Sometimes, the arrogance of the media is amazing. It's as if we are a race apart, rules that apply to ordinary mortals don't apply to us, we have the right to invade anyone's privacy, but nobody can invade ours, we can trespass into other people's turf and roles, but God forbid if anybody dares to trespass into ours.
Two events that happened over last week in two different parts of the world exposed the media's 'holier than thou' attitude. One was in India and the other in Luxembourg.
In India, it was the controversy over the ethics of resorting to undercover reporting to ferret scandalous details of match-fixing and in Luxembourg it was the police masquerading as television crew to end a hostage crisis. In both cases, the media attacked Manoj and the police for their lack of ethics, setting a dangerous precedent and so on.
To me, the media's outrage is hypocritical. In recent years, the media has shown scant respect for ethics in the way it gets news, covers news, blanks out news, gives disproportionate importance to certain events only because it matters to certain countries or agencies, and worse, is often a participant and not merely a dispassionate spectator on the scene.
Through his clandestine video recordings Prabhakar has exposed the rot in cricket, our national pastime. It's keyhole journalism no doubt, but it's also an attempt at getting at the truth. The point is, could they have arrived at the truth any other way? How can you get a bunch of hypocrites to tell the truth? Some of the cricketers who've admitted to match-fixing in the video have lied in public. So, is the privacy of a few liars more important than exposing the rot?
In Luxembourg, a 39-year-old North African immigrant seized 43 children and five teachers in a kindergarten school. After a 28-hour tense drama, police lured the gunman out with the promise that he could appear in a televised interview. He was shot, though not fatally, with a gun concealed in the camera and the hostages were all released unharmed. Journalists condemned the police action. Aidan White, president of the International Federation of Journalists, said: "The consequences could be that in a genuine interview the lives of journalists could be put to risk." Is the danger of journalists who could be at risk in future greater than the danger of children who are at risk right now? Of course, this same critical media would have gone to town with their accusation of police inaction if the hostage taker had started killing the children.
The burden of defusing an imminent life-threatening situation lies with the local police. If the best and safest way to approach the hostage-taker is to pose as a camera crew, then the larger good must take precedence.
As a journalist, I think what calls for deeper introspection is why the police correctly assumed that the safest way to access the hostage-taker was to disguise as cameramen.
The fact is, a large number of these crisis situations are aggravated if not created by the presence of television and radio networks. Just examine the way so many hostage crises have erupted in different parts of the world - in Luxembourg, Fiji, Norway, Philippines and most recently in Solomon Islands. Hostage takers have used the media as middlemen to convey the threat and even conduct negotiations. That many networks treat such happenings not so much as news as unfolding live soap operas is often part of the problem. How come media organisations don't object with the same vociferousness to the way media allows itself to be used?
Criminals have used the media to talk to the world, pressure the authorities and prolong the crisis. When television networks go live, the clock begins to tick for the authorities who have to not only act, but seen to be acting quickly and decisively. It gives them no time to think, to plan out rescue operations the way they could have in the pre-live television era. And most important, secrecy and surprise, so crucial for conducting raid and rescue operations, is no longer available to the authorities due to the omnipresent camera. Instead of merely criticising the authorities, our media experts ought to try and understand how our presence has curtailed the options and flexibility to deal with a crisis.
THE hostage-taker in Luxembourg brandished his gun and grenades to television crews posted outside to show he was armed and would use them. We have often seen how criminals, misfits and mentally ill people indulge in dangerous acts only to get onto TV, in search of that elusive fame that illumines their disconnected lives.
How ethical is it for the media to aggravate news, how ethical is it for foreign networks to ignore drought in India or 300 people drowning in a ferry disaster in Bangladesh when they treat the death of two of their own countrymen as a national calamity? How ethical is it for media organisations to package news as products? How ethical is it for newspapers read by families to print pictures of semi-naked women? How ethical is it for the media to devote so much space to lifestyle, fashion and society gossip in a land where millions still go to bed hungry, have to trudge seven kilometers to fetch drinking water and where women have to get up at 3 in the morning because they need the cover of darkness to defecate and bathe in public places.
Sometimes the media quoting ethics is like the devil quoting scriptures. There is as much corruption, unscrupulousness and hypocrisy in the media as there is in any other wing of society. The irony is that most viewers and readers have seen through media's sanctimonious pretensions. It's only the media that hold the media in such high esteem. In a recent survey in the US, people described journalists as the second-most contemptible breed in society. The worst is of course politicians!
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