BEHIND THE BREAKING NEWS
LAST WEEK brought a hard moment of reckoning for the Indian media.
At first, as the country watched the horrific sight of a young girl being brutalised by a mob in a busy Guwahati street, it seemed the reckonings were about something else. What bestial gene do we nurse amidst ourselves? What atavistic hatred of women? What putrid, misplaced sense of morality that can drive one to savage another human being like this? And what fear of reprisal from the perpetrators that cars could whiz by, bystanders could watch, and almost no one intervened for 45 minutes?
The brutalising of women is not a new story. It is as old as history itself. Every day, the papers are rife with stories of women’s heads chopped off, bodies found in drains, faces drowned in acid. But in a modern democracy, should there not at least be a fear of being caught? What have we unlatched ourselves from as a society that even that minimum deterrence seems to be fraying? Why are acts that at least happened in the shadows of the night, in isolation, with the dread of being found out, increasingly being played out in brazen public view?
Some months ago, TEHELKA had published a sting investigation on the attitude of cops in Delhi and its neighbouring regions to rape. Several officers on the tapes had said that women who wear revealing clothes, drink, or have boyfriends, basically ask to be raped. Disturbingly, this regressive belief that women are the crucibles of social morality, that it is not men who must refrain but women who must not provoke, is voiced not just by the fringe but increasingly by India’s institutions as well: political leaders, teachers; commentators; panchayats; the keepers of law, and most shamefully, by members of the National Commission for Women as well.
This attitude is the real monster. The horror in Guwahati was merely the continuum. But for the toss of a coin, this incident could have happened anywhere in the country. It is not sporadic eruptions of crime, therefore, that is the real danger; it is that as a society, we no longer feel enjoined to talk even the baseline language of modernity.
But as this story unfolded, an even darker strand emerged. What role had the television camera played in the Guwahati outrage? Instead of being the vigilant eye, the watchdog whose arrival should have scared the mob, why had the camera melded insidiously into being a part of the circle of violence, completing its circuit with the girl trapped inside? Why had the molesters smiled brazenly into it and repeatedly tried to yank their victim’s face up so the lens could have a full gaze? Why had the camera’s presence prolonged the girl’s humiliation? Why had it turned what should have been fear and shame into triumphant spectacle?
TEHELKA’s cover story this week tracks the seamy underbelly of this sordid incident. Based on unedited, raw footage, not yet made public, it details why there is strong conjecture that the News Live reporter Gaurav Jyoti Neog, who first recorded the assault, may actually have instigated the mob to amplify its violence just to feed his greed for juicy footage. If this is proved right, India’s ‘Murdoch moment’ has arrived: the last horizon has been breached. If not, all the earlier questions about the camera still remain.
It would be a mistake, therefore, to treat this merely as a chapter on News Live’s ignominy. Like the hatred of women, the excesses of certain sections of the media are part of a larger problematic continuum. The truth is, the race for revenues, TRPs and eyeballs is forcing the profession down a perilous slope, eroding its credibility, setting it on a trail that many reporters and editors are themselves uncomfortable with. The tail has begun to wag the dog.
This creates strange warps on the landscape. Last week, in another bewildering incident, using footage provided by a stringer, a particular channel ran a shrill campaign against a man they alternately called a “sweeper” and “ward boy” for suturing an accident victim. The high-voltage campaign ended with the man losing his job. But when the outrage-on-steroids had passed from the screen, it turned out the facts on ground were substantially more complex.
In yet another incident, several television channels ran big stories about a Khap Panchayat diktat in a Uttar Pradesh village, which prohibited women below 40 from keeping mobiles, or marrying for love. With every news bulletin, the protagonists’ positions kept getting more hardened, and more faces came into the fray. A local stringer, however, told TEHELKA on condition of anonymity that in reality, a personal order by two village elders to women of their own family had mushroomed into a full-blown Khap order when he — hungry for some footage to sell — had requested the villagers to say these things on camera. Once his camera began rolling, the incident began to take on a life of its own. People’s desire to perform kicked in; the statements kept getting more fiery and adamant. A story was born out of thin air. It is no longer possible to distinguish where the contours of the original incident ended and the magnified television version began.
TODAY, MANY Indians live with this dismaying sense of news as theatre. Every day, viewers are treated to a summer storm — a sense that something of tremendous magnitude is happening. The next day, it is gone.
For a fraternity of professionals whose seed mandate is to speak up, the media is often irrationally squeamish about speaking up about itself. But all these incidents are a call for self-introspection. Today, the television camera and screen is one of the most powerful interlocutors in India’s public life. But it cannot be an entirely productive and responsible one till it is grouted back into the values of proportionate and factual reporting — as faithful as possible to the real complexities on the ground. Nor can it be the positive force it has the potential to be, until it redraws the line between reporting on reality and creating it.
But perhaps none of that can really happen till the television camera is unstrapped from the idea that speed is the only master it serves. There is life beyond breaking news.
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.
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