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4

Dear media,

India is witnessing an unprecedented event. It is the largest election to date in the world. We have them every five years, but our population has grown since our own previous record. So has the reach of mass media and social media and mobile phones.

Recent developments in the country have raised the question of governance and accountability till you cannot say politics without thinking fighting corruption.

History is in the making, and our primitive media needs to evolve to be worthy of it. Let me not mince words. When I say primitive, I'm not speaking of your monthly air conditioning bill or the size of cars of our anchors, but the refinement of thinking that seems sadly absent.

Today, if we see the coverage of the elections, there really is little in terms of addressing the issues on governance and the priorities of people that will get expressed through the act of voting.

When we look back on a historic election, are we really to see a jumble of perception mongering and nothing that documents the change the country goes through? Are poll surveys, talk shows and campaign coverage all there is to elections? Is politics only about political parties?

What are the changes in the country? Demographics? Economy? Concerns about governance? How are they influencing how people engage with the structure of the country? How have gender rights engaged with the election process? Farmer rights? Tribal rights? Business classes, traders, large corporations? How are people choosing their leaders? What possibilities are there?

Evolution of people can't be about laws and policies alone. It takes a continuous dialogue, and it is where media is failing the country drastically. Our perception of priorities seems unable to exit what is within easy reach of elite areas. Rising devolution to primitive intolerance is further fanned by the media. And it isn't only about religion, it is about everything. Uncompromising conclusions and programmes that begin with black and white views and end there with the same few faces peddling the same few stands with changing "hot topics" that are remarkably similar to each other.

If we leave aside Satyamev Jayate, I can't recall the last time I heard dialogue on rape unless there was a young slim professional woman involved. Child rape, rape of older women, marital rape, gay rape and more are all not interesting enough. Because media is selling what sells, and what sells is violent sex/rape fantasies - even if they are accessed as being the problem. Media treats rape as sex, even when it is to say rape is not sex. The words being said are one thing, but the choice of "victims" tells its own tale. If there is a brief detour, it may be toward pedophilia. The knee jerk sitting up to pay attention of an exploitative population when titillating subjects fall on their ears, successfully turned into a low effort high turnover business. It isn't all that different from rape scenes selling films a decade or two ago. No one was calling the rapist a hero, but the crowd whistling in the theater used to say the film will be a hit.

We can speak of Soni Sori, and be angry about her specific perpetrators, who are not us. But speaking of the exploitation of tribal women or women of minorities... or worse women of the majority touches too close to home. Let us not do it. Who can blame you. Media is patriarchy after all. Male dominated, male owned, catering to a male dominated society, in bed with male dominated corporations and male dominated politics. You either consciously rise above these instinctive defaults, or quit the pretense of being progressive.

This is just one example. Every aspect of the country has vast unspoken sides. Kept silent to suit power lobbies.

What is the cost of living today? How much of our income are we saving as compared with our parents? Are these things the reason why the government faces an undeserved wrath, or has the government created them? What do people think about their ability to save? What do they believe will help them reach a more satisfying situation? You cannot expect your three piece suit to comment on the practicalities of running a home with three kids on a vegetable vendor's income. But there are plenty of vendors on the street who are expert commentators from sheer first hand experience!

This is an election where many of them are on the forefront of the minds of people. Yet media doesn't seem to have much interest into delving into them and bringing out really thought provoking programmes that tell people something they didn't know in ways that are demonstrably scientific rather than opinions. Here's a simple but powerful thought. The freedom to work and earn for a woman instantly turns a single income home into a dual income home. What implication does that have for poverty?

There are the biggies like corruption. And then looking within. Paid media. Both huge issues come election. One herded carefully into safe zones. The other blacked out, because what could be more horrible than looking into the mirror, right?

We speak of paid media, but all media cannot be paid. There is simply no way possible that every article could be monitored and controlled. It may be part of the problem to wring hands and moan about what others do, but it isn't the whole story. The larger part of the story is a lack of integrity.

Today, when Arvind Kejriwal was attacked, Times Now started a hashtag #SlappedAgain which largely got taken over by trolls to celebrate the assault. I don't think I need to comment on Times Now Hashtags. You'd have to be living under a rock to not see them. I can understand that Times Now has its own issues with sanity and does whatever it does. What is more difficult to understand is the complete silence of other channels on it. Apart from prejudicing the public before the elections and being a direct assault on democracy, a tag like this is also a trigger for further assault - being broadcast to massive numbers of followers and viewers.

The quid pro quo is not merely with politicians and business houses. It is with anything with the potential of causing discomfort or worse - real challenge. There is no scholarship or integrity demanded of self or each other.

As a "consumer", I have been reading for ages about how media should self-regulate. What is this self regulate? A channel getting its own reporters to toe lines? A newspaper publishing a retraction if someone sends a notice? What is your responsibility for upholding the quality of national dialogue? Or is the idea to get away with the easy deal till someone makes a law and forces some action that can be complied with minimally?

If there is one news channel with media bias, are the other channels dead? Are they blind that they do not see what is going on? They see. They may even snigger among themselves or readily admit that what is happening is wrong, but the will not leave their cushy chairs to report it and expose it. Because news cannot be about how perceptions are created, right?

In India, media has reached a level of impunity where little can be done about it, and it is a problem as much as a solution. A media that can devote endless time to a toppled metal detector or three month investigations into a 10 year old blog post about spam failed to draw enough attention to stings with an immediate relevance to the upcoming election. Stings on social media "services" that offer to promote your candidate or invent character assassination of your opponent. Services that offer to trigger riots for political purposes - including a recent demonstration of the video of the Sialkot lynching from 2010 being used to incite mobs in the Muzaffarnagar riots.

Media has failed to report adequately on the implications of perception engineering through doctored poll surveys. Media has failed to draw attention to the problems being reported with ballot boxes. Media has failed to provide adequate disclosure of broadcasts of event feeds provided by political parties - which essentially amounts to free advertising time.

Are we to look back on this historic election and find only a jumble of promotion and slander and poll surveys that look nothing like the results? Are we to look back at a historic body of work and find very little on parties other than those able to court limelight in Delhi?

It is not about one channel or newspaper failing, it is a collective failure where failure of one does not get professionally challenged, but cooperated with, resulting in a very poor intellectual capacity of Indian journalism as a whole.

Consider that journalism is a post graduate degree in India, and most news websites - at least the established ones - are at least a decade old. Yet we have news websites with the fundamental inability to link to sources. This is something your average blogger figures out within a week. Yet we have reports of crucial surveys and reports and laws without linking to documents so that the reader may educate themselves. From a profession of spreading knowledge, it is a profession of hoarding and controlling how much people are told.

A culture of intellectual fakery and not acknowledging sources means that reporting news reported by another channel won't do the honesty of naming the channel and linking to the news. Videos stolen from producers like Jay Hind without credit or compensation. Because of course some idiot who learned SEO 5 years ago recommends against linking out to hoard importance with search engines (no longer true). Every interview is an "exclusive" - published on five websites within minutes of each other. Report on some important research will not contain link, because that will be the more authoritative source for it, and you will no longer be the "best information" sabse tej or whatever shit. So FAKE it rather than look like you didn't invent all knowledge in the world. Last year, three news websites actually published news that the NIA (I think) had released sketches of terrorist suspects for people to see and report if they spot - WITHOUT PUBLISHING THE SKETCHES.

It is a lazy, unethical form of journalism that is so bloated on self importance that it fails to see its own importance in a moment when its ability to be a voice of knowledge will serve its country well. It fails to see beyond its own superiority. Sometimes treating AAP with contempt because "unwashed masses" protest and have no ability to rule or some such prejudice. Other times they shove a mic into someone's face that they want bytes from to sell, without respecting the person or understanding why they are important. But then, a media that doesn't sense its own value can hardly be expected to value another.

This can go on and on, but the main purpose of this letter is a reminder. You are more than a job. More than a "make no waves and never be controversial" hen laying golden eggs. You have voice, you have the power to reach the people of this country. You are faced with a historic occasion with an unprecedented number of issues determining the votes and a public with no access to find out realities beyond what you tell them. So far.

The internet is killing newspapers. Very soon it will kill TV channels too, unless they remain useful. The question is whether you are worthy of the responsibility for bringing national dialogue into this century and being the mirror reflecting the country for people to see and self-evolve?

Because there is also WhatsApp and Facebook and Twitter and word of mouth.... which may not have your power or speed, but if they win the trust you lose, you won't get it back, because the world is evolving into new media.

Do yourself the favor of dignity. Be the kind of journalists you idolize and would like to be remembered as, instead of assembly line robots adding a chunk of words into a larger design determined by someone else. Do the country the honor of honesty.

Vidyut

3

Aamir Khan's very excellent foray into television activism has stunned viewers and brought many facts to undeniable light. As I observed the reactions in social media, a few questions come to my awareness.

What motivates cynics?

It is a fairly known factor that any kind of an activist ends up with a struggle to retain legitimacy. Online activism has led to us being called arm chair activists. Anna Hazare's andolan got called "deluded masses", most kinds of activism faces skepticism that it can actually result in any change at all. Today, Aamir Khan's show reached massive audiences countrywide, ended with a call for very specific action that will result in convictions of doctors for sex selective abortions - something that hasn't happened so far - and could set a new precedent propelling the fight against female foeticide into more actively enforced circumstances.

That someone the significance of one of the leading superstars of the country is asking for something so specific and clearly needed makes it highly likely to work out, if only to save face, and the only logical conclusion of the court cases has to result in punishment. One would think this is a fairly important step right here. Yet, we find people focusing on defaming him or devaluing his efforts or otherwise undermining the impact.

This brings up the question of why this is so. What is it that makes a significant section of vocal influencers undermine efforts for social change? The actors may change, but resistance remains constant. Some said it was a case of sour grapes with media professionals jealous of the impact. Possibly. Others thought that people have a vested interest in human rights being violated to feel powerful. Maybe.

I don't know what the reason is, but the fact remains that some of the other lack of perfection seems to bother significantly vocal members of our country enough to discredit calls for change. The perceived lack changes, the people change, but undermining efforts to create change is a constant.

Must activism be free?

There were a lot of reactions to the effect that the show being a for profit effort was fake. This is a view that has come up often, where "connections" or financing  is seen as a lack of authenticity. My view has always been that the utility and investment of effort/resources in an action determines its authenticity. At the same time, I have heard disparaging comments by people as diverse as the Prime Minister of the country to random Tweeps where intent is attributed to the activist rather than valuing the issues raised. Notable examples are the "foreign hand" in the Kudankulam activists, or a comment on this blog, where the work of Sainath was discredited because his grandfather was a President and he got cash awards.

Does it really matter if someone earns from working on social concerns? Does it not make sense that such work earn for the activist so that it is sustainable? But whether it is so or not, what is the explanation of the requirement of "free" with social work? Is your country not worth someone working for its well being to be compensated financially?

Also, the lines are rather blurred. We have college degrees in social work no one expects to be free. We have social workers and NGO employees with salaries from their organizations. We have never expected that the people working on the vaccination programme not be paid, nor do we expect that news channels that disseminate information on social conditions be free - both as in advertising free as well as no channel fees. On the other hand, any individual making extraordinary effort must do it for free. Worse, if someone gets money for what they do, then it is a fair "proof" of their evil intent - this is even standard operating procedure with the government to derail dissent. What is the logic?

And the Aamir Khan situation is even more bizarre, because here you have a proper commercial show on a commercial channel backed by corporate sponsors, anchored by a celebrity. What part of this says that it was either cheap enough to produce to expect it to be made for free? Worse, just because a commercial venture is vital to the country, we expect not just that it be available to us for free, but that no one should pay its creators? In other words, make useless commercial content and earn, but do not make anything useful to the country if you want to earn? What crapshoot logic is this?

Strangely, no one expects the galaxy of crime shows, talk shows and what nots to be free. Why? Are they irrelevant to National Interest? The big difference between Satyamev Jayate and the other shows comes down to their content. The other shows are reporting/discussion, while SJ leverages the space into activism and actual calls for action. So it must fit the starving, khadi clad stereotype? How does such thinking help our country at all?

Or is it more unconscious resistance trying to delegitimize fights for rights on one hand, while ensuring that they always lack resources for survival on the other?'

Will this seed a trend?

The refreshing realism of Satyamev Jayate, its subject matter and its relevance to the masses - so far including the very poor - is new for television advertizing in content, intent and nature and size of target audience. Would the success of this result in more programmes catering to national interest? Are we in fact witnessing the emergence of a more mature phase in television programming? One show does not a trend make, it is true, but recently, Jay Hind also got a late night slot on Colors. So obviously there is some awareness on some level that the audience is ready for or media is ready to risk rocking a few boats.

The high voltage JanLokpal Andolan resulted in massive coverage, talk shows, and such content, further pushed by worldwide news of protests - be it the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street. Needless to say, money was made from activism related content, though news. Is this an experiment toward more activist programmes with deliberately created content as opposed to coverage?

The distinction I am making with existing programming is the presence of a high profile superstar, and the subject being an issue rather than incidents, with multi-faceted content around that issue that ranges from data to interviews to calls for action in National Interest. Existing shows stick to reportage.

Corporate sponsored activism

Less noticed by people is the fact that this show also signifies a milestone in human rights activism - corporate sponsorship. It may be argued that the sponsorship was for a guaranteed to sell programme by a superstar, with guaranteed massive viewership. And that may indeed be the truth. But the fact remains that the content of the programme was what it was.

I find this something to keep an eye on, considering that there are significant areas of human rights violations where corporations are guilty. Will such activism be effective on those fronts? Possibly through sponsorships of unrelated corporations? Or will it drown out those issues and end up creating a smokescreen of impunity for corporations, by questioning of corporates going missing from consciousness even as voices for human rights in general rise? For example, Coca Cola - the company Aamir Khan endorses is accused of spoiling water resources for the poor citizens near its plants. How does this impact the ability of such a show to take on the burning cause of the water crisis?

Time will tell, but I see this as a fragile balance that will inevitably come up on the front of human rights.

Why do we only question the "innocent" side?

An important perspective would have been that of a doctor caught in a sting who still continues to offer services, or family members who want a boy at all costs. We never explore that. Be it rapists who don't get questioned, school teachers who abuse students not getting questioned, murderers, corrupt policemen, parents of juvenile rapists or criminals... whoever. Why is it that our reporting, finding out, talk shows, everything always focus on questioning the victim, but raising no questions from those who commit crimes or promote or condone them?

 

There are some other questions, but they are too vague in my mind. This post will be updated.