Mint, Writing

Snacking on scams -Media’s day of reckoning

It was the year of loud scams and shamed silence. Through the year, media screamed outrage at every chance it got and in a twist of irony, went deathly quiet, at least for a while, when its own turn came. Looking back on the year is difficult, not only because of the number of sordid scams it contained but also because the noisiness of the coverage has served to deaden the ability to separate one shrill scream of outrage from another. Detaching oneself from this stream-of-unconsciousness is not easy but some patterns did emerge that were noteworthy and that will shape the nature of television in 2011.

Trials of inconsequence

The studio discussion has now stabilized into a set piece of constructed theatre, with an overbearing anchor whose job is to accuse people of terrible things in a loud voice, a cast of well-rehearsed panellists that includes inconsequential politicians who come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, one or two journalists who are experts on everything, and Suhel Seth. Almost no one of any real political significance attends these things and news channels are utterly incapable of getting a Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Mayawati, Karunanidhi, Nitish Kumar or anyone who actually has anything to do with running the country. When they do deign to appear on television, it is usually to a set script (more on that later) and to anchors who seem curiously defanged in front of them.

The exclusive scam

This was the big discovery of 2010. Individual channels could own their own scams. So if one channel could hog all the glory on the Commonwealth Games (CWG), another Hindi one could specialize in godmen scams. The neat division of outrage helped convert scams into media properties. In a subtle way, news did not merely get influenced by advertising, it became advertising, in the way it sliced the truth in order to generate viewer effect. The coverage of the Barack Obama visit took this phenomenon to a whole new level. Here, some channels took a negative position on his trip before it even began. Interestingly, the motivation was not ideological but a calculated commercial gamble. When everyone else will drool copiously, why not stand out by taking a contrary position, no matter what Obama says, was the implicit thought.

The celebrity tinderbox

The practice of presenting news through celebrities was less in evidence, in part also because of the glut in harder stories, barring hoary jamborees such as the NDTV Priyanka-a-thon and sundry film releases. The more striking use of celebrities came in the way they attracted controversy every time they touched something or, in Amitabh Bachchan’s case, looked out of their windows and saw a new flyover. Almost every new film gave someone a reason to protest and news channel a reason to break news. The SRK (Shah Rukh Khan)I am Khan imbroglio, his feud with Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan’s presence at an inauguration ceremony were all examples of the celebrity-as-controversy-machine.

The reality of self-hate

Along with the flood of disillusioning news on television came the torrent of unsavoury reality shows that rubbed our noses in our own filth. Mounted as well-packaged exercises in public humiliation, these shows were extremely influential and ended up lowering the tone of reality programming across channels. Rakhi Sawant too got into the act.

Post-catharsis amnesia

The ability to exhaust all of one’s anger and move on to the next scam with innocent forgetfulness has increasingly become a hallmark of news coverage. We saw this at work in the case of the Bhopal gas tragedy, where after a few weeks of vituperation and some symbolic swishes at action, following the highly delayed court judgement, things came back to normal and have stayed there. We are seeing the same process at work in the cases of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the CWG, both issues that are beginning to peter out from our consciousness.

Nationalistic posturing

The uncritical identification of a class or an interest group with that of the nation state is increasingly making mainstream media another instrument of the state. Whether it is with respect to Kashmir, our relationship with Pakistan or with the Naxal-affected tribal regions, more channels are blurring the distinction between the government and the nation, leading to a self-generated suppression of dissent. Times Now coined a new word “splittists” that bands together Kashmiri separatists with Naxal activists and serves as a catch-all phrase describing what it sees as enemies of the state. The semantic innovation allows for more self-righteous invective to be directed at this mythical combination of all forces inimical to the state’s interests and marks a new phase in the identi- fication that a large part of mainstream media feels with the establishment.

Who watches the watchmen?

Nothing has characterized 2010 more than the revelations that link media with big business and murky political manoeuvring. The Niira Radia tapes have blown the lid off the self-righteousness that media carries itself with. While it is possible and even necessary to separate the role played by different individuals, for not all of them are equally culpable, the overall picture was unmistakable. The idea that television news is a staged spectacle carries even more currency now. In particular, the extraordinary silence which prevailed on television channels, including those that look upon every wardrobe malfunction as an international catastrophe, is an indictment unlike any other of media in India. In any other day and age, this blatant act of cronyism would have destroyed our faith in journalism.

While 2011 will see an amplification of some of the patterns we have seen this year, some things are likely to change. Here are more of the key possible shifts:

Cleaning up the muck

It is possible, even likely that stung by the undermining of credibility of some key people and of the profession at large, we might see efforts to restore some credibility to journalism. Stories more critical of the powerful, particularly of those belonging to the corporate sector, might have a greater chance of reaching us. The nexus between politics, media and business is likely to come under greater scrutiny this year, but it is unlikely that the cosiness, based as it is on deeper structural realities, is going to disappear anytime soon.

Crowd-sourcing credibility

We already got a strong sense of the power of social media this year and this is only likely to grow in 2011. A parallel narrative is likely to emerge as social media will provide a running commentary of alternative opinion. Of course, given its scattered and extremely transient nature, it will exercise real influence largely in the case of big stories where its power gets concentrated.

The sting goes out of the ‘sting’

The leak has replaced the sting as the provider of news shocks. Over the years, we have seen a slow decline in the power of the sting operation. Increasingly, it gets consumed as another reality show, and leaves little residue by way of memory or impact. Unless something dramatic happens, the sting might now reside in the by-lanes of channels rather than its highways.

Celebrity fatigue

This might involve some wishful thinking but there are signs that the obsession with celebrities is beginning to wane. Having used them mercilessly for the last few years, we have reached a situation where we have overdosed on their mannerisms, causes, feuds and jokes. 2011 might just be the year when we start rolling back the red carpet that we have laid out in our minds for these magnets of attention.

The old guard gives way

This is definitely an exercise in wishful thinking but there is a small possibility that channels will wake to the sameness that viewers have been subjected to, day after relentless day. The same debates run by anchors with the same mannerisms, featuring hardy perennials with pre-packaged views. Something needs to give.

Mint Lounge- Saturday January 1, 2011