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Back to the basics

In spite of the morality play format, Satyamev Jayate has reminded journalists about their disconnect with the public and their reluctance to focus on human tragedies, Sagarika Ghose writes.

india Updated: Jul 10, 2012 22:42 IST
Sagarika Ghose
Sagarika Ghose
Hindustan Times

With each new episode of Satyamev Jayate - actor Aamir Khan's 13-part TV show - comes a welter of debate. Every episode trends on Twitter. There is official action. In Rajasthan, the chief minister has promised fast track courts on female foeticide. A parliamentary committee has invited Khan for his inputs on generic drugs. From journalists though, each episode of Satyamev Jayate evokes a rather different response. We shrug our shoulders and say, Khan is only doing what we journalists have done for years.

Indeed, many courageous journalists have campaigned long and hard against the same injustices that the show takes up. Khan is following in the footsteps of many idealistic scribes and broadcasters. But somewhere, as power, affluence (and perhaps too much Scotch whisky) has entered our bones, have we lost that fey quality of being the perpetual outsider, the agent provocateur, the challenger of convention? Can Khan now teach us journalists a lesson in shedding our ideological and politicised blinkers on every issue and simply report on human tragedies that are resulting from catastrophic systems failures? How many of us would any more lead our bulletins or newspapers with a headline on child abuse or female foeticide rather than on the latest fashionable reason on why the government must immediately resign? How many journalists today believe that a one-hour programme or a magazine cover story on untouchability is still worth doing, and never mind the ratings or sales?

True, Khan has resources journalists can only dream of. Title sponsors have reportedly invested R17-20 crore on the show. Each episode of Satyamev Jayate reportedly costs more than R4 crore to produce. The reach of the show, broadcasting simultaneously on Star Plus and Doordarshan, is another dream. Yet, Satyamev Jayate has awakened journalists to their somewhat forgotten covenant with the public, and reminded us of the ideals of the fourth estate. As we remain entrenched in incestuous debates with powers that be, as the lure of Rajya Sabha seats and government largesse leads to partisanship of the most disappointing kind, Satyamev Jayate has reminded us journalists about the huge, growing disconnect between us and the public.

Of course, Khan may forget about Satyamev Jayate once his 13 episodes are over. It may remain a successful brand building exercise as he becomes another Angelina Jolie-type socially committed superstar known for championship of public causes. Why, after all, is the advertising revenue from the show not going directly to the uplift of victims? Khan is accused of not putting his money where his mouth is and not stepping into personal philanthropy in education and health like Bill Gates, Azim Premji, the Nilekanis or even Salman Khan have done. His open emoting on screen, shedding tears with victims, is not usually the brief of the professional journalist. Had it not been for the presence of the superstar himself, it is doubtful whether a full hour on female foeticide or alcohol abuse could have sustained viewer interest and sponsor support.

Additionally, news is often not cast in simplistic terms of heroes and villains. So far, Khan has taken up issues where there is general consensus against a particular injustice. But when a television format tackles politically divisive subjects like affirmative action and quotas, or how the State handles communal riots and exposés on corruption, a simple formula on truth - telling and confessionals followed by a moral lecture at the end of the show, would be tough to pull off.

Complicated subjects like generic drugs and medical malpractices do not always have Good Guys and Bad Guys. Turning them into a morality play on a powerful public platform could whip up simplistic and dangerous public anger.

Yet, we remain a country where 30 million girl children have been killed in the womb over the past six decades. The plight of Pinki Pramanik, a star athlete, humiliated in public because of her ambiguous gender identity, shows how desperately our mind-sets need change and reform. Despite his penchant for controversy, Justice Markandey Katju is not entirely wrong: the media does have a responsibility to be leaders of social change, to bring enlightened progressive mentality and not peddle prejudice, superstition and patriarchal values. What public good do the nightly slugfests between BJP and Congress serve beyond creating masala in Lutyensland?

In that sense, Khan has reminded journalists of the tasks that lie before them. That the race for TRPs, sponsorships and celebrities may have become essential for our existence, but an informed public increasingly needs a media that not only informs them of the news, but is a comrade-in-arms in making society better, not worse. Instead of analysing every sound bite of every politician, we must make sure the politicians know that the electorate is not seduced by their TV banter, but is demanding delivery of health, education, jobs and justice.

Already campaigns on rotting grain and malnutrition have somewhat roused the political conscience. But the enormous response to Khan's show reveals that the public is restless for change, and it wants television to take the lead in becoming a seeker of solutions, not just the megaphone of problems. A colleague has written that Satyamev Jayate is an "exquisite piece of journalism", a "refresher course for journalists".

The media's disconnect with reality became glaringly clear recently: daily glamour-soaked features on Gen Next, and their parties and fashions, were revealed as a media delusion, when Lancet showed that in India, more youngsters in the 15-29 age group kill themselves than in any other country. Let Satyamev Jayate become a moment when journalists look inwards and renew their vows with their vocation. Let the truth prevail on journalism.

Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.