Hectoring style in TV journalism and media vigilantism

Watching the TV news nowadays on any of India’s many 24×7 news channels, one will be struck by several characteristics. The most notable among them is that news casting is no longer the staid objective reporting of news stories, description about an event that has taken place or one about to unfold such as a sports tournament, about government policies, laws being legislated, or information about the success or failure in implementing those that have already been enacted. The news reporting have become interpretive, pretending to be an analysis of what has happened or is likely to happen, who the main dramatis personae are in this news-as-unfolding-drama on the national stage, what their motivations are and what social and political forces their actions represent. The news watchers have often been told on many such channels about their programmes being ones that are supposed to take the viewers behind and beyond the bare bone news stories. They are enlightened by background information, helped along with analytical sounding presumptions, hypotheses, to understand, or as they say, make sense of the stories.


In tune with the fast changing daily scenarios in the life of a developing country like India, dynamism in the news storyline, its evolving contours are probably not unexpected. Far too many issues important to our society and polity are coming into sharp focus every now and then, with variable urgency as perceived by one or the other sections of our multicultural country crisscrossed with indeliable identity markers like caste, religion, ethnicity, class, etc. Politics have become markedly adversarial, often with simultaneous, irreconcilably polarized narratives competing with each other. Many Indians consider elections at fixed intervals a hallmark of the democratic functioning and a great achievement of this country. That may well be true. But, for quite some decades now narrow identity politics, often accompanied with other illegalities like the use of spectacular amounts of money and muscle power under political party patronage, sometimes leading to significant violence, have become the mainstay of these electoral battles.


As a necessary sequel to this vitiated electioneering, everyone engaged in generating, mobilizing and using the massive funds during the process – the politicians, their criminal associates and the cronies in the bureaucracy and among the corporate world feel absolutely justified and free to reimburse their expenses by having recourse to sleaze on a massive scale. Fall out of increasing entry of criminals (either politicians or their supporters with criminal antecedents or fixers and middle men who have little respect for the laws and even less scruples) in the political space, including legislative bodies, has been a systematic subversion and weakening of almost all the major democratic institutions, probably with the notable exception of the higher judiciary and the central audit agency, the CAG. Thus financial corruption and other related misdemeanor by any or all of these personages heavily invested in the governance, politics and business in this country have become endemic and almost institutionalized in our society and a central talking point in the public discourse between the elections.   It is but natural that this will serve as the grist to the mill media debate has become.


Unfortunately, it seems like the new age media is setting itself up, in all seriousness, to reflect an ugly stridency and raucousness of the rather low grade slanging match to which serious political argumentation have often been reduced to both inside the hallowed precincts of the legislative bodies and outside on the streets and the TV stations. It is dismaying for the viewers to put up with, on most week nights, not just the unseemly shrillness of the tone of the debates, unbridled show of lack of common decorum and civility on the part of the participants, but active goading by most anchors, as if these are bull fights, to maximise the exothermicity of the angry sputtering that only generate heat without much light.


A phrase is commonly employed by the anchors in these cut and thrust action sequences, called honest no-holds-barred debates, “Tonight, on this programme, will you then admit …”. This is done while provoking one or the other participants, representing this or that party or group neatly arraigned across a presumed ideological divide, into making a clean breast of their position in the form of a convenient, superficial and simplistic formulation proffered by the anchor. And all this is being done apparently for the benefit of listeners and viewers like you and me spread across India, supposedly hungry for the capsules of enlightenment such as this. This is a classic case of hectoring players in our political and social arena to generate sound bites that is designed to create more controversy and further ‘debates’ among the feuding parties, speculate about their impending actions and hypothesize about the motivations behind them. Also a sure way for generating a self-serving rationale for the hyper activity of the media.


More and more media houses have started giving their Corporate Social Responsibility a little more expanded meaning and are trying to cast themselves in roles that can be called, for want of a better phrase, vigilantes on behalf of democracy. Another common phrase used by the news anchors and analysts is “Tonight, people of this country wants to know the answers …”. They never tire, like their guests on talk shows, of invoking the omnipresent holy ghost, the “people”, for whose empowerment via enlightenment they are doing all this due diligence, trotting out statistics, organizing stings, analyzing opinion poll results to gauge the shifting popular will. Their professed job description is “asking questions” to and demanding “straight” answers from their guests. And the victims to be pilloried include the politicians, administrators, ideological fellow travelers of militants, extremists, economic reform evangelists, environmentalists or anybody else who, according to them and their promoters, are responsible for the misgovernance, lack of direction and corruption in this country.


This trend is somewhat consistent with the other similar tendency that has come to be called judicial activism. Both these probably have a basis in the apparent abdication by the executive – both political and bureaucratic wings – of their basic secular duty to govern without fear and favour resulting in a clear deficit in governance in many areas of vital concern to the people. At least judiciary’s attempt at correcting or controlling executive acts of commissions and omissions has sanctions in law and constitution. Media’s wading into these troubled waters to save the imperiled democracy is more likely to be motivated by a sense of killing that could be made in commercial terms, including higher TRP ratings by capturing more eyeballs and collecting higher advertisement revenues. The “questions” raised are often like accusations that can not be directly proven, much like the charge sheets framed by the police in many criminal cases that fail to pass muster in the Courts. The “answers” sought or suggested are more like pet hypotheses reflecting prejudice or position of this or that individual or group, which sometimes includes that of the anchor or the media group. Whether or not any of these questions or answers have any lasting validity or impact they are likely to generate temporary interest and excitement among the viewers which seems to be the whole point in this game: to top the popularity chart to justify continued advertisement support. Ultimately, in the capitalist model of economy we have adopted, everything is a commodity, isn’t it, be it health service or political enlightenment.


It can not be denied that media, especially the electronic version, along with the social networks operating on the internet have played these last few years a stellar role in focusing everybody’s attention on the corruption, misgovernance, perils of predatory capitalist policies in the garb of economic development, incompetence, insensitivity and brutality of the law enforcing agencies and the cry for justice by ordinary Indians, their sufferings in the hands of police and security forces operating with impunity under legally sanctioned immunity from prosecution even in well documented cases of wrongdoings. However, the media, at least the sensible section of the media, should introspect whether their good work of putting up the mirror and showing up the emperor(s) in various states of undress thereby helping people to make up their mind and draw their own conclusions about our rulers, leaders and even ourselves, is being undone by their own misplaced activism.

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