On the media's role in the Indian rape controversy
In March last year, The Guardian launched its first major TV spot in 25 years. The advertisement launched a campaign aimed at promoting the paper’s ‘open journalism’ approach. “Open is our operating system, a way of doing things that is based on a belief in the open exchange of information, ideas and opinions and its power to bring about change,” said Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of The Guardian. The ad depicts the blurring of the line between the reporting and the making of news and focuses on how the distinction between them is collapsing. The advert was nominated at Cannes but unfortunately failed to bring home the bacon, as it were. It nevertheless makes an important point.
The recent controversies that have consumed the Indian media suggest that the media may be driving the very events that they are then preoccupied by, in an iterative dialectic with unlimited potential but one that raises a hornet’s nest of issues. The history of the media as activists is not recent, but this is crucially different in the ways in which the media is generating its own content. The Arab Spring will perhaps someday be seen as a turning point, but in any case the trend has gathered momentum in the recent past – helped no doubt by a generation of citizens from across the world that has taken to social media like a house on fire. Much has been said about the role of the social media in such events, less attention has been paid to the role of the more conventional media.
Many have pointed out that the protests in Delhi and across the rest of India were fanned by the media’s incessant coverage of the initial incident and the sporadic protests in its aftermath. And if the resulting outcry results in meaningful changes in a country and society that sorely need it, then that’s something to be celebrated and I’m the first person to admit this. Before that, however, it’s perhaps worth sounding a note of caution about the role of the media.
The media will tell us about what we want to hear about. When we want to see pictures of pregnant Kate and want to know the details of just how bad her morning sickness is, that’s what they’re going to try and get for us. So it’s perhaps encouraging that at least the recent episodes suggest on the surface of things that urban Indians care more about reforming the penal code than Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement. But we’ve repeated to ourselves so many times that with great power comes great responsibility that we risk it turning into a platitude. It’s not; and it’s more urgent now than ever before that society and the media recognize this. The coverage of the incident and its aftermath was carried out in deeply self-righteous fashion and certain aspects of the coverage were perhaps all the more disturbing for it.
We’re used to sensationalist media and I dare say that it doesn’t matter as much when they’re sensationalizing a sex scandal. This is slightly different, however. The media cried themselves hoarse about how they would not rest until change had been brought about. The different outlets set out five and seven point plans and labeled the victim of the brutal attacks Braveheart, some going so far as to call her a martyr. She was not a Braveheart so much as tragically unlucky and she was most definitely no martyr. By definition, a martyr died for a reason. This unfortunate soul did not. The idea of suggesting that she was killed for her beliefs or laid down her life in the service of some ideal is almost as sickening as comments by elected officials suggesting with a straight face that censorship of bollywood and banning skirts altogether are viable solutions to the problem.
The media had the chance to do something constructive and many would say that they did. But if the gravity of the issue is even a fraction of what they’ve made it out to be (and you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who would deny that even in private), then they didn’t do nearly enough and they were often irresponsible about how they went about doing what they did. If they media are going to decide to take the moral high ground, and we’re straying into value judgments here, it is entirely hypocritical of them to treat the issue with anything less than complete integrity. I’d rather the media say that they exist to make advertising revenues and that this entails telling us what we want to hear than have a media that chooses to cloak itself in affected piety.
For once, the government responded with a rather sensible action, albeit belatedly and after much shuffling of feet. They appointed a commission of eminent and respectable jurists and gave them a month to examine the problem and present their recommendations. They refused calls for a special session of parliament, saying that parliament’s job was to deliberate laws and this would be done once they had concrete proposals to deliberate. The media decided to trumpet this as ‘government non-committal on taking action’. When one has to read the fine print or read between the lines to be able to put the issue into context, something is wrong. What’s also wrong is presenting the views of irrelevant and particularly moronic officials as the opinion or response of the government and as the basis for allegations that the government is out of touch. This is especially absurd when there are real, even if slightly less sensationalist, grounds for alleging the exact same thing.
This is not about my deep-seated admiration for the Indian government or my esteem for their efficiency. Or even their abject lack thereof. And I can cite a hundred more examples from just the past month to illustrate more comprehensively exactly what I’m talking about. The only agenda was merely to point out that the newly self-appointed conscientious media might warrant slightly closer scrutiny.