Ranjona Banerji: Juvenile hysteria on News TV

03 Sep,2013

By Ranjona Banerji

 

A Headlines Today sting on Asaram and his ashram for sexual offences in 2010 is being replayed by the channel now, after the religious leader has been arrested on charges of molesting a young girl. It is not exactly clear why the sting was not aired after it was made. The channel however has to be congratulated for putting it out in the open now. It also claims that this footage is being used by the police to bolster the case against Asaram.

 

It is interesting though that many of these gurus, religious leaders and cult figures have relied on the media to build them up. Times Now may have had a vociferous campaign against Asaram in this case but “godmen” and assorted “gurus” from Rajneesh to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to Jaggi Vasudev have received plenty of support from the Times Group. The allegations of murder of schoolchildren against Asaram’s ashram have more or less been forgotten.

 

The most influential of these religious leaders was undoubtedly the late Sathya Sai Baba. In 2000 India Today did a cover story on Sai Baba which included the wide range of charges of sexual misconduct and paedophilia made against him by former disciples. The enormous pressure put on all media organisations not to take the story further was remarkable. Leaders and pillars of society in all disciplines converged on newspaper and magazine offices (TV was less of a factor in those days) to stop anyone else from covering the allegations.

 

It is a testament to our tremendous faith in religious figures as a society that people like this are not treated like cult leaders and dismissed for what they are in many cases: clever manipulators of human weaknesses. Instead, they are feted by the media as much as by anyone else. Every time the Mumbai Marathon comes along, readers may notice how the participation of a particular spiritual speaker who specialises in the Vedas and the Bhagvad Gita is seen on pages of newspapers. The pressure on editors from his well-oiled PR machinery run by his followers to carry this story is incredible.

 

And then there are all the news channels which devote hours of news time to astrologers, gem stone peddlers and various other mystics who can fix all problems. Sybil the Psychic from Network anyone?

 

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In a side note, the Indian media might want to think about the fact that the word Sanskrit “sant” does not translate into “saint” in English. Nor does the word “shaheed” mean the same as “martyr”.

 

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A personal note here: In spite of knowing that the juvenile in the Delhi gangrape case of December 16 2012 could only be tried under juvenile law, I was disturbed by the three-year sentence to the accused, who was supposed to be the most brutal of the lot.

 

It was however clear from discussions after the rape that since the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000 changed the age of a juvenile from 16 to 18 for boys, there was nothing that could be done in this particular case. Even if the law was amended, it would not have retrospective effect. This juvenile accused could not get more than the maximum penalty of three years.

 

I was therefore amazed (why you ask, and with good reason!) to watch the most unseemly hysterics on Times Now on the issue. Some lady from the BJP and a human rights advocate got into a slanging match, Arnab Goswami was taking the moral high ground against human rights activists and the whole atmosphere was bristling with high-pitched manufactured outrage. If Goswami had bothered to pay attention to discussions on his own channel earlier this year, he would have been able to at least steer this particular conversation to a new direction.

 

To reference the film Network again, after 10 minutes of this nonsense I wanted to stick my head out of the window and shout: “I’m as mad as hell and I can’t take this any more”.

 

Yes, I know I have reversed the context in which Howard Beale yelled that out but it’s no less true for all that.

 

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