

Now many of you will dismiss some of Kejriwal’s more recent instances of bomb throwing as half-baked and poorly researched. And you would be right in some cases. Take some of his latest allegations. He has charged the Gujarat government of favouring corporate entities in an oil drilling contract. A faulty charge to be sure or at the very least demonstrates the man’s ignorance. In the very high-risk oil drilling business, funding processes can be vastly different from that in other businesses — funding by partners in a consortium that wins a bid to explore oil or gas can be done from the proceeds of the oil or gas that is discovered, something that is not true, say, in businesses where goods have to be manufactured or services rolled out. So you really cannot have a one-size-fits-all allegation on such issues.

Kejriwal may have a congenital dislike for businessmen whom he feels are living off the fat of the land. But I am sure most of you will agree that publicly announcing what are purportedly private Swiss bank account numbers of prominent businessmen (an allegation that has been denied) is just not kosher. The people named were not given a chance to respond. Kejriwal, as one editor told me, has turned the logic of criminal jurisprudence on its head. He holds people guilty until proven innocent. His modus operandi in most cases is to make the allegations and when questions are raised about his methods, resort to peevishly saying: “now you prove me wrong”.

But has that stopped the media from lapping up the gospel according to Kejriwal revealed at his well-calibrated press conferences and playing them big, whether it’s on television channels or newspapers? Not at all, the fatigue factor notwithstanding. Every time Kejriwal schedules a press conference promising yet another juicy revelation of wrong-doing, the newsrooms are abuzz with speculation about who or what he will come out with and sometimes even with relief at the almost certain possibility of getting a big headline-grabbing story readymade. To my mind, he is like an unpaid but high-profile universal stringer for the media, promising and delivering stories that get great play, more often than not without too much due diligence by those who publish or televise his charges.

But in the debate over whether to take Kejriwal and his associates seriously or not, there is one phenomenon that we have overlooked. Inherent in Kejriwal’s methods is a new paradigm in the media, or, at least in the way information is disseminated. The charges that Kejriwal levels against government bodies, individuals or businesses, are not ones that he cooks up or generates himself. Many of these are based on information, documents or data that are available in the public domain—to anyone who wants to seek them. Kejriwal, according to his own account, gets a stream of such information from the general public, whistle-blowers and so on. The man is himself the medium.

Cut now to what social media’s digital platforms do. A Twitter or a Facebook does much the same thing. They act as conduits for individuals or groups of people to distribute opinions or information to a large number of people. The degree of credibility of the information that is thus distributed depends on the individuals who receive them. You can choose to believe it or you could choose not to. Pretty much like what you could do with Kejriwal’s periodic offerings. The difference is Kejriwal fills an unfortunate vacuum in the media, a vacuum where the media have all but abdicated their responsibility to do what their consumers (readers, viewers, trolls, call them what you will) expect them to. They’d rather ride on the coat-tails of Kejriwal and his ilk.

I see a lesson here for the established media. Their consumers (readers, viewers, etc.) could be cha-nging the way they consume media and if that happens, it would no longer be optional for media to also change the way they serve their users. Call it the K-factor if you will. But the media need to heed this if they wish to not only have their audiences but also to keep them.