Teachers of journalism often start their session for fresh batches with a question what news is and the characteristics of news. There are plenty of definitions, some simple, some complicated and some funny. Drama is considered an essential part of news. After all, news is about real people, real human situations, and their real experiences and for a journalist it is a real story, definitely not fictional. The literate older generation who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s read newspapers and listened to the news on radio. Both the media by and large disseminated relevant factual information in a straight forward manner. With the advent of television in the Seventies we still had a rather officious, dry as dust monopolistic Doordarshan, wholly owned and controlled by the government. Newspapers in English, Hindi and regional languages were comparatively independent and by and large followed journalistic ethics and tenets of truthfulness, objectivity and balance.
With the arrival of the satellite and digital communication era the media scene in the country has undergone a complete transformation. With corporatization of the privately owned television news channels have their own definitions of news and a profit driven editorial policy. There also appears to be hardly any dividing line between news and advertisements. Channels have no compunction in projecting partisan, jingoistic views and agendas dictated by external forces. There is a tendency to legitimize gossips and unconfirmed or unauthentic planted news and then hype them with theatrics. Most of the channels generate and promote unnecessary controversies which have only entertainment value while skirting real issues which have a bearing on a majority of our people struggling to make both ends meet.
Instead of news they create drama like the sitcoms and serials and have stock characters [In old days there were stock characters in AIR’s rural programmes!] as experts and commentators known for their pet views meant for an addicted clientele. The ‘creative team’ behind these news shows can beat Ashvagosha, Kalidasa, Bhasa and Bhavabhuti in dramatizing any development! Some of them even adopt techniques of Paul Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany.
The origin of how rumours masquerade as news is sarcastically depicted in a humorous old Malayalam poem on how Lord Krishna was accused of stealing what is known as ‘Syamantaka’ gem or jewel. The media then, rumor mongering by word of mouth, succeeded in creating public perception that Krishna had actually stolen Symantaka and had murdered Prasena, the brother of a Yadava king Satrajit. The poem in fact has the line “Kettileyo kinchana varthamanam” which means, ”Haven’t you heard this bit of news”?
Of course, the truth comes out and Krishna is exonerated. But some of his detractors did succeed for some time, to use one of today’s phrases, to “to name and shame” him. Lord Rama was forced to abandon Sita merely on the basis of a rumour. So rumours did not spare even gods!
We have in recent times plenty of such instances of rumours gaining currency and causing damage to public order. Channels also cherry pick and interpret news items which have a communal, emotional or religious angle. Social media platforms have surpassed the ‘traditional media’ in concocting rumours as news. Professional agencies owned or hired by certain political parties and foot soldiers of some of the parties have expertise in spreading rumours about their rivals. Most of the rumours about possession of certain meat items and alleged rapes which created law and order problems have their origin in wild rumours.
Take for example a recent arms deal which have been ‘investigated’ and interpreted by channels thereby confusing public perception leading to real issues being sidetracked. It seems, no one knows for sure what truth actually is. These have led to avoidable controversies and political slugfest between political rivals. One is referring to the ongoing Rafale deal. People tend to come to conclusions according to their individual political leanings.
Like playwrights the manufacturers of news churn out from rumours, dust the boredom from a story and pass it through the crucible of half truths and exaggerations arousing emotional responses of audiences. They, thus project failed policies as thumping successes and succeed in building positive or negative images of public figures.
Most of the channels once a particular item, not exactly news, is brought into public domain have their own interpretations and angles and go on a tangent to make allegations or tarnish images of those, they consider as rivals. In the process they succeed in using their respective media to quote unfounded and irresponsible statements of even minor political elements to abuse leaders, celebrities and even constitutional authorities and the judiciary in the most un-parliamentary and vituperative language. There are instances of using the worse abuses against judges and judgments which might have hurt the sentiments of certain groups. One wonders, where all the laws pertaining to contempt of court, defamation and legislative privileges are?
The channels know public sentiments and popular perceptions and would pick up issues that can attract maximum eyeballs. Recently there were two major decisions of the Supreme Court relating to laws that have a bearing on human behaviour. The apex court first struck down the colonial law of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code [IPC] decriminalizing homosexuality, a longstanding demand of the LGBT community. Some days later the Supreme Court came out with yet another historic judgment on Section 497 of the IPC, which was hailed by the liberal world as it scrapped another archaic law which criminalized adultery.
As an avid viewer for professional reasons, one watched many channels and realized that coverage comprising comments, reactions and opinions to the annulment of the two sections of the IPC was vastly different in terms of the time spent on such programmes. The verdict on Section 377, directly affect only a microscopic minority of the society but the television coverage was almost celebratory and lingered on for a few days. On the other hand, time spent by the media on the verdict on adultery laws which concerns almost every Indian adult was comparatively much less. May be adultery encompasses issues of morality, still considered to be in the realms of privacy! Are our notions, mistaken or otherwise of prudery and propriety being questioned?
The Western society has shed inhibitions. One remembers works of thinkers and philosophers in the west like Bertrand Russell. His book “Marriage and Morals” had challenged the Victorian notions of morality regarding sex and marriage. But this land of Maharishi Vatsyayana and the Kama Sutra are still a traditional society struggling with our own values and time-tested institutions of marriage and family in the wake of challenges paused by pressures of modern socio –economic realities. We have often aped the west and think that whatever is relevant in west is good for us. Instead of imbibing the good qualities from the west haven’t we gone for junk food, cyber addiction, extreme individuality, their marriage, morals and a totally materialistic philosophy and life style? The result is increasing number of divorces and disintegration of families. Such observations may be considered retrograde and out dated.
Then came what is known as the “#MeToo” movement. One considers this as a windfall for the media! Here is an opportunity to empathize with the alleged victims and highlight alleged predatory habits and peccadilloes of the celebrities and the powerful. Such large scale revelations have hitherto been unheard of in the public domain notwithstanding the fact that once in a while such ‘stories’ did appear; of course not in such large numbers. So far such stories were confined to drawing room discussions or in hush tones as people were careful of the privacy and private lives of important citizens and celebrities. We now have on the media a surfeit of graphic accounts of sexual misconduct and harassment by the so called hapless victims speaking to empathetic anchors and experts. People have been named and shamed. Some have conceded and apologized; some others ask, 'where is the proof’ and have threatened to sue the accusers.
Fortunately there is also a fatigue factor. Some of the channels get so obsessed with a particular item which they consider has great public interest, go on and on with the coverage for almost throughout the day and night repeating the same thing and same experts often whipping a dead horse, the alleged antagonist in the story. One is told by a large number of people who are so disenchanted with such coverage with elasticity that when they tune into some channels and find a much hyped story, they just change the channel. If a channel does it for a utilitarian issue people do get glued to that channel. For example during the devastating floods of August in Kerala some of the local channels did such fantastic work by covering rescue and relief operations with often the reporters themselves becoming part of rescue operations; no viewer would stop watching as it had an impact on everyone. On the contrary, after initial enthusiasm of the coverage the arrest of a bishop for alleged sexual assaults of a nun, the fatigue factor set in and public interest tapered off.