Wednesday, February 9, 2011

We are all aware of the now popular phrase 'fourth estate of a democratic realm' (coined by Sir Edmund Burke) . Over time, and especially with the emergence of the liberalised, corporate-ised channels of the media, it has come to acquire a rather interesting dimension. That of being 'saviours of a democracy.' This phrase rings especially true in today's context.

We stand witness to a time when every news report assumes the role of a full fledged campaign. Effectively, one could say that campaign journalism in India really started with the idea of 'Justice for Jessica'. After a long drawn trial that lasted nearly six years, and yet resulted in the acquittal of Manu Sharma, the man who murdered Jessica Lall in front of 300 other people. In this case, there was a clear need for action, for action from among the people and the mass media. Justice was denied, delayed and subjugated in favour of power, politics and paisa. A massive campaign ensued. Justice was accorded. The public won. 

Any campaign or any attempt at public service journalism taken up by the media is a blatant attempt at taking a position on a particular issue and then striving to pursue it, to bring a just conclusion, to bring about a desired result. It makes sense, too, ideologically. The media is an industry (let's just accept it is in fact an industry and move on, things fall into perspective more easily) that has been invested with (and to be fair, has fought for) a tremendous amount of power and position. In a world that is quite literally based on communication systems and networks, the media has acquired a level of previously unknown and unseen omniscience. It is clear where the role of the media as a saviour of democracies could figure in. 

I can't help but feel a little hesitant about this new trend. Although it sounds extremely democratic on paper, it can lead to some rather problematic concerns. For instance, the Justice for Aarushi Talwar protests. When I first received a text urging me to join the protest, my first instinct was to look for Hemraj's name (double murder!) somewhere in the rather emotional appeal. No such luck. Nor has there been a mention of the families victimised in the Nithari case. It's interesting how priorities are set. The murder of an upper middle class teenage girl gets more prominence in the media than the murder (and eventual consumption, slaughter and burning) of 49 children who belong to lower income stratum.

Surely, I am not entirely wrong if I think a lot of these new styles and issues raised in the name of public service journalism are merely placebos? To placate the angry people of the country. To distract them from other more pressing, more urgent concerns. Illegal, extremely detrimental to the environment mining in Bellary by the very rich, very powerful Reddy brothers? No, too important to campaign against. Let's save the tiger instead. I am not for a second insinuating that the dwindling numbers of tigers isn't significant enough to deserve its own campaign. But on what level can we work to save a tiger, except for maybe boosting the sales of a Telecom company? The silence of the media on a lot of issues, it's outrage on some others, and its treatment of some more; these are notions that we need to be extremely critical of. The idea of the media conglomerates definitely working towards greater good is highly romanticised. Stock market swings, ownership patterns and organisation policy are all factors that zero in when it comes to what campaign is 'permissible' and what just isn't. There is also the idea of the continuance and establishment of hegemonic ideology. Urban, English newspapers will steer clear of a campaign on farmer's suicides, smaller newspapers are at greater risk, no matter what the nature of their campaign is. All campaigns are event-based. A murder, a political scandal, a corruption charge has to happen in order for there to be some stir of action.

What is more problematic is the idea of believing that an entire nation is swept along with an ideology that has been imposed from above, by a media 'corporation'. As a nation, we forget to take into account the agenda setting that goes on in the same. The dangers are many, as are the consequences, not all of which are necessarily 'bad'. In that note, though, public service, or campaign journalism, is most definitely an idea that stems from an active people, and for an active people. 

1 comment:

Tanay said...

Intellectual piece of work and choice of vocabulary & expression. The corporate-isation of the media is a natural outcome of globalisation and the constantly-multiplying competition in the sector. Being the most popular holds more priority than being the best, in the scenario.
Public service campaigns, among many others, are very fortunate by-products of the media.