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For Anna or against him? Do I have a choice?
In recent times it has become fashionable for the English media to take sides on an issue. For once, they should let go of this fixation to shape public opinion and focus on what they are supposed to do - Report facts. says ARCHANA VENKAT
Posted/Updated Tuesday, Aug 23 14:31:16, 2011
The Indian English media (mainly TV), perhaps influenced by the American media, seems to want to take sides on every issue worthy of public consumption. Covering the Anna Hazare campaign has been no different. Every prominent English news channel has resorted to taking sides on the issue to such an extent that journalists are falling short of putting words in the mouths of the guests they interview. The frenzy on news shows could rival the emotions on display at the Ram Lila grounds.
 
A glance at the reportage of the last 10 days indicates that most news organisations felt compelled to take a stand on the issue, perhaps without adequate thought over whether this was sustainable.
 
CNN IBN’s Karan Thapar in his last interview with Digvijaya Singh on the JanLokPal Bill in April, conducted a fact based interview that was surprisingly devoid of any frenzy. Perhaps Mr. Thapar for once did not want to take sides? Or was he going gentle on Singh because he, like Singh, believed that the Anti-Corruption movement would not reach the proportions as it has today?
 
Then Thapar hosted a show on Aug 19th to analyze the media reporting of the Anna Hazare Campaign. Perhaps taking a cue from the discussion there, which indicated that the media had made Anna Hazare an icon without attempting to delve deeper into the issue that he was standing for, Thapar launched an Anti-Anna tirade in his show Devil’s Advocate on August 21st. He attacked (which is now considered his style) Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan with questions whose answers were available in the Indian constitution and in the beginnings of the Anna Hazare movement in December last year.
 
 To make up for the lack of thought-provoking questions, Thapar kept interrupting Kejriwal and Bhushan while they tried to respond to him. From taking a neutral (almost disinterested stand) in April to going anti-Anna now, I am not sure if taking sides was necessary.
 
NDTV’s Barkha Dutt on her program We The People on Aug 21st attempted to re-establish that the Anna Hazare campaign was a largely middle class driven movement. How this piece of information would help or disrupt the protests is unknown. However, instead of spending one hour debating on the issue, taking a look at the way the campaign has progressed would have yielded results. The movement encompasses the middle class and grass root society (those taking to protests on road, fasting and galvanizing others) as well as the upper middle class and elite (showing support via social media such as Twitter, Blogs and Face Book). Strangely, in April this year Dutt aired a two hour special show where through a Vox Populi she established that the LokPal Bill would change the lives of middle class Indians.
 
Had the Jan LokPal Bill progressed beyond the stage of protests, say for enactment or dismissal, Dutt’s stand on Aug 21st, in retrospect, would have been fruitful in determining how public sentiment (or social strata specific behavior and attitudes) can mobilise a cause. That in turn, could provide some insights into consumer behavior for entities (media houses, government, corporates etc) to improve their relationship with the consumers. An example of this is the Enron scam in the United States that was extensively reported and garnered public sentiment for ‘zero tolerance to fraud’. Post Enron, the US has seen good models of corporate governance emerge and increased conviction of cases involving white collar crime.
 
Times NOW took a clear pro-Anna stand with Arnab Goswami not taking kindly to any comments against the Anna Hazare campaign. His discussion with Abhishek Manu Singhvi basely accused the government of procrastination. Further on a debate titled ‘Pro and Anti-Anna”, when all panelists on the show agreed that perhaps galvanized by raw emotion people were failing to focus on the larger implication of what the Bill would achieve, Goswami accused them of being unable to empathise with middle class sentiments and hence the Anna Hazare campaign as since they were not from that strata of society. A news channel taking such an objection to individual (or perhaps collective) opinion is in bad taste.
 
Leading English language newspapers too have taken sides in the Anna Hazare campaign, albeit in a more dignified manner (perhaps the lack of a camera and a collar mike does make a difference).
 
On Anna’s arrests, the New Indian Express said that democracy was defiled and covertly indicated that the government would have to pass the Jan LokPal Bill, in order to reverse the damage of reputation.
 
The Times of India was more restrained while the Hindu indicated that the UPA government was on its way out. The Statesman likened Anna Hazare’s arrest to the government’s cowardice and pronounced the Government’s version of the LokPal Bill to be ineffective and one that would not deliver the results sought by the people.
 
Subsequent editorials have focused on the need for the government to get its act together and focus on dialogue with Team Anna.
 
What has this tangled mass of reportage resulted in? A friend recently told me his driver was wearing a ‘support Anna’ T-shirt. On being asked what he felt about the Jan LokPal Bill, the man answered, “That I don’t know. But I know Anna is against corruption and so am I”.
 
While the media reportage has largely focused on the Anna-Government stand-off and the manner of protests, it has not shown as much enthusiasm to peruse the nitty-gritty of the Bill itself. Aside from the points of discontent (such as the inclusion of the Prime Minister and the Judiciary), there has been little else highlighted.
 
Is this is the only Bill of its kind? What will be the real implications of this Bill from a law and order point of view? Would the scope of this Bill include NGOs, corporate and other entities? Will the enactment of this Bill negate the reasons for us to look at other existing legislation such as the Prevention of Corruption Act or the Prevention of Money Laundering Act? Aside from the Anna version and the Government version, could there be a third, more amenable and still as effective version of the Bill that can be enacted? Will India have the manpower to deal with cases brought to notice through such a Bill? What additional resources would we need to fulfill any gaps?
 
Such questions have largely gone un-debated. Perhaps a look at similar Ombudsmen provisions across the globe and their effectiveness would have helped develop a more holistic perspective. After all, many developed nations such as the Scandinavian countries, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong have an Ombudsman with varying degrees of power. The effectiveness of such Ombudsmen is also well documented through annual reports at the respective websites.
 
The role of the media in a democratic nation is to make people more cognizant of issues, focus on facts and provide a variety of perspectives, irrespective of whether or not they agree with those perspectives. By focusing on only the means adopted for the protest, many senior commentators  such as Arundhati Roy seem to indicate that they have no opinion (and perhaps little knowledge) whatsoever on the contents of the Bill, leaving it for the likes of lawyers to comment upon.
 
It is the responsibility of news editors to pick and publish (or air) perspectives that are holistic and balanced. For every article that criticizes the way the protests are being conducted, there could be another that lauds that same. If someone supports one of the provisions of the bill, a report objecting to the same should also be voiced so that users are left to shape their opinions while being aware of both sides to an issue.
 
 Archana Venkat is a former journalist. She blogs at www.straighttalkwitharch.blogspot.com
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