Television

News as trivial pursuit

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We have been rising to majestic heights in our indignation over the proposed Broadcast Bill. Control us? The mature, responsible, credible Indian media? Curtail our freedom? Nonsense! And then we are outed by the police. A fake 'sting operation' by Live India (née Janmat) TV 'exposed' Delhi schoolteacher Uma Khurana supplying schoolgirls for prostitution. A lynch mob attacked Uma and the police clapped her in jail. The drama was dutifully recorded by the media. Uma was swiftly sacked. A week later, we hear that she had been framed.

How shocking, said the media, but it's an exception. We still don't need your content code, thanks, we know what's best. Keep your blipping Broadcast Bill away from us.

However, voluntary self-regulation is tricky. Maybe the Press Council of India should be expanded to include TV and radio and given some teeth - dentures would do - to effectively regulate the media. For as a mortified media professional I have to admit that this scam is not an isolated example of the media's bad behaviour. Our determined move from news as information to news as entertainment has blurred both our vision and the once inviolable line between reality and drama. Now we offer gossip, titillation, trivia and unreal aspirations as news, brushing aside boring issues of social concern, trampling sensitivities, infringing privacy, tossing aside ethics and humanity in our effort to be the hottest honey-trap available.

Media as a trivial pursuit erodes public trust

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Take some big stories of the recent past: Uma is framed, ex-model Gitanjali is re-discovered as a beggar, athlete Santhi Sounderajan apparently attempts suicide, freed Sanjay Dutt goes to Vaishno Devi, freed Salman Khan goes home, and MPs and journalists continue to pick bones with Ronen Sen's 'headless chicken'. Meanwhile, floods claim almost 700 lives and affect millions in Bihar, and displace over 70 lakh in Assam; farmers continue to kill themselves in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. We gave them short, customary coverage like brief, dutiful visits to elderly aunts, and returned quickly to our riveting game of trivial pursuits.

Unfortunately, the freedoms we enjoy are for our role in educating and informing our audience, for helping them make informed choices that sustain democracy. Media as a trivial pursuit erodes public trust.

We urgently need self-regulation by a representative body like the Press Council to get back to being a responsible and ethical media

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And Live India's scam is not even journalism, it is a criminal act of misrepresentation, using media as a weapon for personal vendetta, fabricating footage to wilfully defame and destroy a victim and incite violence. It doesn't merit another debate on sting operations, this was not one. It needs to be dealt with as a crime.

But the other examples represent bad journalism. Former model Geetanjali Nagpal is spotted begging in Delhi. Instantly, she is headline news, portrayed as a drug addict. The media rips the last vestige of dignity off the unfortunate woman, invading her privacy, sensationalising, offering details of her private life, presenting speculation as fact. She turns out to be mentally ill, not an addict. We cannot look beyond gossip value, cannot discuss larger issues of mental health, social security or homelessness. (We have an estimated 18 million street kids, plus possibly as many adults as street dwellers, but they aren't sexy enough.)

Santhi Sounderajan's attempted suicide is gossip, too. Headlined as 'Tainted athlete' or 'Sex-test failed athlete' Santhi's identity as an excellent sportsperson is erased by that of a curiosity of unspecified gender. After her failed gender test robbed her of her silver medal at the Asian Games last year, our media had shown no sensitivity. Even now, we don't go beyond the curiosity factor to look at the third sex's lack of rights and opportunities.

Ronen Sen's fowl story illustrates irresponsible journalism again. Getting your source into trouble for the sake of a delicious quote harms the atmosphere of trust and openness essential for constructive journalism. And then, larger issues of strategic partnership were obfuscated as we lost our head over a chicken. It didn't help citizens to take informed decisions on the nuclear issue. Such frivolous frenzy reduces democratic decision-making to taking sides based on ignorance and muscle-flexing. Besides, it showed an embarrassing ignorance of English idiom. 'Running around like a headless chicken' means thoughtless rushing about; it doesn't imply you're a chicken. Like 'as cool as a cucumber' doesn't accuse you of being a cucumber.

Leading you through an exciting maze of trivia and gossip, the media confuses your priorities. So when a lowly constable hugs Sanjay Dutt he is instantly suspended, but no action is initiated against the policemen and politicians accused in the Bombay riots even after 14 years.

We are losing our grip. We urgently need self-regulation by a representative body like the Press Council to get back to being a responsible and ethical media. We cannot protect our own freedoms unless we protect the freedoms and rights of others.

(The Author is Editor, The Little Magazine. She can be reached at sen@littlemag.com)

This article was first published in DNA (Daily News & Analysis) on 11 September 2007.

(The views expressed here are those of the author and Indiantelevision.com need not necessarily subscribe to the same)

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