Living Through the Media, Darkly

The recent India Today Conclave raises the broader questions about the media role in giving a forum to politicians and industrialists to whitewash their image. Also, on what basis does the media give honours to people in public office?

Living Through The Media, Darkly
by Farzana Versey
Countercurrents, March 22

Narendra Modi got at least one thing right. At the recently-concluded India Today Conclave, when he was asked a question about his final call regarding being part of the Centre, he said, “And you think all this should be made clear here?”

‘Here’ is a word that encapsulates the media and the belief that newspapers and television channels are the conduits between the citizens and the people in power. It has become commonplace for media houses to have award functions to honour people for excellence in public life or in fields where they represent the nation. Covertly, the media is taking sides, so where is the objectivity they talk about? These events are sponsored and it is distasteful to watch the leaders in every sphere being handed over scrolls and trophies that have been paid for by some business group.

Therefore, on what basis do politicians berate the media when they agree to participate in such functions? This is not a forum for clarification. They are answerable to the citizens of the country and not to the TV channels and newspaper owners, who choose their winners as per the flavour of the season. How can they decide on the “most deserving”, the “best” – what are the yardsticks? Some take cover by pretending to use the popular voice, which happens to be SMS polls, filling the pockets of the phone company.

The India Today Conclave did not hand over awards, but the discussions and question-answer sessions were designed to appear as a representation of all angles. Yet, how rounded was it really? While prime minister Manmohan Singh made hesitant remarks about the WikiLeaks, Narendra Modi got away with the usual stand of promoting his state’s economic progress and called it the “people’s movement”. A member of the audience helpfully mentioned his World Bank stint and how all the wonderful business houses swear that Gujarat is one place where they don’t have to pay to do business. This went unchallenged and there was applause. Even those responsible for the great exposes on the Gujarat chief minister asked him soft questions. Why? Were they told beforehand to skirt anything controversial? How important was it to know about his spin doctors and image-building when inbuilt in the query is the belief that he has indeed managed to get himself a great image?

Someone wanted an assurance from him that there would be no riots in the state. Imagine how fortunate the media feels when they succeed in getting him to promise them he will be a good boy. What did he do? He gave a history of the state’s communal riots before 2002 and how nothing happened after that. There was no further probing about his sly role in transferring police officers, about encounter deaths and about people still waiting for justice. Modi got a golden opportunity to camouflage all evil. Manmohan Singh was not as successful, not because he was put on the mat but because we had the outside ‘objective’ source to pin him down.

The outside force in Kashmir was represented by Syed Ali Shah Geelani. It was a deliberate attempt to get a pro-Pakistani speaker. It gave Farooq Abdullah an opportunity to display his allegiance to India as he sparred with Geelani by discussing not the failure of his party to address several issues but by bringing in the problems of Christians in Pakistan. These diversionary tactics are precisely what make important issues seem like a playground for the media cheerleaders.

Even the title of the session on gender was ridiculous and patronising: “Can the burqa and the bikini co-exist?” Why only burqa and not ghunghat or even power-suits? And why bikini and not other modes of casual dress? Do women go around wearing bikinis in the streets, to work, at home? What did Germaine Greer mean when she said, “The bikini actually forces women to have bodies of children, and women, who are naturally fat-bottomed animals, are forced to lose weight and then buy new breasts because they lose them as well”?

Perhaps Ms. Greer should visit the beaches sometime and see that not all women in bikinis follow the flat-bottom principle, and some animals might be lean in the rear as well. I won’t even get into the burqa discussion because when it is isolated in such a manner in a broad narrative there is a tendency to be condescending about how bright those women too are. It is at the level of lipstick on pig.

That brings us to Sarah Palin. Almost a month before she arrived to give a keynote address on ‘My vision of America’, USA Today had quoted Andrew Cline’s argument that “someone who makes a trip to India a higher priority than a trip to New Hampshire” could not be a serious presidential candidate. The rhetorical query was: “Palin going for the outsourced vote?” How daft is that. It assumes, as has become the pattern now, that Palin will be dumb because recent geographical records prove that you cannot see Russia from Alaska and by default Indians are dumb and will be taken in by a former beauty queen, just as the Pakistan President was when he called her gorgeous at an official meeting. Indians do not vote in the American elections, unless you keep the migrants in mind. How she comes across in India will not affect their voting choices.

The Indian media too initially stood on flaky ground and mentioned her shopping spree. Many others would have gone shopping and in fact done more networking than she did. It is weird that some women wanted her to be asked tough questions when they themselves took the safe way out to portray a balanced picture with ifs and buts. A media conclave cannot give a clear picture of what Palin or the Republicans stand for on all issues. It is to her credit that she spoke up for women in the White House by mentioning Hillary Clinton.

We may have issues with Palin’s statements and politics, but her views are ironically reflective of what she called the “lamestream media”. It isn’t just about one conclave and one media group. As India’s economy grows, we are becoming a bit too cocky globally for our own good. It is not confidence, but shallow bravado where we ride the poverty gravy cart to flaunt an unabashed small segment of polluted wealth. The media is the illegitimate offspring of such socialistic liberalisation.

We have had recent exposes of lobbying. This is the big story. There are smaller ones and one is forced to question whether the concept of paid news is not applicable to awards and honour ceremonies and symposia where the people who ought to be questioned are given an opportunity to clarify their positions.

In his weekly diary in Outlook, Vinod Mehta recounted an interesting anecdote about “two flamboyant Indian editors, R.K. Karanjia (Blitz) and Ayub Syed (Current) who, alas, are no longer with us. Both made annual visits to Gaddafi's tent in Tripoli. Ayub, who could be disarmingly candid, once mentioned to me that he was off to Libya to meet the great leader. ‘I never forget to take two empty suitcases with me when I meet him and on the way back I always stay for one day at Zurich.’ Russi was much more cunning and made no such admission, but he also went on his annual pilgrimage and came back loaded. At that time these were the only two journalists/editors who had direct contact with Gaddafi. Incidentally, it was one of these gentlemen who came back with the offer Gaddafi made to Indira Gandhi: sell me the bomb technology and India will never be short of oil.”

Anyone who knows these and many more facts might believe that such in-house prejudices have always existed. So, along with the forwarded piece from Outlook, a person with political affiliations added a note that said: “In the enclosed item, I do not see any sense of revulsion - worse, I see a sense of admiration. The two journalists were considered to be sort of doyens of the profession.”

It is an important point, especially if exposing the Radia tapes is about lobbying then so was arranging meetings.

I have met both these gentlemen, one for a couple of interviews and the other when I did a few assignments and usually for a chat. Since I spoke with Mr. Karanjia on specific topics, he was forthcoming about his international contacts and his role as liaison person. He was a global citizen before the term gained currency, quite literally. However, unlike the other media owners who were interested in toppling governments he had no such interest. Blitz was happier, I suspect, with its back page and its pin-up model and the last vestiges of a communist idea kept in high spirits with the occasional sharp shots of tequila.

Things have altered because there is more competition between media groups. Earlier they fought over getting the best journalists; now they fight over politicians, industrial houses, advertising agencies, film corporations. They have the gall to portray themselves as the liberal faces of India when they are parochial pockets with their own allegiances. And when they say “Iss hamam mein sab nangey hai (everyone is naked in the public baths)” while talking about lesser mortals, they forget where they have left their own clothes. Or is it masks?

(c) Farzana Versey


  1. In the United States it is not as upfront but we can recognize the sides they take. Mainstream media is always partisan. Sarah Palin is a nice target and many Americans enjoy that ;) Good work and rare to name names. I'll have to update my knowledge of Indian politics now.

    Best wishes,

  2. Ehlan:

    One would accept a certain amount of partisanship in opinions but when the powers form all fields come together for a dose of backscratching it is taking the public for a ride and misleading them.

    Isn't it revealing that when you update your knowledge of politics you will have to depend on the same media?

    Indeed, naming names is not quite done unless you have a specific target for specific reasons and someone backing you. I like to do it my way, foolhardy as it is.


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