Dash Of Drama, Lots Of Outrage
In recent years in India, there has been a tendency visible in the media to turn news into fodder for outrage. The cause itself is typically an event or statement that sparks the collective outrage of one or many groups and television news anchors. The TV news talk-show then becomes a ground for heated arguments which compete in their dramatic style with reality TV shows. There is a distinct blurring of boundaries between entertainment and news.
One of the highlights of this style of journalism came in 2008. That year ought to be recorded as a landmark in the history of Indian news television. I clearly remember watching India TV breaking the biggest story since the creation of the universe in early September of that year.
It was a breaking news ticker, with footage from disaster movies showing terrified people, huge fires, tsunamis, crumbling buildings…the works. The text below said, in Hindi, “teen din mein brahamand ka anth”, which means, “End of the world in 3 days”, and this was repeated in the audio. The reason given was the Large Hadron Collider experiment in Switzerland.
Since no one, not even the intrepid journalist from India TV, had been around to report the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe, I figured this had to be the biggest piece of news since the world came into being.
As it turns out, the world didn’t end in 2008, or even in 2012. However, straight news reporting seems to be on its last legs – for many reasons.
Over here, I am limiting myself to only one factor, which is the tendency towards drama in journalism. This has proved successful and been adopted by an increasing number of channels and publications around the country.
At the same time, the utility of controversy in garnering free publicity has been exploited by everyone from Rakhi Sawant to Veena Malik. Politicians, who are at least as media-savvy as Bollywood starlets, could hardly fail to make some capital of it. It has become a win-win situation for all concerned: publicity for the “controversial” person, grist for the media mill, and entertainment for the viewers.
Some of the recent statements by politicians like Raj Thackeray, Abu Azmi and others following the Delhi gangrape fall in this category. I suspect that there was an element of political grandstanding that drove the statements of these individuals. They took the opportunity to start a controversy or jump into one because of the free media mileage. The condemnation that follows does little or no harm to them politically. Thackeray at least has created and benefited from many controversies already, and his uncle Bal Thackeray had made a quite successful political career out of it.
The Sena model has been adopted by several groups across the country.
In 2009, an unknown organisation called the Sri Ram Sene attacked a pub named Amnesia in Mangalore in Karnataka. They thoughtfully called up a cameraman from a local news channel to record their “protest”, and even waited for him to arrive before entering the pub. The cameraman, Sharan Raj, told me this in a telephonic interview, and so did a member of the Sene.
The brouhaha and campaigns that followed helped the Ram Sene enormously. When I went and met them in Mangalore some time after the incident, members of the outfit were very pleased with the publicity they had got, and said this had helped them expand all the way to Delhi. Their brand name was established, and they could easily recruit members.
This sort of thing works for groups more sinister than the Ram Sene as well. Terror groups also manipulate media for maximum coverage.
Attacks like 9/11 and Mumbai 26/11 are designed as media spectacles.
Terrorism is taken as seriously as it is because it is spectacular, not because of the number of people it kills. In India, in 2011 for example, there were 34,305 cases of murder, and another 31,385 cases of attempted murder, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. There were 24,206 rapes. In contrast, terrorism accounted for 429 civilians and 194 security force personnel, and most of the fatalities were in Maoist areas. 275 out of the 429 civilian deaths were caused by Left-wing extremism, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal.
Logically, therefore, it would make far more sense to put murder and rape ahead of terrorism as threats, and to tackle those with utmost seriousness. Within terrorism itself, Maoism ought to be taken most seriously.
However, something has to be truly dramatic to catch the interest of people, media and the government – which is where terrorism by groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba has “scored” so far. The LeT, like Al Qaeda, has used spectacular attacks and the ensuing media limelight to make itself look much bigger than it really is. This is not to suggest that it should be taken lightly. Far from it. However, it should be seen for what it is, not what it projects itself to be.
Our tendency to react only to dramatic events was highlighted by the horrific rape of the girl in the Delhi bus. Rapes have been going on year after year after year, but until this particular one, India as a country remained strangely complacent about the crime.
The people coming out and marching in protest now has been, in my opinion, a good thing. So too, is the media activism and the anger on TV.
However, the tragedy that led to anger is turning more and more into farce with each passing day, as politicians and religious loonies of all hues express outrageous opinions and enjoy their 15 minutes of infamy.
How to handle such stories is a problem for every editor. Once one channel starts playing the story, the whole avalanche of coverage inevitably follows.
That’s because the story becomes one of great reader or viewer interest. Everyone wants to know about it, and everyone then wants to express her outrage over it.
Unfortunately, that may be exactly what the creators of controversies want.
The writer is Consulting Editor, The Asian Age, Mumbai. These are his personal views.
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