Why democracy can so easily be an ‘obstacle’

20 Sep,2011

Four days of a severe throat infection meant little TV news and or newspapers. This I thought would save me from minute by minute updates on the condition of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s fast for amity or goodwill or whatever he called it. But as it turned out, I was wrong. The fast may have been covered but Modi’s condition was left out of it. So unlike with Anna Hazare, whose weight, blood pressure and such were reported in detail, we were given few clues on how much weight Modi had shed. Also, since the earthquake struck Sikkim on Sunday evening, even our hysteria-obsessed TV channels realised that a natural calamity was more newsworthy than a man-made one.

Unfortunately, not only is our knowledge about the North-East of India decidedly dim, so is our television coverage as few channels have correspondents or camera crew stationed close by or even perhaps adequate arrangements with local channels. Thus we had to depend on telephone reports and as usual it is not till you get the next day’s paper that you really know what’s going on. Also given our India-obsession, our channels behaved as if the earthquake only affected Sikkim, pretty much ignoring the damage in neighbouring Nepal and Tibet. This is, one assumes, a form of patriotism.

The damage which obsessive TV – with regard to the coverage of the Anna Hazare movement in particular — can do was brought home to me quite severely while addressing students of a media course at a Mumbai college on Saturday , when one wanted to know how we can get around an obstacle like democracy when it comes to reducing corruption!

Changes made to the Board of Control for Cricket in India were examined threadbare on television and with many anchors palpably upset that there had been no public executions or floggings after India’s losses in England. It becomes clearer every minute you watch TV news why democracy can so easily be an “obstacle”.

 

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Newspapers covered Modi’s fast as well but with far more scepticism, many choosing to concentrate on the fissures within both the BJP and the NDA. The Telegraph, Calcutta, has a story with Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) making it clear than Modi was not a suitable prime ministerial candidate. Of course, all this jumping the gun a bit since the next general election is in 2014 and it is unlikely that Modi will be fasting all the way up to then, amity or no amity.

Tuesday’s Hindustan Times underlined its scepticism of Modi’s amity fast with an editorial, a lead edit page piece by Sitaram Yechury as well as a column by its senior political analyst Vinod Sharma.

The Times of India reduced Modi to a second edit, ‘Strange Sadbhavna’. The front page concentrated on its Social Impact Awards, to honour people who make India a better place. The Times of India has fine-tuned the knack of being all things to all people, greedy, socially conscientious, middle of the road and of course as with Times Now, decidedly rightwing.

Also expectedly, newspapers concentrated on the devastation and death toll in all the quake-affected areas and not just on Indian casualties. Clearly, whatever the sure signs of degradation of standards in the Indian media, some of the better practices still manage to rise about the sludge.

Most mainline daily choose to downplay or ignore US president Barack Obama’s plan to increase taxes to cut down the country’s budget deficit. The pink papers however could not. And weeks after Warren Buffett wrote an impassioned column in the New York Times on how he and his rich friends did not mind paying more tax, Indian papers picked up on it. Of course, this was because of a throwaway line in Obama’s speech – but since the speech was telecast live by all international and business channels, you could not escape it. Indian newspapers and channels seem to have one mantra down pat – never upset rich people. Obama apparently – and the New York Times for that matter – has no such qualms.

 

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We need someone to explain our country’s nuclear policy to us cogently and intelligently as ever since the Japan tsunami there have been very real fears and very strong protests. Indian television goes overboard and Indian newspapers play it down. Help?!

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