Guest post by MANAV BHUSHAN
Assaulted as we are by the deafening cacophony of India’s 24-hour news channels (183 of them, as Manav Bhushan tells us below), there are some of us who for a long time now, have simply refused to appear on TV “debates”, to give them sound bytes to be seamlessly incorporated into their endlessly looping mindlessness. Essentially, we have exercised a politics of refusal – we will not add to the din. At a recent meeting on media ethics at the Indian Women’s Press Corps, I had expressed a fervent desire that every single 24-hour news channel should shut shop for one week while they went into deep introspection – one week of blessedly blank screens, one week of healing quiet in which people could once again learn to listen, to remember that there can be more than 2 or 3 sound-bytes through which to capture the complexities of the world in which we live. MANAV BHUSHAN makes a more radical suggestion below – that we exercise the only power we have under capitalism, our power as consumers, and exercise a week-long boycott of a news channel for specific reasons, to force drastic changes to its policy and style of functioning. “In an age where each channel depends more on our TRPs than we do on any one of them, we hold enormous, albeit unrealized power,” he says. Over to Manav:
In a speech delivered at the Reuters memorial lecture in November 2012 at Oxford University discussing the Indian news industry, Prannoy Roy candidly said that ”Indian news is currently in a race to the bottom”. He further added 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 ‘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 its members 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 Times Now with unprecedented TRPs. What is even more disturbing is how willingly other channels have followed suit. Of course, in other departments, such as promoting tabloid news on the front page (or the home page of the website), other channels such as NDTV have left even Times Now far behind. So if you were surprised by how prominently NDTV features celebrity stories in general, and the ‘Kingfisher Calendar hunt’ in particular, then you may be interested to know that one of the NDTV channels is partly owned by the UB (Kingfisher) group. 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 Spanish woman raped in her flat in Bombay. What was most striking about the coverage of this ghastly crime were the irrelevant and totally inexplicable details that had been provided in ALL reports covering this story, including NDTV and Times of India. Now voyeurism is nothing new, and appeals to the most base of the human instincts, but the kind of voyeurism displayed in these stories- using the details of a rape crime to further their 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 with this story illustrates this point beautifully: three advertisements for weight loss, one for a dating website, and four links to other articles showing scantily clad women.
Of course, no one bats an eyelid, because everyone is so accustomed to the script. And no one is alarmed when, at the other extreme, the gang rape of a Dalit woman is presented only as 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, which makes this case even worse than others. However, we need to understand what motivates the use of such vastly different lenses in reporting different circumstances surrounding the same crime. The gang rape in Delhi evoked a public outcry because people could identify with the victim, because they felt that she was ‘one of us’. On the other hand, the detached language and overwhelming emphasis on 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 not try to sell sex and should be conscious of the misogynistic attitudes that they help to perpetuate. 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.
So what should be done?
The phone-hacking scandal in the UK recently culminated in the Leveson Inquiry report, which recommended legislation to set up an independent regulator 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 are passed and then not misused, this 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 and style of functioning. In an age where each channel depends more on our TRPs than we do on any one of them, we hold enormous, albeit unrealized power.
In fact, the tool of a peaceful boycott could also be used to communicate our condemnation of misogynistic songs, films and consumer-products such as vagina-fairness creams. But the real question is whether we as a society are mature enough to collectively decide on a target, and whether we can keep sight of 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.
Even though a boycott is dependant upon the isolation of one particular individual or entity, it is important to understand that it serves a much wider purpose. The cancellation of one concert didn’t just affect Honey Singh, or make a scapegoat out of him- it (hopefully) served as a warning for all singers hoping to profit from misogynistic lyrics. A more sustained, but judicious use of this instrument could go a long way in sending a strong message to the powers that shape our society (usually for the worse).
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 on to the streets may make a difference, and 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.
The author is a final year PhD student at Oxford University, and an assistant editor for freespeechdebate.com.