“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.