No Media For The Hinterland

The media’s “shock” at the killing of a Punjab policeman highlights its disconnect with the India outside Delhi & Mumbai.

ByAnand Vardhan
No Media For The Hinterland
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There are many ways in which farce can find ways to sneak into “debates” on primetime television news. And you may struggle to hold back your laughs when somewhere in the middle of the debate, the moderator (a euphemism for even not-so-moderate anchors) reminds the panelists and viewers that the issue needs no debate. In fact, you may agree with the late realisation that every issue and discussion may not have the divisive binaries of a debate, it could simply be a reflective discourse or even simpler, a piece of hard news (as starkly factual as a man murdered on a street).

The farce is that for some primetime opinion purveyors, the swing from “disputable” to “incontrovertible” can be a matter of few minutes. A recent case in point is how some news channels sought unanimity after initiating a debate on the gunning down of Punjab Police Assistant Sub-Inspector Ravinder Pal Singh by a local leader of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (later expelled from the party and arrested). Predictably, the debate was a non-starter and condemnation of the act (and demand for swift police action) by all panelists posed a mid-show crisis. Condemnation of criminal acts, in line with a universal chorus, is politically expedient for all political stakeholders even if they fail to agree on anything else.

What to debate now? Of course, primetime narrative can draw from that emergency reservoir of placing all criminal acts in the context of “larger” (read more divisive and byte-inducing) questions of lawlessness, political arrogance and administrative apathy. Now that’s a fits-in-all situation template for debates which expect political fireworks on party lines. So in this case, Congress representatives on one of the programmes launched a scathing attack on the “anarchy” in Punjab under Akali rule, while Akali talking heads (including Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, and Media Advisor to Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal, Harcharan Bains) were putting up a defensive act and even resorting to occasional counter-attacks. Of course, all that on party lines.

Self-deluding journalistic statesmanship and media’s confined idea of “political”

That’s when the journalistic “statesmanship” somehow takes over the moderators (Arnab on Times Now, Rajdeep on CNN-IBN and Sonia Singh on NDTV) and they resort to that vacuity which somehow rings well with the “apolitical” urban middle class – “please do not politicise the tragedy”. Well, inviting counteractive political forces on the panel could not have yielded any different result (and it would be safe to guess that their presence was sought for producing a “political” effect). In the process, it exposes how limited news media’s understanding of the “political” is.

It needs to be remembered that lawlessness is an essentially political question of statecraft and in fact the political “state” as the answer to “state of nature” anarchy is the raison d’être which classical social contract theorists (Hobbes, Rousseau and John Locke) attribute to the state. So what was deviating the discussion was definitely not the “political” nature of arguments but its sharply bipartisan binary. Media’s imagination of the political needs to look beyond the paradigm of electoral party competition, an important condition for liberal democratic system, but not its essence.

Moreover, if questions are framed with a sudden realisation of dysfunctional governance in the state, the answers to be sought have to be political (and latest insights in the emerging patterns of political devolution offered by Rhodes suggest that governance could be political without government too, governing without government).

The Question for Media

The question for the media is how knee-jerk its reactions had been in taking note of a perceived breakdown of the law and order machinery in the state. Do we really get to know about the darker side of a part of the country which has been frozen in popular imagination as the land of clichéd “makke di roti aur sarson da saag”-Merc rural prosperity? Is the law and order situation in the state occupying as much column inch space and air-time as the scale on which alarmist media goes on screaming about the crime graph in Delhi or Mumbai? One evening, your television news anchors were shocked at the brazenness at which crime has taken over the land of the green revolution. They should have known and let you know too.

In its engagement with questions “political”, media houses tend to be myopic and play to the cynical galleries. In their alarmist zeal against crime, they tend to be metropolitan, with everything outside Delhi or Mumbai pushed to the periphery. Assumptions about things political, people constituting political class (and more exclusively ruling class) and pathology of crime in the mythical Yash Chopra-land of lassi-happy and BMW-driving farmers, indict media houses as much as it does the power elite in the state. Your media is as shocked as you are – no such Punjab exists.

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