The Verma Committee Follow-up: A Crumbling Fourth Pillar and the Forgotten Politics of Boycott

Written by  //  January 29, 2013  //  National Politics  //  Comments Off on The Verma Committee Follow-up: A Crumbling Fourth Pillar and the Forgotten Politics of Boycott

In a speech delivered at the Reuters memorial lecture in November 2012 at Oxford University, Prannoy Roy made some candid observations about the Indian TV news industry that he has been such an integral part of.”Indian news is currently in a race to the bottom,” Roy remarked. He further went on to say that upon comparing the average TV viewership in India (1 hour) to that in the US (5 hours), one is led to the utterly dismal conclusion that this race is far from over. Of course, this is nothing new, and anyone who has followed the recent ‘debates’ (if you can call them that) on the extremely unfortunate incidents at the LOC can testify that the shows conducted by Arnab Goswami and Barkha Dutt were less news and more war-mongering. In fact, the brutal truth about the flourishing news industry- which has gone from one state-run news channel to 183 independent news channels in just 25 years- is that many of them are in the business of blackmail, of selling sex, violence and are prepared to go to any lengths for the sake of advertising revenues. And there is a difference, though subtle, between advertising revenues and television rating points (TRPs).

Running a positive story on Jindal may not get you high TRPs, but could ensure a sweet advertising deal. Similarly, as P Sainath noted in one of his lectures, running a half page story on the rapper Eminem in a Hindi newspaper (as was done by Dainik Bhaskar) may be totally meaningless for the readers, but will create an advertising space for certain consumer products. However, high TRPs usually guarantee a high advertising rate, and this is where Arnab Goswami’s success, and our abject failure comes in.

The most frightening aspect of the Caravan biopic on Mr. Goswami is not the unflattering light in which his own personality has been painted. It is the fact that we, the viewers, have validated his confrontational, jingoistic style of reporting by rewarding TimesNow with unprecedented TRPs. What is even more disturbing is how other channels have been forced or tempted into following suit. This is why we are subjected to ‘sound-byte’ panel discussions featuring the same 8 or 10 people trying to shout over each other every night for at least half an hour on issues that they know very little about. Of course, in other departments, such as putting tabloid news on the front page (or the home page of the website), other channels such as NDTV have left even TimesNow far behind. So if you were surprised by how prominently NDTV features celebrity stories in general, and the ‘Kingfisher Calendar hunt’ in particular, then it should come as no further surprise to know that one of the NDTV channels is partly owned by the UB group (which also owns Kingfisher). However, to single out reporters and channels is to miss the wood for the trees. The basic point is that there is something rotten in the state of Indian news, and the fact that people have started looking back at the Doordarshan days with a sense of warm nostalgia is a cause for alarm.

The reason that countries like the UK and Germany have adopted forms of public-sponsored, not-for-profit news is that they feel that there are grave dangers of a news industry that functions only for profit. And these dangers are presenting themselves in all sorts of sinister ways in the world’s largest democracy. Before the horrific Delhi gang rape, one of the previous cases to be reported was that of a woman raped in her flat in Bombay. However, what struck me the most about the reporting of this ghastly crime were the kind of irrelevant and totally inexplicable details that had been provided in the stories covering it on ALL the channels, including NDTV and Times of India. Now if I repeated the details mentioned in the news stories above, I would be guilty of the same crime that I accuse our news channels of- voyeurism of the ugliest kind. Now voyeurism is nothing new, and appeals to the most base of the human instincts, but this kind of voyeurism- of using the details of a rape crime to further your own ends (read advertising revenues), and garbing it as ‘news’ is enough to make one feel sick to the stomach. One look at all the advertisements featured on the Times of India page illustrates this point beautifully: three advertisements for weight loss and one for a dating website, four links showing scantily clad women, of which one points to an article telling you about the ‘five best positions to get pregnant.

Of course, no one bats an eyelid, because everyone is so accustomed to the script. And no one bats an eyelid when, at the other extreme, the gang rape of a Dalit woman is presented as only a caste-issue, where violence against women is merely incidental. There is absolutely no doubt that the rape of a Dalit woman is a caste issue, and in some ways this makes it even worse than other cases. However, we need to understand the motivations of the media by closely examining the vastly different lenses that they use to examine different circumstances surrounding the same crime. The gang rape in Delhi evoked such a public reaction because people could identify with the victim, because they felt that she is ‘one of us’. On the other hand, the detached language and liberal infusion of the word ‘Dalit’ in a story of a woman’s rape in Haryana is designed to create a boundary between the middle-class consumer of news and the lower-caste victim.

After all of this, when the entire country is up in arms protesting about violence against women, our TV news anchors have the gall to sit and preach to the advertising industry, the film industry and everybody on the streets about how they should be conscious about the misogynistic attitudes that they perpetuate and how they should not be selling sex. Yes they should, and yes we should and most importantly- so should you. During the same panel discussion, the cameraman repeatedly picks out and focusses on only the attractive women sitting in the audience. The panel discussion is followed by an attractive model reporting on cricket, and then the ‘news’ switches to the latest scandals from the bollywood gossip industry.

The problem of gender equality and violence against women is so deep-rooted and disgusting, that we need a plethora of changes to make things better. Changes in laws, the police, the judiciary, the legislature, the film industry, the advertisers, the neta and the junta- we all need to change, and quickly. But something desperately needs to be done about the news industry as well. A news industry that has no qualms about using rapes for voyeuristic purposes and beating the drums of war should not even be tolerated, let alone rewarded with higher advertising revenues.

The phone-hacking scandal in the UK and their own crisis involving the news industry finally resulted in a Leveson Inquiry report, which recommended the establishment of an independent regulator (a media ‘Lokpal’) with punitive powers to monitor the media. However, like so many commission reports in India, this report has almost been consigned to the public dustbin in the UK. Thus, what I suggest is not a new law or commission of inquiry- although in a utopian scenario where laws would actually be passed and then not misused, that would be most welcome. I suggest that instead of cursing the rapacious capitalism that has brought us to this juncture, we exercise the only power that it gives us- our power as consumers. If the boycott of foreign cloth could be organized at a time when there were few alternatives, and if it could become a vital part of an independence struggle, there is no reason why a week-long boycott of a news channel cannot result in some drastic changes to its policy, or established (but obnoxious) anchors being replaced by saner faces. In an age where there are unlimited (well, at least 182 other) choices, and where the channel depends more on our TRPs than we do on any one of them, we hold enormous, albeit unrealized power.

In fact, why restrict ourselves to news channels, why should we not boycott misogynistic songs (as was done in the case of the Yo Yo Honey Singh concert), films and consumer-products such as vagina-fairness creams? The relatively short history of the word ‘boycott’ is itself testimony to its power and the all-important distinction between a boycott and a ban imposed by government (or violent organizations such as the Shiv Sena). While the former is a voluntary expression by individuals of their fundamental rights, the latter is a curtailment of the same rights by a bully, and must not be accorded any space in a democratic society. Just as free-speech is a right, so is the right to boycott an organization peacefully, and the judicious use of this right could go a long way in sending a strong message to the powers that shape our society (usually for the worse). However, such a form of collective action is easier said than done, and the first prerequisite is for all the stakeholders to sit at the same table and decide on a suitable first target. Admittedly, the first target may seem to be a scapegoat (as some may view Yo Yo Honey Singh as well), but a strong message needs to be sent, and a start needs to be made somewhere.

One of the only positives of the last two years in India has been the spontaneous outpouring of people on the streets protesting against issues like corruption and gender-inequality, which affect all strata of society. Whatever the criticisms of this middle-class awakening may be, it is undeniable that the protests are linked to a feeling amongst the middle classes that going out onto the streets may make a difference, that their voices could matter. This realization that “collective action” is not just a meaningless phrase, but an instrument of real power, needs to be taken further and used to repair the crumbling fourth pillar of our democracy. For if we don’t act now, we may soon find that the roof has fallen upon our heads.

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