Media Goes Into Binary Mode

Big ticket media has been quick to adopt and mimic political binaries. And done very well for itself.

WrittenBy:Siddharthya Roy
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As in life, so in death, Bal Thackeray left residents of Maharashtra with a horrible life-snuffing binary of choices.

When alive, he and his politics – over the past three decades – touched a variety of binaries ranging from: either you accepted mill owners’ hegemony or you were a Communist fit to be murdered in broad daylight; either you’re an outsider or spoke Marathi at home; either you’re a Hindu fanatic/supporter or a Pakistani. Along with his caregivers, the Congress, he had left media outlets in Mumbai and its workers (both news and entertainment) a choice of either being uncritical (and paying up for continuing to stand) or have your office smashed (and pay for standing up).

Perhaps unaccustomed to standing up, permanently beaten-to-submission electronic 24hr TV news channels in India left their viewers with a binary. Either we call Thackeray the emperor of our hearts or be declared anti-Marathi manoos.

Sometime before the first NDA government came to power in Delhi, it was in the pages of the The Times of India that the adage of “Corrupt vs Communal” arose. The binary choice lent itself very well to the short format of quick opinion polls where respondents were allowed to say either YES or NO or give a tight slap on one’s intelligence saying “I don’t know”.

The power binary was first celebrated by the BJP since riding on it they assumed office in New Delhi. LK Advani would, at press conferences, often remark how India’s multiparty system was slowly giving way to a bi-party system much like (their favourite) the USA where BJP is the primary pole and Congress the secondary one. Having proven they are more USA than BJP, the Congress with Manmohan Singh has ensured the binary of either Congress or BJP lives on.

The binary and the short opinion polls together lent themselves to what can now be seen as emerging trends of falling word counts, dropping ethics, news space giving way to market place, content aimed far more at the eyeballs than the grey matter that lies behind. Trends that today have come to such a pass that media outlets are staring in the face of either being for hire or shutting shop; information is either within 140 characters or too much to be read at one go; messages and Facebook posts are either compliant to powers sentiments that be or deserving of getting blocked and reported.

In fact, the binary has been an unexpectedly beneficial and nourishing thing for both these parties. Pramod Mahajan cancels telecom auctions and A Raja rakes in the moolah. Sharad Pawar sets the standards in contracts to friends and Gadkari’s said to be the beneficiary.

Beyond direct monetary benefit the binary provides a useful political tool as well. Congress pretends to govern and BJP pretends to oppose, and as a result we don’t see a debate on the coal scam and the details and extent of it lie hidden in righteous anger and disruption of parliament’s proceedings.

With so much nourishment to be drawn from, big ticket media has been quick to adopt, perpetuate and mimic the political binaries. And one must add, has done very well for itself.

In the early days it ignored the emergence of a strong Left during UPA 1, and when not ignoring it ridiculed and opposed them. Regional parties have been announcing their entries for a long time but the mainstream ignored them and ridiculed them even more – mainly for the crime of not speaking English like the brown sahibs. As a result, while every evening it invites loud men and shrill women who pretend to fight each other in the name of India’s argumentative tradition, it relegates to the dark corners saner and quieter voices. It entertains the news-going audiences with – who to go to bed after the Big Fight type of content, and waking up to a nation where questions remain essentially unanswered type of content. The buck about who’ll clean the mess keeps getting passed.

Foreigners directly invested in media and the newsmakers grew from strength to strength.

Armed with pretty anchors, prettier computer graphics and smart jingles and the prettiest-of-them-all bag full of advertisements, what began with either we air it or it’s not worthy of being news, has now turned to playing god with our country’s democracy and economy.

The Left must get out of Bengal? Ananda Bazaar Patrika has ace shot Suman to take them down. Mamata doesn’t live up to the expectations of their investors? The gun changes aim.

Advertisement contracts of CWG go to a competitor? TOI ensures the minister will never again stand for elections from his assured turf. (

Anna Hazare asks for too much? The Indian Express runs a story about how his colleague V K Singh is against the Indian Establishment.

Manmohan Singh’s too slow for the job he’s been given (of opening India up)? TIME and Washington Post give him a hint of what’s it like to not be propped up.

But our life in binary has stumbled upon a problem…the solution actually…in the form of a different binary – one made up uncountable invisible 1s and 0s.

While the entire two days in post-Bal Thackeray Mumbai, the mainstream media lionised the Tiger, Twitter and Facebook and the blogosphere was abuzz with loud and visible criticism right from the word go. Even though changing channels provided little respite from eulogies to a fascist killer, clicking on the #Balasaheb hashtag throws up an equal chance of encountering statements either slamming him and his politics, or worshipping him or saying we must criticise but not in harsh words. When a girl from Palghar posts a benign message lamenting a meaningless bandh, the Communal ransack her uncle’s office and a law made by the Corrupt (aka Sibal’s Law) ensures she’s punished for her “crime”. But huge numbers of Indians online erupted in clear unconditional support of the girls’ right to speak their mind. Far from invoking the feared bandh it would have a decade or so back, the Tiger’s last roar whimpered into online parodies by many.

In fact the online media spares none. From Madam at 10 Janpath and her airs to her son-in-law’s shady affairs, from Modi’s tears to Taslima’s fears, everything’s up for examination and taking down. Neither is the blogosphere held in submissive awe by Antilia’s height nor by the depth of its owner’s investments in media. And as a result its ISP gets taken down by faceless people calling themselves Anonymous. Kids with mobiles rip apart giants like the BBCs and the CNNs in response to the feigned neutrality in how they report Israeli aggression on hapless Palestinians.

So, in the form of the internet and its bloggers and micro-bloggers do we have a liberator in our midst? Too early to say. Like an oft-shared status message reads, “Until the day I can download food, don’t tell me the internet will change my life”. The internet in India, as elsewhere, is as yet a big cacophony and heroes and trends fall faster than they rise. So the future is as yet unclear and uncertain.

But what’s certain is that existing political and media binaries are too restrictive for life. And just as life in real manages to crack up the toughest of walls and finds a way to bloom, the internet and new media too is taking root. Dissing stiff-lipped editors, tight-assed managers and their tighter-pursed financers, youngsters are taking to blogging, making their own videos, publishing their own e-books and forcing the establishments to take note.

From amidst the false choice of either the Congress or the BJP and under the shadow of dismissive statements like “Coalitions don’t work for India” people have invested their votes in formidable regional players. Even though the Left’s numerical strength proved short-lived after UPA 1, the story has been far from a binary, and regional players emerged as the biggest kingmakers in the history of India. And convent school preferences of suit-clad news readers notwithstanding, grammatically ill-equipped guests are commanding TV time.

The world is a huge mosaic of binaries. Bush’s either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists, BJP-SS’ either you are a Hindutva fanatic or a minority appeaser, Congress’ either you’re for looting land and resources from the poor or you’re anti-development, corporate India’s either you’re anti-labour rights or you’re against industries, yuppie India’s either you’re Anna Hazare or you’re a corrupt politician, Mamata Banerjee’s either you don’t question or you’re a Maoist, violence apologists’ either you’re a Maoist or you’re against tribal rights – all go to make a picture that says – either it’s this exploitative, unequal world order or nothing.

And the internet and new media’s only begun picking the chips off it.

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