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Soft Porn Or Hard News?

Soft Porn Or Hard News?

Do we have a choice? Why not? When I did a short course in journalism about 40 years ago we were taught the importance of the headline, the lead in and the bait to hook the reader. Today it is called grabbing eyeballs, and at times the other ones, minus the eyes!

If you, dear reader, have read this far, I have learnt my journalistic lessons well. This piece has nothing to do with porn, and everything to do with news. No foreplay, only word play. If you are continuing to read this article it is because you are an intelligent and discerning reader.

The two day Kanpur Literature Festival, organized by Drs Alok Bajpai and Anjali Tiwari (both doctors of medicine, not literature) was held recently at the GHS Institute of Management, Kanpur. I attended two sessions, one on the Mahatma, by his great grandson Tushar Gandhi, and the other on “Media in the Post Truth Era”. The first was disappointing so I will skip it. The second was enlightening, making many a heart skip a beat.

The panellists ranged from the soft spoken and genial Sunita Aron, Resident Editor of the Hindustan Times, Lucknow, Kamal Khan, the forthright bureau chief of NDTV, Lucknow, and the hard nosed Sanjay Kapoor, founder editor of Hard News, New Delhi. The session was anchored by an able young lawyer, Vikram Chauhan.

It began with a Hindi couplet,

Pehle khabaron se akhbaar bikta tha

Ab akhbaar ke bikne se khabar chapta hai.

(Earlier, people bought the newspapers because of the news they carried, now that the newspapers have been bought over, they just print paid news). Though the original meaning is lost in translation it was an apt lead in to the topic “Media in the Post Truth Era”.

Though I gelled with the theme I felt that it was a proposition that mooted no opposition from the panellists. Having already passed judgement, arguing the case became infructuous.

Donald Duck, oops Trump, needs to tell our desi wordsmith Shashi Tharoor, that there is a new word for lies – alternate facts. That itself is an oxymoron that some morons would love to believe. There is no dearth of morons in India too, who are eager to lap up whatever is dished out in the post Modi/ Shah/ Doval; sorry, post-truth era.

“I have the headline, make the story”.

“But sir, there is no story”

“Idiot, then make up a story”.

This volatile exchange had taken place between the late Russi Karanjia, then editor of Blitz and the father of tabloid journalism in India, and Sanjay Kapoor, who was then with Blitz. These small, yet significant exchanges, speak more than a volume of words for what is impacting and transforming today’s media – print, electronic and social.

Aron began by recalling how she was sometimes stereotyped as a Christian, because of the sound of her surname; and her paper was in turn labelled as a Congress mouthpiece. She said that it would be unfair to single out the present political regime for pressurising editors and journalists. Mayawati and M.S. Yadav were no different when they themselves were in power. When A.B. Vajpayee was the Prime Minister she had reported on how less than 50% of his promises had been fulfilled in his parliamentary constituency of Lucknow. Pressure was brought to bear on her, but she didn’t wilt. She said that editors should learn how to handle pressure and do a fine balancing act.

Khan said that TV news and debates are carefully monitored by Govt agencies. They even know when you switch channels. Kapoor said that Chidamabaram used to watch several channels in his room, and whenever he found something unpalatable he would immediately message for it to be filtered out. However, all three panellists concurred that over the last 5 years intolerance of any criticism has increased exponentially.

In the race for TRPs and eyeballs, TV channels also make their own, not so subtle choices. They invite “fair and lovely” types for their debates. They choose beauty over brains.

Money makes the mare go, and so too the media. Khan said that its corporatisation began in the USA. It is called godikal (in your lap), though in India it is more like bhaktikal (servile adulation). Did he say Modikal or Godikal?

Chauhan, the anchor interjected to say that earlier media persons asked the questions, but today they are questioning the questioners.

Kapoor said that often people expect the media to take a stand, as the Telegraph of Kolkata does. Khan reminded the audience that at times the media does take a stand, as NDTV did in the Jessica Lal murder case. It eventually brought a powerful politician to book. Likewise it was the media pressure in the Nirbhaya case that forced the Govt to send the victim by air to Singapore for treatment.

I may here add that I did not see the same pressure in the Kathua gang rape and murder case that was far more cold blooded and gruesome. Was this because she was just a poor, tribal, Muslim girl and the perpetrators owed allegiance to the party in power?  

Khan said that during the Emergency L.K. Advani, one of its victims, had famously said that when the media was asked to bend, it crawled. Today many in the media crawl even without being told to do so. This subservient media was most evident during the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections. One channel, whose anchor has a penchant for screaming, had brought out a gamut of hashtags targeting Rahul Gandhi as Pappu, a half-Catholic half-Hindu.

He also said that market forces now determine news. He recalled how the Times of India earlier did not want to use the word rape, as it was owned by Jains. Today they have a blow up of Priyanka Chopra’s armpits asking if the pink colour is photo shopped. Aron concurred that readers also have their demands; like more stories on corruption, but they are unwilling to back them up with hard evidence.

Kapoor opined that Govts go after the media owners. If they are tamed then what can their poor journalists do? The media is heavily dependent on advertising, which is why the news stand prices of newspapers in India are abysmally low. They don’t get revenue from circulation. In Mumbai the problem is not as acute because of corporate advertising. In most other parts the media is heavily dependent on Govt advertising, hence cannot afford to antagonize it.

In response to a query from the anchor, Aron said that the print media is much more wary of fake news, because once printed it cannot be retracted. Khan pointed out that the real danger was not unintended or irresponsible fake news, but that deliberately planted by the IT cells of political parties pushing their own sinister agenda.

Aron summed it up beautifully. When the media begins to believe its own rhetoric then it is paving its own downfall, for readers or viewers are not fools. They are intelligent. If you have read this far let me give you a certificate for your own intelligence; for your nose for hard news, not soft porn.

(Published on 16th December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 51)