The media often behaves like a housewife who complains that she is treated like “the other woman” — pampered, humoured but used and abused, never respected. It is quite another matter that the society against which the media holds this grouse has a funny twist to this version: even as the other woman, the media enjoys greater clout than the lawfully wedded wives of the democratic system: the parliament, the executive and the judiciary. The complaint against the media in fact is that it not only enjoys all power but does so without a measure of responsibility.
The debate gained momentum in recent days of Indo-Pak tensions with fingers being pointed at some television channels. The allegation was that they indulged in jingoistic sensationalism far in excess of the reasonable biases which patriotic considerations would justify.
Consequently, an interesting fallout of the Indian army’s surgical strikes across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir was the role played by the media in the two countries. Ordinarily, one would expect the Indian media, especially the opinion side of it, to have conducted itself with greater maturity, sobriety and impartiality. The Pakistani media could have lived with a reputation of being coerced into unprofessional conduct by the overbearing presence of the army in that country.
Surprisingly and unfortunately, however, it was the Indian media which appeared to be functioning on an invisible command. I am not saying that it necessarily was but the way it outdid the sober and deadpan announcement by the Indian DGMO Ranbir SIngh, a section of our print media ended up looking like military gazettes and television channels as “mouthpieces of a hawkish junta.”
It was clear that there were no invisible commands from the government to the media to function as “war bulletins” because the government’s own forums of the media — radio and Doordarshan — sounded refreshingly sober, calm and unperturbed and, to an extent, unbiased. This as a miracle of sorts because we are used more to the official media taking up the government’s line more loyally than the government itself. But here was the semi- government electronic media behaving in a manner which was surprisingly restrained and poised.
This led one to the inevitable conclusion that the driving force behind private television channels shouting in an agonisingly shrill voice was nothing except TRPs and its requisite sensationalism. This does not speak very well of the state of the media in the world’s largest democracy — especially when you compare it with the conduct of the media in a military-controlled democracy, Pakistan.
Some of the Indian channels earned fame or notoriety for themselves only by turning their news-hour debates into virtual torture chambers for a majority of viewers. By and large, Indian viewers and readers seem to like sanity and sobriety in public displays of disaffection, especially when it comes to Pakistan — except during war. But the anchors of our reputed channels, some of these run by respected media houses in the country, seemed like intellectual and verbose pole-dancers entertaining — so they believe — “the nation.” The vulgar and loud arrogance in the manner they address their guests makes one wonder why the guests come at all, except that political parties and other organisations have an equally desperate need to be seen and heard, even if in negative tones, lest they are forgotten by the people. This is a weakness (especially of political parties, their leaders and spokespersons) which the TV anchors exploit to the hilt.
The Pakistani television channels were understandably pro-Pakistan and generally sold the government line of ‘no surgical strikes’. But having performed that patriotic duty, they never crossed the line of decency and sobriety while talking about India and her people. In fact, there were some highly educative and objective discussions across channels where one could look at the civilian and military consequences of a war between India and Pakistan, indirectly advising even Pakistani authorities against war.
In the end, the Pakistani media — exceptions apart — acquitted itself admirably during this difficult hour. Their most shrill voices remained confined to some marginalised fundamentalists whom the people of Pakistan have never encouraged enough to give them their electoral nod, while in India even some of our most respected and highly paid journalists were talking the language of war with blind passion, with no space for sober opinion.
A sharp contrast emerged in the way the television channels in the two countries treated their guests from across the border. Most of these guests were either ex-army or ex-foreign service officers — responsible and respectable people all. While Pakistani channels were seen treating the guests on their programmes from India with fair amount of respect even while disagreeing with them, the Indian channels, with some noble exceptions, seemed to believe only in “humiliating the Pakistani guests” as liars, cheats, hypocrites, etc. This left a bad taste in the mouth of those like me who wish to see the Indian media conducting itself in a manner that befits the largest democracy in the world.
In plain terms, we lost the media maturity war to Pakistan even while the India soldiers won a major victory for us on the borders.
Considerations of national security apart, media was and is expected to look at events like war with sober, objective and analytical eye — in a manner which sets the media apart from fiery jingoists. No one expects television channels and newspapers to remain completely neutral in times of war. But neither does one expect them to turn suddenly into shrill war-mongers promoting hatred among people of feuding nations. This assumes even greater significance when the feuding nations happen as much to be divided by hatred as they are united by a shared though only lurking, secret feeling of mutual love and admiration. And such lurking feelings exist noticeably between the people of India and Pakistan.
Barring the lunatic extremes in both countries, nothing inspires the imagination of people of these two countries more than the possibility of their governments finally finding a way to resolve the differences between them in a mature, peaceful manner, allowing people to mix freely. That is why the popular emotional scales swing between violent extremes — from effulgence of love and bonhomie to bitter, destructive hatred. Such violence of extremes in emotions actually underlines the subterranean desire among the people on both sides for sinking their difference. People of India and Pakistan want to be allowed to cry in a burst of tears in each others arms.
Fortunately, ordinarily, these are emotions which media on both sides of the fence has been able to capture every now and then. So much so that some eminent journalists on both sides of the border have actually spearheaded a movement for a friendly people-to-people flow across the line that divides them politically, bureaucratically and legally but not emotionally. The emotional divisions are visible only in times of extreme situations such as the ones created by politicians trying to garner benefits through what is sometimes aptly described as a ‘harvest of hate’. On the Indian side, media veteran Kuldip Nayyar is seen leading the effort at the head of a group of significant journalists from Punjab and Delhi. Interestingly, most of those who desire peace and warm affectionate relations among people of both countries are those who have suffered the most during the 1947 partition holocaust — the late Khushwant Singh, Kuldip Nayyar, Lt General Arora, among them.
To media’s — especially Punjabi media’s — credit, they have not allowed the candles of love and friendship among people of two nations to be extinguished even during the worst of times. This signals a triumph of the flame of love and compassion amidst mighty winds of hate. And those in the media who have kept it burning deserve a salute.
Most unfortunately and painfully, the “eruption” of a new breed of journalists has fractured the emotional landscape of the two countries in a most painful way. For some reasons, these know-all mediapersons seem to believe that they alone know what “the nation wants.” This typically loud, arrogant band has been busy trying to demonise the “enemy”. With no experience or first-hand knowledge at all of the psyche of the people living close to the border on both sides, they proceed to unleash war hysteria based on their paperback version of patriotism.
The new-born warriors of hate would rather have India and Pakistan press the nuclear button this afternoon to settle the issue once and for all. Hardly do they realise that the path to enduring success in international relations lies not through something spectacular but through patient, persevering and persistent efforts at resolution of complicated issues. Dubbing the enemy as demonic might serve some dubious purpose, like TRPs, but it is a sure recipe for dissipating national resources, including human energy, in a negative and wild pursuit destined to yield nothing.
There is another angle to the tale.
When TV channels and even newspapers justify their conduct by the massive weight they enjoy in TRP rankings and circulation figures, they give the game away: it is all about moolah, stupid! — as a teenage collegian would want to put it. All the traditional ethics are thrown out of the window without so much as a tear being shed by the baby’s parent. In fact, the very raison d’etre of the existence of the media faces a question mark. Sometimes one wonders if the journalistic fraternity or the media houses (which is not the same thing) even realise the full, long-term implications of their actions and the attitude and approach which such actions symbolise.
Do they realise, for instance, that by making TRPs and circulation figures the sole rationale for the way the media functions in a democracy, the media can lose its fundamental right to be treated in a manner different from the way people treat politicians, political parties etc.?
While the debate on the place of the press in a democratic setup goes on, there is no denying that a democratic household has no legitimacy in the absence of free press. In fact, all the other three “wives” could either become irrelevant or turn into tyrants in the absence of the Press.
The place and significance of the media for a democracy can never ever be overstated. In fact, it cannot even be adequately acknowledged. But equally significantly, a media that hungers after cheap populism, sensationalism and wild, irresponsible playing to the gallery is letting down its constituency which looks at media as the ultimate grievance redress forum. The media must have more power by exercising more responsibility — for its own sake and for the sake of millions and millions of people for whom media remains a sacred edifice of popular hope and aspirations.