It would, of course, be an unwarranted insult to the intelligence and solicitude of the cross-section of society taking to the streets against corruption to brand it a rabble roused to frenzy by media wiles.
The credit for bringing things to this pass goes, perhaps even more than to Anna Hazare, to the government strategists who thought up the incredibly foolish plan of taking him into preventive custody and soon found themselves at a loss to handle a detenu determined to overstay his welcome in Tihar jail. Hazare and his cohorts couldn’t have asked for a better opening to this, the second round of their campaign for a Jan Lokpal bill. The government, which has clearly lost the plot, now seems reduced to a face-saving role in Hazare’s script.
For the media, this is, no doubt, a delectable situation replete with possibilties. And, indeed, the generally barbed coverage fully befits the occasion. But, in the race for eyeballs, a section of the media—some TV channels in particular—give the impression of having sprinted ahead of the story and dragging it along behind them. What defies imagination, even as it stretches journalistic credibility, is that the messengers become the lead players, directing the route the story will run, conjuring up twists and turns where there are none and keeping the news-in-the-making illusion breathlessly alive.
This hybrid genre of an agitprop news television is, by now, a familiar even if never pretty sight in India. The type depends on a number of props to keep the buzz going. Hyperbole is its figure of speech. The Hazare movement is instantly catapulted into: a revolution, the second war of independence, South Asia’s ‘Arab spring’. Nothing short of the entire nation, we are repeatedly told, is watching. So the man on the street, or the VIP in the studio, speaking to the TV channel is, ipso facto, speaking to the nation. It doesn’t matter that the channel in question may only have a single-digit viewership. If there is a lighter side to Benedict Anderson’s concept of a nation as an imagined community, this must be it.
The relationship between such media and their essentially middle-class consumers is becoming uncomfortably incestuous. When respondents cluster around a camera for a vox pop, they aren’t so much required to offer their independent view on an issue as add to the chorus of opinion orchestrated by the channel. A photo op masquerades as a movement. Dissident voices get short shrift. It’s more like a recruitment drive than a professional journalistic exercise to seek and purvey news. Increasingly, the channel’s role seems to be to trigger and promote a form of direct democracy by the middle class. Politics and politicos are routinely debunked. Even representative democracy doesn’t seem to cut it.
No channel in the league seems able to resist this strange, aggressive, white-collar evangelism. On the contrary, the more strident and hawkish ones in the pack seem to set the tone and tenor of the discourse and the rest follow helplessly as if driven by some inexorable law of the market. It is all so oracular and self-referential. The positions taken are almost always maximalist and hardly even nuanced. A ratings mindset demands that the pot be kept boiling.
Arguably, the media enables such friskiness at its own peril. A revolution of rising expectations, even if not alarmist at present, might prove more and more difficult to cope with in the long run. Apart from the implicit risk to human sensibility of a relentless, adrenaline-pumping media, the law of diminishing returns is bound to kick in sooner or later. Truth-telling, at the core of journalism, may then become vulnerable to the market dictate of giving the people what they want—this already serves as an alibi for the dumbing down and tabloidisation of the news media. This argument, as former NBC president Reuven Frank argued, is a dope-pusher’s excuse. Journalism, surely, is a higher calling.
Anna Hazare and his struggle for an effective Lokpal bill against corruption are not creations of the media. But there is a gnawing sense of a convergence of the civil society, which sustains the man and his movement, and the media market. It is at this nexus that ‘brand Anna’ takes shape, independent of its author. It is this brand that drives the media into its high-pitched hard sell. It is a rare confluence of big cause and huge profit. The irony is that the man who, more than most, paved the way for such freewheeling market-friendliness suddenly finds himself estranged and isolated. Manmohan was for long celebrated by the middle classes he enriched and pampered. Suddenly, his government is the butt of their ire and new expectations abound.