Paritosh Joshi: Eternal Vigilance – The Price of Freedom

20 Dec,2012

By Paritosh Joshi


Twice last week we have been shaken to the very core of our being as unspeakable horrors unfolded, in a distant commuter town in Connecticut and then right here at home on a bus in Delhi. Anger, indignation, frustration, desire for vigilante leveling of scores outside the criminal justice system, fear, sorrow, resignation… they have all run their predictable, grim course as people vent a deluge of emotions that inevitably arise in response.


There’s a subtext to the discourse that we cannot, even dare not afford to miss. In both instances, the media and their portrayals: of gun culture in one instance, attitudes toward women in the other; are being identified as a factor in amplifying and even glamourising criminal dysfunction. Anguished voices in digital forums are pointing at how a deranged mind of a bright if introverted high school student may have sought out his gruesome final fifteen minutes of media glory in a schoolyard massacre. Or how Indian films and television shows don’t merely condone ‘eve teasing’ but encourage it, thus building a slippery slope from where descent into the most perverted sexual crime is an inevitable consequence.


What compounds the felony, in popular perception, is that the media are seen to be doing this driven solely by the greed for more eyeballs, even if it is at the cost of taste or common decency.


Which brings me to a theme that I have dwelt on before and will continue to belabor, ad nauseam if need be, until things begin to improve. The theme of responsible self-regulation.


Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were among the earliest philosophers to develop the theory of Social Contract. The theory attempts to explain why an individual in human society is prepared to surrender some of her individual liberties to become a part of a governed collective that in return protects her other rights and freedoms. The idea develops quite intuitively, predicated around the permanent vulnerability of an individual outside of the collective to all sorts of perils, natural and man-made, and how joining the covenant instantly trumps a large majority of them. Extending this Social Contract idea, the Media belong to, and are intended to serve, the community in which they operate and to which they must perforce surrender a few of their untrammeled rights in order that they retain most of them. If the Media are seen as engaging in dysfunctional behaviour, they open themselves up to the charge of defying the Social Contract and can be penalized by being docked all their rights and privileges within the democratic polity of the day.


A particular example of Media delinquency is on display when horrors, such as those of recent memory, are squeezed for all they offer by way of ghoulish ‘entertainment’. We all remember the classic but usually entirely rhetorical “Is bhayanak apatti ke baad aap kya mehsoos kar rahe hain?” type question asked to unwary and naive survivors of disasters. Even in the current events cited above, the victim’s and the perp’s relatives have already been sought out and interviewed at a stage when their lives have abruptly upended most cruelly.


I see tokenism too. A few media houses have organized public vigils and little quasi-political rallies where they will have plenty of ‘grief’ on display, complete with slogans, banners and similar appurtenances that need to be worn only so as to demonstrate bnafide intent. This is not going to cut it.


In fact, nothing less than a public mea culpa by the Industry as a whole particular issued by the leading News and Entertainment broadcasters, followed by an unequivocal commitment to introspect on and develop prescriptions for what ails their ethical systems, will suffice in the court of public opinion.


What if no such acknowledgement is forthcoming?


Well then, start preparing yourselves for that most unfortunate and liberty-destroying outcome: a government-appointed and -empowered media watchdog.


Paritosh Joshi has been a marketer, a mediaperson and a key officebearer on industry bodies. He is developing an independent media advisory practice. His column, Media Matrix, appears on MxMIndia on Thursdays


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