Cerebral Fodder

November 2004



Media Remedies: the India Angle

You may have noticed that this piece moved up the page and into this slot. Well, it seemed like a natural sequel to last month's feature Media Conspiracies, in which the media was viewed as part of the problem, indulging in a skullduggery of sorts. But in a country like India, with its multiplicity of ethnic voices rising from centuries of slumber, and their newfound independence, the problem of 'manufactured consent' by the nexus of media-government-industry that Noam Chomsky speaks of, is arguably not as big a problem as it is in the West, where the media is overwhelmingly corporate. In India the burgeoning new and independent—to the extent that the advertisers allow it to be!—media could actually become part of the solution; the media not as a chronic ailment but as a reliable remedy for the ills of society as a whole. The Indian media has always had the potential to transform itself and the nation.
TEHELKA. One of the truly remarkable developments in Indian journalism took place a few years ago when Tarun Tejpal and his partners launched a dynamic website named tehelka.com, which presented features on art, literature and public affairs. But it also engineered, through carefully planned "sting" operations, two landmark exposés of wrongdoing: one in cricket, the other in government. Tehelka, which means making waves (or more elementally, 'rocking the boat', as the case may be), was true to its name in exposing wrongdoing here. But precisely on that account it fell on bad times when Tejpal and his colleagues(including two important investors) came under fire—they were even harassed and charged—from various quarters, especially those adversely affected by these investigations.
Due to the lawsuits that followed the site no longer operates as it did, but is now devoted to launching and signing up subscribers for a weekly print edition that is slated to come out in January 2004. Tejpal was energized by this legal assault and decided the best way out was to start a print version of the mission that tehelka.com symbolized; a weekender that will specialize in public interest journalism—exposés, investigations, intelligent discourse on issues vital to the public at large, and most crucial, holding those in power accountable. In an interview that appears in the Sahara Time (Nov 29, 2003), a weekly broadsheet, Tejpal reiterated that without accountability there can be no democracy. So far he has had many well-wishers, donors and subscribers from public life and the highly visible professions who believe in this people's movement. It should be welcomed with fanfare and enthusiasm by all Indians.
May it fluorish, but more importantly, may it appeal to the people's conscience, transform them, and motivate them to act and bring about change in the way we're ruled. Let's hope it succeeds in saving India from the malfeasance of its rulers by relentlessly keeping an eye on their misdeeds. Let's also hope that some of them will be brought to book—and with due process, put behind bars.
There are scores of commentators in the media, but now we are about to have a proper vehicle among the already free and vibrant media to do what must be done if this country is to have any hope of a better future. Recently, the media, both print and electronic, have given us the following no-holds-barred exposés: the Telgi stamp-paper scam, the Judeo Singh—a Union Minister—bribe caught on video, and the senseless murder this month of an honest engineer, Satyendra Dubey, a government servant who blew the whistle on the corrupt Minister-Bureaucrat-Mafia nexus in the National Highway Project. We may finally see some light at the end of the dark tunnel of public affairs in India.
Pardon this long preamble but how appropriate it is to my title below! To salute the good tidings that tehelka will bring us I offer a short piece that highlights the power of the media to act as a remedy for many of the ills that plague us, day in and day out.

Media to the Rescue

The media, especially the electronic, pervades our life. It needs to become a ‘comfort’ zone for the common man, but not for mediocrity.

If America has a national ethic, it is this: enlarge the role of the media, and focus its searching eyes on an event long enough to make it a burning issue, and then bring about closure.

The media sets the tone, provides a framework and encapsulates everything as though events can always be managed. The Indian-American writer, Bharati Mukherjee, once wrote that she finds this an attractive feature of American life, as do many Indians and other foreigners. They hunger for the neatness of events, simplicity, even control.

India seems too diverse and chaotic for this to happen, though its television does tend to get obsessed with each and every event. But there’s no follow-through, no tight engagement with the public, no national passion for any single event to the extent that it tugs away at the public’s emotions and moves it to act or change things. Events are isolated, without adequate historical reference. All is conveniently forgotten. The public isn’t concerned about opening or closure. It doesn’t hunger for history and document like its counterpart in the West. Television seldom achieves any intimacy in the broader sense; it is just background chatter in an emerging, developing country.

And yet it is our media that must assume the moral high ground, and batter away relentlessly at the misdeeds of public figures. They must remain nauseatingly before the public’s habitually indifferent eye until they are held accountable, punished, or shamed into taking action in the public interest. The Indian media cannot simplify, it cannot afford American-style closure. The public’s memory must be lengthened, not cut short. That to me is the abiding challenge for India in the coming century.

The independent, satellite-enhanced, web-enabled media may be India’s only effective weapon against mediocrity and injustice. It can expose evils and disseminate them. But, by using the latest multimedia methods, the networks can make their broadcasts not just relevant but more interesting and engaging as they focus on daily issues and pressing concerns. Society at large must be seen to exist, to be real and relevant. Nothing should be filtered or sanitized for consumption by the status quo. Many domestic TV broadcasts, though varied, offer poor imitations of Western television, thus diluting what we need to know. The information is sterile, impotent. The programs—with the odd exception—scarcely appeal to our conscience, as they lean towards fashion and trendiness in lieu of ideas and dissent. They’re soft on misdemeanors, preferring platitudes and euphemisms to blunt confrontation. The hard talk is not hard enough. Transgressors are often let off the hook easily.

But I must present a balanced view. The criticism above shouldn't detract from the fact that television in India has improved dramatically over the last few years in its treatment of public affairs. Programs like We the People, The Big Fight and daily question segments on news of the day (on NDTV 24X7—its counterpart in Hindi, STAR News, does similar shows); Court Martial, Jana Sansad & Khula Manch (on SAB TV, which balances English broadcasts with Hindi ones); Question Time India (BBC World); CNBC(India)'s Tonight at Ten & Encounter—all these are being aired with zeal, dealing with serious issues that affect the general public. Audience participation is a regular feature of these programs. An important and widely circulated national daily like Indian Express engages in aggressive investigative journalism to expose injustices, and insists on keeping such stories on the front and editorial pages, demanding inquiries and accountability on behalf of its loyal readership. There are also other fine examples, in both the English and vernacular media throughout India. One can only hope this trend continues without fail. The government's conspicuous and brazen silence immediately after S. Dubey's murder is alarming; it reflects the rot within. It has angered people here and abroad, and the media has not only given them a much-needed voice, but is acting as a catalyst for change. The clamor in the media is starting to work, now that the Prime Minister has at least responded; if the government ignores this clarion call by failing to act and follow through, it does so at its own peril.

If the Indian media fails, there may be little hope left in a nation with shameless, venal public figures. Crony capitalism, banana-republic mentality are terms that apply to this species. We are a nation of citizens held to ransom; refugees, even strangers, in our own land. Arguably, we deserve the petty, incompetent leaders we regularly elect. That’s why the media can play a watchdog role and educate people to become civic-minded enough to elect leaders we really do deserve. Raking these bandits over the coals of the media will discourage many good people from entering public life for fear of the media’s spotlight. But that’s a risk worth taking; just a phase until politicians and bureaucrats learn to behave like public servants.

Recently, tehelka.com broke fresh ground. As long as the muck is real, and affects people adversely, muck-raking journalism has its place. In a true democracy the media cannot be privy to what Noam Chomsky calls ‘manufactured consent’. To this we can add the disturbing fact that the media even resorts to 'manufactured news', as Arundhati Roy pointed out in a recent lecture in Harlema.

Take the phrase, ‘vote bank’. A bank is a trust, containing assets. But only if people have placed them there through an act of faith in, and positive action on the part of, the trustees. Our politicians hardly qualify because they don’t have the people’s trust; they have to go out and beg for it by fomenting sectarian feelings, and ‘buying’ votes. They will stoop to any level to occupy a seat—soon to be corrupted—in the people’s parliament. And we blindly let them. Frequent elections alter the chemical balance, but change nothing.

The media, along with its cousin, the Internet, must become the people’s voice—call it electronic satyagraha. All other institutions are either too weak or paralyzed to act in their interests. They’ve failed miserably, and seem incapable of bringing about meaningful change. The media can choose not only to ferret out their misdeeds but also to whip them into action.


a. Arundhati Roy delivered a lecture at Riverside Church, Harlem, New York on May 13, 2003 titled Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy. Buy One, Get One Free. It was sponsored by the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR). Historically known for its social activism, this is the church where Nelson Mandela spoke and where Martin Luther King Jr. first protested against the Vietnam War. Roy happens to be a follower of Noam Chomsky's ideas, and an eloquent spokesperson for concerned people everywhere in these difficult times. She became well known after she won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel The God of Small Things.

—Jayant Deshpande