How much is too much?
With abundance comes junk. It applies to food and it also applies to the media. When food the world over was scarce, it was less contaminated with unhealthy production boosters than it is today. Or with the additives which come from processing, because plentiful produce has to be given a shelf life. It was not replete with the wrong fats. When news on TV was scarce, particularly in this country, it was at worst boring. It did not suffer the distortions brought by competiti
on now that news is almost more plentiful than entertainment.
When excesses mount, they sometimes lead to a turning of the tide.
When a situation acquires extreme proportions it spawns a movement to reverse the tide. Junk food came first to western nations and was followed by the movement towards organic foods, campaigns against harmful additives, pressure to have detailed labelling on every food item so that people knew what they were consuming. Both processes are happening here as well, though the labelling is yet to acquire the same universality.
Is there a similar analogy for the way media trends will shape up? Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, came up with the junk food and junk media analogy when he wrote an essay titled “Set the media free” in 2003. It recorded his dismay at where the media as an institution was headed with the advent of media consolidation and globalisation.
So what sort of reversal did he foresee for the media, comparable to the tide turning against junk food? The rise of a fifth estate, which would let people pit a civic force against the hyperpower of the media conglomerates. He did not, unfortunately, return to the subject later in his magazine writings, but one could point to blogs and the citizen reporter movement as having the makings of such a fifth estate, while the fourth estate slips into a morass of c-dominated news-as-entertainment, be it crime, cinema or cricket.
How did the welcome plurality of news channels descend to junk news in the space of a decade in cable TV-dominated India? (I use the term dominated advisedly to denote the media which gets mind space over the more widely available Doordarshan.) After all, the first cable news channel came only in 1998. With growth, competition for the same advertising pool, with the advent of tie ups with global conglomerates (Fox, Viacom, CNN) that brought access to showbiz footage, and with stock market listing and the pressure of quarterly results, which led to the dependence of news channels on ratings to get those precious ads.
The big story syndrome squeezes out plurality in items of news. You can go from a “day after” reliving of the last Indian Premier League match, to the prime minister’s speech suggesting that petrol subsidies must be reduced, to the latest development in a two week old crime story and run through most of the bulletin by then. There is only room after that for the bombing of the Danish embassy in Pakistan and the death of Yves Saint Laurent.
It is the newspapers that will tell you the next morning that on the same day that the following also happened: there were developments in the Gujjar agitations, the RSP pulled out of the UPA coordination committee, L.K. Advani made an election style speech, that the Supreme Court had ruled there would no extra pay for extra responsibilities, or that the Marans were drawing close again to Karunanidhi or that Mayawati had pulled down a statue of herself because it was too small! Political news is passé. The news menu shrinks all the time as the breaking story paradigm gains hold. If there is a curtain raiser on TV it is more likely to be on the film Sarkar Raj and the Bachchans, than on the World Food Summit in Rome.
Crime news on junk TV
Meanwhile crime reporting on junk TV acquires the lurid, frenetic characteristics have become routine, with a Delhi magistrate having to ask for FIRs to be issued against three or four news channels last month for showing the parents of a rape victim. (Section 228 of the Indian Penal Code states that whoever telecasts or prints a name, which reveals the identity of the rape victim, shall be punished with imprisonment of two years or fine or both.) The Arushi Talwar murder case merits a three-dimensional reconstruction of the family’s home, dramatic music, red letters across the TV screen dripping blood, reporters turning detectives, cops turning commentators.
But to put the matter in perspective, crime reporting on TV here follows established patterns in countries with older television histories. In the way rape and other sex crimes are reported, in the way individual offenders or victims are demonized, in the manner in which some crimes become long running stories with a familiar cast of characters. It is not a peculiarly Indian news aberration.
When excesses mount, they sometimes lead to a turning of the tide. Will self regulation finally take root in the industry to curb the excesses of tabloid television? Will junk media finally prompt civic action, civic retaliation? Wait and watch. Or better still, organize yourselves and respond.
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