Sunday, February 11, 2007

Media antics: Resorting to rhetoric to save face

It was the usual war of channels, not so much for improved TRPs but for projecting the enlightened political stance of the particular channels. It is not strictly an ideological clash as such because the channels were on the same side of the barricades. They were on the side of the poor children who were raped and killed in the dreadful house of Moninder Singh Pander and his valet, Surinder Koli in NOIDA of Uttar Pradesh, on the outskirts of Delhi.
The Hindi channel reporter’anchor fired the first salvo by saying that those who held candle-light vigils for Jessical Lal, the model-turned-bar-tender at the fashionable Tamarind Court, who was shot dead and whose killers were eluding justice for years, did not care for the poor people whose children were abducted, raped and killed. The innuendo was clear: the English channel cared for middle class Lal, and it had no interest when the victims belonged to families of poor people.
The English news channel was stung, in a way. A senior anchor of the channel made amends immediately. It was no more a crime story. An attempt was made to make it into a cause. And the right liberal questions were raised: Is it the case that in India the police do not register cases on complaints made by poor people? It was asked by the anchor with all the moral earnestness the channel displayed for the Lal case. And then the other question was also mooted: How can a person – Pandher – who studied in the elite St. Stephen’s College could stoop to such savage levels. There was a sense of shock as well as anguish that a person educated in an English medium college could enact such horror acts. The subtext was that a person educated in St. Stephen’s College was naturally humane, cultured and civilised, and that it was really apocalyptic when it turns out to be the opposite..
It can be seen that what emerged was a not-so-subtle class and culture war between who speak English and those who speak Hindi. The old battle between India and Bharat was rekindled once again, for a moment.
It was true that the English news channel was slow in grasping the magnitude of the Nithari killing. There was an invisible and unconscious class and culture barrier, no doubt. But they would have got on to the tragedy of the story sooner than later. But the Hindi news channel did not want to let go a good opportunity of nailing the liberal pretensions of the English language competitor.
It is not really the case that the enraged and anguished Hindi language reporter/anchor was on the side of the poor victims. He was as much removed from the poor people through his education, though it was in Hindi, as were his counterparts in the English-speaking journalistic world.
The Hindi news channel too failed to put a face to the poor people whose children were brutalised and killed, except in generalising their poor state. It did not bother to present a detailed picture of these individuals, where they came from, and what they did to earn their livelihood, and what was their sense of resignation when the police refused to consider their complaints. What did they feel about the government and their own helplessness. It would have required more than rhetoric on the part of the Hindi channel to portray the heartrending reality of the powerlessness of the poor.
After an impromptu panel discussion, the English news channel retreated into its cocoon of familiar issues – the plight of the people of Kashmir Valley, the farmers’ suicides. Not that the lives of the Kashmiris and farmers mattered more. It is just that they happen to be more important as a talking-point. A closer look at the lives of the poor folk in Nithari would have been too painful because they happen to be next door, and they live in an alien world as far as the great Indian middle class, which is the core constituency of both the English and Hindi news channels were concerned.
Today, the Indian middle class is on a high, and they do not want to know about anything that will spoil their party. The media – electronic and print – is a faithful mirror of this middle class. So, it is both clueless and heartless when it has to deal with people who do not belong to their class. There are some petty squabbles between those who speak English, and those who speak other Indian languages. But they belong to the same middle class. They find it necessary to pretend to care for the poor, and it remains that – a pretence.

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