The lure of publicity is irresistible; more so when it comes gratis. With 24x7 television news channels, which require breaking news without a break, multiplying and the number of entertainment channels increasing, feeding of these channels has become quite a task. There is an adage in Telugu: “mandi ekkuvaite majjiga palachana”. Roughly translated, the adage means: “when quantity gets precedence over quality, the latter gets diluted.” As and when there is shortage of news, it is this diluted stuff that is thrust on the hapless viewer.
What is news? I am not competent to define it. But…
Prannoy Roy, Arnab Goswami, Rajdeep Sardesai and a few others decide as to what is news in English television channels at the national level. In Andhra Pradesh, stringers and part-timers of Telugu news channels as also print media (I have no idea about other languages) at the district and mandal headquarters decide on what is news at their respective levels. Because, barring major incidents, it is these journalists who decide as to what is worthy of publication or broadcasting and invariably the people manning news desks have to accept what is reported by them. I worked at the district headquarters for nearly three decades and I know this.
There exists a symbiotic relationship between the news-gatherer and the newsmaker or the news source. Publicity mongers are always on the look out for innovative methods, some times bordering on crankiness and even bizarre, to catch the attention of the news gatherer, and the latter, for his own reasons, is too willing to offer a slot for him.
A few instances of how publicity mongers resort to gimmicks to appear on TV channels and in print media, specially the former, will drive home the point. Bangi Anantayya is a former Mayor of Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh. He started his political career with TDP, crossed over to the Congress, made a “home coming”, and then again defected to the Congress. To express his unhappiness over the treatment meted out to him in whichever party he was or to protest against something like price hike etc., he became a “beggar“ with a bowl in his hand, resorted to sartorial gimmicks and became a “woman” and travelled in a bullock cart. Mr. Anantayya knew TV channels could not ignore these antics, and that was exactly what some of the channels did.
Protesting against the recent increase in electricity tariff, a Telugu Desam Party legislator from Krishna district tonsured his head. Could he have done it if there was no prospect of publicity? It is anybody’s guess. Some time ago, CPI State unit secretary Narayana “walked on his knees” in Srikakulam district to protest against some government measures. Was it a ploy to get the attention of the media?
An interesting incident occurred at the collectorate in Visakhapatnam. On the grievances day (every Monday grievances are redressed in Andhra Pradesh), a woman barged into the chamber of the District Collector and requested his “permission to commit suicide”. The reason? She is “charming” and whenever she went to the government offices to seek some help, the officers, she alleged, wanted “quid pro quo”. What that “quid pro quo” means is not difficult to guess. The entire episode was faithfully highlighted by a prominent Telugu television channel. That the Collector ordered an enquiry and found her allegation false is another matter. Incidents of somebody threatening to jump from high-level water tanks, men removing their upper garments as a protest, organising dharnas with empty pots, sending bangles to men, etc., have become passé.
Old timers can recall how, during the days of Jana Sangh, Atal Behari Vajpayee travelled by a bullock cart to Parliament to protest against the hike in petrol price. This had struck an emotional chord with the common man. The then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was at the peak of her popularity. Senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj wanted party activists to resort to such innovative methods to highlight the problems of the people.
But people now are too intelligent to be swayed by the gimmicks that Anantayyas and others of his ilk resort to.
The question of ethics has also been raised about the live coverage of certain incidents that have taken place recently. Senior lawyer and Team Anna member, Mr. Prashant Bhushan, was beaten up in his chambers on the Supreme Court premises and that incident was filmed live. In Assam, a gang molested a girl in full public glare and this was videographed with details. Similarly, some youth, in an act of vigilantism, attacked young men and women in Karnataka. This too was captured live by a television channel.
Are the media personnel, who got the footage live, fortunate enough to be present where these incidents happened? Or, are new methods of “creating” news emerging? In the absence of proof, no motives could be attributed to anybody.
In Irving Wallace’s popular novel, “The Almighty”, Edward Armstead, son of a media tycoon, inherits his father’s huge fortune, but the latter, in his will, stipulates that Armstead could claim the fortune, including his popular daily newspaper New York Record, as his own only when the NYR surpasses the circulation of its rival New York Times within a year. Armstead resorts to all kinds of methods to achieve that objective. He controls, manipulates, and creates news and in that mad pursuit of his ambition to become “The Almighty”, by “creating news” he plans the killing of the President of the United States of America, with disastrous consequences.
Are we heading to that new phase of “creating news”?