The most astonishing piece of news that happened to find its way into the front page of a national daily was centred on a bored MLA of Karnataka. Finding himself disinterested in the proceedings—hardly an unusual phenomenon—the MLA spent his time, as do one hell of a lot of ‘normal’ people, playing with his phone. It seems he honed in on a web photograph of Priyanka Gandhi, was fascinated by it and decided to show it to his neighbour.
How this innocuous and mindless activity constitutes news baffles me, even if the MLA in question was a member of the BJP. It is not that the gentleman was surfing porn sites and salivating over scantily clad models—as an undistinguished Karnataka MLA was spied doing two years ago. He was either admiring or despairing of a quasi-political public personality. How is this news?
The bizarre editorial decision to put this ‘news’ on the front page (or, indeed, carry the report anywhere in a newspaper where reporters literally have to fight to get their reports printed) doesn’t seem very innocent. There was an implicit suggestion that the MLA was perhaps ogling at a photograph of the Congress Party’s Princess Royal. But he was also gazing intently at photographs of Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi while his neighbour was playing a game on his phone.
Whatever may have been going through the minds of the two disinterested MLAs, the publication of the news item resulted in a predictable furore in the Karnataka Assembly the next day, with some Congress legislators indignant over some grave disrespect to the dynastic tradition.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I would imagine that the primary objective of the news item had been met. At the best of times it requires precious little provocation for Indian legislators to scream at each other and force the Speaker to adjourn proceedings. With the publication of a so-called ‘scandal’, disruption is almost guaranteed. In the old days, we used to snigger at gloating reports suggesting that “angry members waving copies of … shouted down the minister and demanded a statement by the Chief Minister/ Prime Minister.” The wording of these template reports may have changed over the years but not the essence. There is nothing the media loves better than a report that creates a parliamentary uproar.
This is not to suggest that everything the media ‘investigates’ is born of cynical calculations. Over the years, there have been many thorough and painstakingly researched reports usually documenting grave financial irregularities and instances of official insensitivity. Some of these reports have had profound political consequences—having led to resignations of mighty ministers and in the case of the Bofors bribery reports determining the political agenda of a general election.
Against these reports, that emanate from a great deal of leg work and study of boring files, are the shortcut routes to fame. A favourite tactic is to select a political victim, stalk him/her for a day or two and pounce on any obvious verbal indiscretion—even if it involves a little tweaking of the whole truth. It helps if the public figure is publicity hungry and believes that every time someone thrusts a mike in the face and asks a question, an answer is obligatory. Earlier, the cleverer politicians gently brushed aside the mike or feigned deafness, but these days TV channels make a huge song and dance over such-and-such politicians “running away from questions” posed by “your channel.”
Such media buffoonery would have been understandable if the objective of the media was quite truly entertainment—it is only unwittingly so. In Britain, the epicentre of the tabloid culture, there is for example at least two mass circulating tabloids that highlight prurience for its own sake, and not out of political considerations. It used to be said about the Sun, arguably Britain’s most popular tabloid that is part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, that its readers don’t give a damn about who rules the country, as long as they have large t***.
I wish Indian publications and channels were also driven by such base considerations. Unfortunately, while the bottom line does influence editorial judgment, the media is still inclined to see itself as a political player. The so-called ‘expose’ of the surfing habits of a Karnataka MLA, the fun many reporters have had luring Dina Nath Batra into indiscretions and an unsuccessful bid to trap a BJP MP into praising Nathuram Godse didn’t happen out of the blue. They fall into a definite pattern and constitute an attempt by a section of the media to divert the national agenda away from the government’s growth agenda.
These are the necessary hiccups every democracy must necessarily endure. The alternative—a regimented Fourth Estate—is too reprehensible for the country to even contemplate. At the same time, the government can hardly be faulted for displaying a measure of impatience with the collateral agenda of the media and keeping it at an arm’s length. True, the social media cannot, as yet, step into the mainstream media’s shoes. But that does not imply that the media’s gratuitous blackmail should be accepted in good humour. The time to strike a judicious balance between fair reporting and legitimate (albeit critical) commentary on the one hand and plain mischief on the other may be fast approaching.
As always, self-regulation and self-realisation provide the answers.