Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why the media cannot be blamed for BJP's Loss and AAP's Victory ?

Many are blaming the media for the BJP's poll-debacle in Delhi - and conversely crediting them for Arvind Kejriwal's spectacular resurrection. It's true that the media has been deeply polarised against Modi and were far from being non-partisan. Apart from ideological difference there has been a lot of personal animosity against the man - which most haven't tried to hide even with a handkerchief. It's a situation where it would be embarrassing for the most left of centre journalist to come out in open support of the Congress or its no-longer-oh-so-young leader. Kejriwal, however, with his image of the enigmatic underdog and messiah of the common man, provided a seductive counter option to back.
But having said that - I do feel the media's own contribution to the Delhi verdict has been largely exaggerated - though it is difficult to miss the gloating and vicarious joy writ large on many faces as if it was they rather than Kejriwal who slay the common "Enemy no 1".
To understand, one probably needs to step back a little to explain the nature of the beast that is today's media - in particular, 24/7 television.
At last count, there are nearly 400 news and current affairs channels in India and the list is still growing. It's another matter that news TV commands less than ten per cent of the total TV viewership in this country and even a smaller share of the TV ad-pie - most of which are gobbled up by the top ten, a unique programming format that rests primarily on talk shows inside the studio. Therefore, prime-time debates - when the rest of the world likes to watch hard news coverage - are not as much the product of our inherent "argumentative Indian" character but also a by-product of a "low-cost" business model.
Studio debates are easy and cheap to produce. It requires modest investment on sets. Most guests are happy to come for gratis - just the prospect of being seen on television is enticing enough. Political spokespersons in any case don't charge. Only some of the regular talking heads - would get a nominal appearance fee. This is much cheaper than sending camera crews and anchors on jaunts across the country or foreign destinations to make documentaries, which few watch in any case.
But, the point of this article is not to analyse the economics of news television in India (as that might lead to another - "bazaaru" - direction) - but to try and examine how it is shaping the national discourse.
Prior to news TV - the intelligentsia formed their political opinions from the edit pages of newspapers. This was even before editorialising of news on the front-page started. Radio (AIR news) had little or no "comment" time - except for some news-features like "Spotlight". Doordarshan in its pristine avatar had some staid discussions (not even debates) of the kind one sees today on Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha TV. While credit can't be denied to the pioneer of modern news television in India - Prannoy Roy - for popularising TV debates first through his Budget discussions and then election analyses - the real "game-changer" was the explosion of the vernacular channels. It was especially these "sansani" Hindi channels that, in my judgement also triggered the re-engineering of the English channels - making them more accessible (call it "Arnabisation" or plain "dumb down") and less elitist.
For a generation that had almost stopped reading newspapers other than Page 3 supplements - this audio-visual "infotainment'' rekindled interest in current affairs and politics cutting across age-groups and socio-economic strata. What media has definitely achieved , above all, is raising awareness and engagement at all levels - which lead to people making a much more informed choice. It may not be totally off the mark to say - this is reflected in the high voter turn-outs in recent elections as well the regular surprised that the electorate throw at politicians (including yesterday's watershed verdict).
No doubt, it created the cult of star anchors and a band of professional talking-heads - comprising largely moonlighting or superannuated journalists. A natural fall out of this are bloated egos in the exaggerated belief that they are shaping the political destiny of the country and can make or unmake careers of politicians. The reality isn't so linear - simply because the audience are not so naive. True, television creates a lot of "surround sound" - as it were - and also has a huge "media multiplier" effect - as both print and online media tend to follow the "real time" news breaks of television. But, those evening sparring matches on the small screen - if clinically analysed - compete on the entertainment quotient with the WWE "noora kushti" of yore or closer to home, the more recent, Comedy Nights with Kapil - taking the liberty of stretching the point by a few yards.
Having spent some time in the media industry, in my view, the intelligent citizen consumes information and alternative points of view from multiple sources but digests them at their own pace before forming their opinion. So if some "star" journalists brag (as an editor of one of India's largest newspaper once to his own peril said, "Mine is the second most important job in the country after the prime minister's") about shaping national policy, they are probably being less than serious and doing it only to impress a nubile trainee in the newsroom.
That is not to discount the influence of media - in building image or creating perceptions. But, the clever players use the media rather than letting the media use them. This where the talent of Kejriwal, Modi or the latter's friend "Barack" lies. They understand the power of the medium, or know how to ride a tiger. Of course, the media can help a bit by strategically editing "Krantikari" bits of an interview or let you down by panning the camera too close to reveal the letters adorning the pin-stripes on a suit. In the process, occasionally a Rajinikanth's Lingaa may bomb at the box-office and a Slumdog will walk away with the Oscars. But, that's all in the game.

Article first published in the @DailyO_ Click here to read