Manoj Mishra gets his TV spot.

“In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false,” wrote Guy Debord in “The Society of the Spectacle”, his ground-breaking situationist text on mass-media and reality. Forty years after the text was published, on 15 August 2006, Manoj Mishra, a transport contractor in Gaya, Bihar, died in an attempt to generate the ultimate visual image of protest against the non-payment of his dues. Goaded on by a battery of television news cameras, Mishra doused himself with diesel and set himself on fire as the cameras recorded his death. Reports in national newspapers suggest that camera-persons went to the extent of handing him a diesel-soaked rag, and assuring him of rescue once their footage was complete. In the event, private security guards came to his rescue and rushed him to the Patna Medical College Hospital, but by then it was too late. He succumbed to his burns en-route.

A case of aiding and abetting suicide has been registered against “unknown” media personnel under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. When contacted by this correspondent, Superintendent of Police, Gaya, Amit Jain, refused to name the television channels involved as the case was still under investigation, but stated that the police had asked a few channels for their footage. “Action would be taken after reviewing the footage.”

Most television channels have refused to air the footage, terming it “disturbing” and “inappropriate”, and the incident has generated predictable calls for greater self-regulation in the media. Yet, having outlived his usefulness to the cause of 24 hour television, Manoj Mishra’s case has been abandoned as an embarrassing chapter in an otherwise glorious media-revolution.

Mishra’s case is horrifying for a number of reasons: the primary one being the commoditization and dehumanization of the transaction between the Indian media and the citizens they claim to serve. More disturbingly, the incident points to the outright manufacture of news in a hyper-mediated environment. As Vir Sanghvi, Editorial Director of the Hindustan Times, points out, “Staged stories offer media entities the dual advantage of providing visual spectacles, while letting each entity to distinguish itself from its competitors.” In his book, Debord points out that, “The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.” As Mishra’s case illustrates, the media-created universe is as “real” or “un-real” as the physical world itself, and consequences of actions performed just are deadly.

Mishra’s death is not a simple case of poor editorial judgment. It is an indicative of a larger media obsession with power. No longer content with being the watchdog of the state, or the counterweight to great power, the media has begun to carve a new, directly interventionist role for itself. In a movement eerily reminiscent of the NGO movement in its heyday, the media now sees itself as the supreme arbiter of national and personal affairs. The media trial of S.A.R. Geelani, the public “panchayat” on the fate of Gudiya, (who was forced, on national television, to choose between her spouse who had been presumed dead and her present husband) and the recent case of the public humiliation of a professor who had an extra-marital affair with his adult student, all point towards a self-satisfied, self-confident media consumed in a never-ending discourse on itself.

An actively interventionist media also raises troubling questions of access and democracy. As is evident during the media coverage of the anti-reservation protests, the large scale silence on slum demolitions and the active support for structural reform in the economy, the media tends to intervene on behalf of its typically middle-class viewers, dividing populations into those who can influence news and those who can’t.

However, the immense response to media campaigns on certain issues suggests at work a phenomenon more nuanced than that of a giant corporation engaged in the manufacturing of consent. It is useful to note that the media, particularly television, is at its effective best while dealing with issues that strike a chord with television viewing audiences: corruption, the right to information, delayed justice and civic issues. Wide spread media coverage has kept the Rural Employment Guarantee Act on the public radar and has helped scuttle attempts at modifying the Right to Information Act. It seems that the space for the ascendance of media-lead intervention has been created by a larger state failure to deliver on issues close to the hearts of media consumers, and as illustrated earlier – the media often delivers minor victories in a system perceived to be hopelessly bogged down by incompetence.

So how does one navigate through this hyper-mediated universe? As the experience with the proposed Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006 has illustrated, government attempts at regulation are primarily aimed at muzzling press freedom, rather than genuinely evolving a journalistic code of ethics. Media professionals interviewed by the Frontline spoke of the need for an independent regulatory authority, independent of the government, comprising of established media professionals. Sashi Kumar, Director of the Asian College of Journalism felt that “While the incident points to the crying need for self-reflexivity in the media, to use it bring in government regulation would be disingenuous.” However, CNN-IBN’s Rajdeep Sardesai freely admits that “The chances of the big television channels working towards a consensus on content-regulation are slim.” Sardesai explains that most controversial stories are presently tackled on the basis of “commonsense” and “editorial judgment”. CNN-IBN was one of the channels that had a free-lance stringer present at the spot in Gaya, but refrained from using the footage. What would probably help would be a clearer demarcation between news and media-instigation reality TV. Another model that could be considered might be the “Ofcom” model that came into effect in the United Kingdom in July 2005.

Ofcom, or the Office of Communications, is an autonomous regulatory body set up in the UK to regulate radio, television, and wireless broadcasts. Ofcom comprises of a corporate structure with of a Board, an Executive and Board Committees with specific duties, and is answerable to Parliament. The members are chosen from a broad spectrum of media and industry professionals. Broadcasts and news are regulated by the Ofcom Broadcast Code of 2005 that lays down transparent and publicly discussed and articulated broadcast policies. Rajdeep Sardesai, of CNN-IBN, for one is open to such an idea.

Yet it is unlikely that any code, no matter how carefully or thoughtfully drafted, shall have provisions to deal with a case like Manoj Mishra’s. Regulations are broad contours of policy and conduct, not instructions on how to deal with human tragedy or loss. Communicating loss, grief, tragedy or desperation requires the media to fall back on a far older and simpler ethic – the ethic of according the subjects of their stories the dignity, respect, and sensitivity they deserve, not as media consumers, but as human beings.

3 thoughts on “Manoj Mishra gets his TV spot.”

  1. As a media person myself, at 63, I am sometimes ashamed of seeing what media has reduced itself to, through incidents like the Manoj Mishra one. Over the past five years, I had begun to rely on the news channels of the electronic media. But of late, I have realised that most of the news channels have turned into page 3 journalism of the worst sort and Manoj Mishra may perhaps be just the beginning of its end if the viewing public really begins to sit up, take notice and then fight back.

    You have to watch a top ranking police officer pretending first to be an incarnation of Radha, who, as we all know, is the product of mythology and remains so till this day. Then during Janmashthami, he switches roles to become Krishna and no thanks to our news channels, this news is repeated over and over again till you feel sick of the sheer obscenity of it.

    When a film is about to be released, our so-called news media laps up all that is fed into it in the name of paid publicity news bytes, be it SK’s DON or Aishwarya’s manufactured engagement to Abhishek on the eve of the release of the new Umraon Jaan.

    A Mumbai-based friend of mine told me the other day that the only channel she can manage to watch without doubting the credibility of the visuals and the sound bytes is ANIMAL PLANET. The rest have all been reduced to either SANSANI or CRIMINAL.

    On the one hand, the electronic media brings out of the hidden closet, cases like the Priyadarshini Mattoo and the Jessica Lal murders and helps delayed justice coming to the fore. On the other hand, it allows a doddering old senseless man like Ram Jethmalani to hog the same channels with his idiotic humiliation of the media, of justice and of women.The Gudia episode is one such case where this sick young lady already victimised by the society she belongs to, was once again victimized by the electronic media.Imrana too, has been reduced to a news item across the television channels.

    A young girl of 18 who was witness to her mother’a adulterous relationship with another man that led to her father’s death when she was just a four-yer-old child, was attacked with questions like ‘WHAT DID YOU EXACTLY SEE WHEN YOU ENTERED THE ROOM?’ or, ‘were you aware at that time about what exactly they were doing?’ till the young girl began to cry in front of the camera and turned her face away! She is after all, a girl of 18 whose father was killed by her own mother, now serving a life sentence in a Calcutta prison. IN effect, she is an orphan victimized once again for such a background. Why must a Bengali entertainment channel place her in the dock after 14 years in a dramatized versin of a serial called Police Files?

  2. Hi!I would say there are some channels like Discovery/NGC/BBC which do have interesting shows which have nothing to do with saas bahu and tears..:-)
    One thing that I find DD laggin behind is packaging. People are now so used to good quality signals and nice packaging, that it is usally a pain to watch it in DD. For example, when DD and ESPN telecast a match, I prefer to watch it in ESPN, as the DD stuff is usally amatuerish, with the telecast being cut during the last ball for the advert and coming back only after the 1st ball of the next over..
    But CAS has made it difficult to view those channels in Chennai..:-(

  3. Dear Shoma and Bob,

    Thank you for your comments. I think the issues of TV specifically, and the media more generally goes beyond the usually listed inanities like the Police oficer dressing as radha. There is no doubt that channels like discovery and the BBC have interesting shows, but discovery is not a news channel, and the BBC is a publicly funded news channel. This completely changes the way they function.

    We need to think about how the 24 hour format has changed the way we produce and consume news, and how the ownership patterns affect media coverage.

    Just two small points: Firstly, a large amount of news seems to be generated simply because of the immense pressure on reporters to produce stories. As the head of a prominent news-channel told me,(when i asked him how a cameraman could bring himself to shoot manoj mishra, “We must also think about the plight of the cameraman! He sees it as an oppurtunity to get promoted.” So the structure of an eternally producing news machine is hugely responsible for the kind of coverage that we see. And a lot fo stuff doesnt get covered because its too far away, or the pictures arent good enough. But this should nt be a reason to not engage with the idea of television. I almost stopped watching news of TV a few months ago – but now i watch it more often to simply try and gauge the possiblities that might open up for indian television.

    The CAS issue is a fantastic story – now im spekaing like a pukka newswallah – something that i am planning a full length post on – especially now that the CAS deadline is fast approaching for Delhi as well.
    As they say on TV “Watch this space.”
    A.

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