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The oxygen of publicity

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 15:41 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

At the height of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s attacks on working-class north Indians in Mumbai in October, many readers wrote in to tell us that Hindustan Times and other newspapers were allowing themselves to be used by Raj Thackeray’s political party.

Some of them argued that although the attacks were reprehensible and needed to be reported, the kind of space we had given them made the party appear much more powerful and menacing than it actually was.

One reader went as far as to suggest we black out coverage of the party’s activities altogether.

More recently, the same question came up in connection with the Ram Sena’s attack on women at a pub in Mangalore.

In an article ‘Making a Mutalik of a molehill’, a media watch website edited by Sevanti Ninan, K. Raka Sudhakar Rao argued that the media’s coverage of the attack, the group and its leader ended up achieving the opposite of was intended.

“Before the Mangalore pub incident, Pramod Mutalik was just a forced-out former RSS Pracharak and his ragtag Ram Sena, which contested the last elections in Karnataka with Hindu protectionist agenda, polled no more than a thousand votes in most constituencies,” Rao says.

“…(But) thanks to the media carpetbombing, there was enough time for the TV viewers to get over their initial revulsion of Mutalik and his men for their bashing up of hapless girls and the drawing room discussions began to swerve towards the rights and wrongs of pub culture.”

Rao concludes that the media needs to come up with some guidelines about how to cover such outbursts by extremist groups.

Clearly, the media must report the violence they unleash. But perhaps we can be more discerning about covering other events these groups organise, especially those that are clearly publicity stunts.

I also think we need to report what these groups’ leaders are saying andwho their supporters are.

Yet there is indeed a great danger that too much coverage and certain kinds of it end up sanitising extremists like Thackeray and Mutalik.

By allowing them to “argue” their case, —if you can dignify their muddled ranting with that verb —, one gives them a publicity platformand their views a certain amount of legitimacy.

One could argue that mainstream political parties, even when they are in power at various levels, can also be violent and violate the rule of law. Of course. But I think there is a difference between parties who have racist and divisive ideologies and those which, however their members behave on the ground, at least espouse a more inclusive and democratic creed. The latter is the lesser evil.

At a conference in Mumbai in the early 1990s, N. Ram, the editor-in-chief of The Hindu group argued that the media should consider the views of Bharatiya Janata Party and its saffron allies “beyond the pale” of civilised society and therefore not allow their members any space on the editorial pages.

The problem is that these parties don’t need editorial pages to get their points across; they do so on the news pages.

So I agree with Rao, and think the media must develop some guidelines, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, that will starve extremists “of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.”