Panel discussions on television are a substitute for the free wheeling discourse that animates the “real” public sphere. As a substitute, they enjoy certain advantages and suffer from some disadvantages. The substitution is affected by the construction of panels where each participant is carefully selected to establish the inclusion of multiple perspectives based on identity, experience, and expertise. The participant could be a political spokesperson, an expert on a specific subject, or an authority in a certain field, a professional, or a “notable.”
Such panels are therefore marked by the individual’s depth, insight, understanding of a particular domain of knowledge or experience, and the discussion is a collective exercise in sharing the insights, understanding the public at large, namely the audience or rather the individual in control of the remote.
The individual in control of the remote suggests that the person within his sphere has greater power than others who may be also present, since the remote controller’s choice becomes by default the choice of all others present. Enticing the person in control of the remote to choose one particular channel and remain glued to it is therefore a serious consideration of those who work on putting together the participants on the discussion panels.
While anchors or “hosts” can put participants or “guests” through the wringer or make them turn cartwheels, implying that the anchor or the host is omnipotent, there is nevertheless a two-way transaction happening during the course of such discussions. A participant’s “performance” could swing the choice or conclusion in favour of or against, or for a specific argument on a particular issue. This makes the rest of the panel spectators, albeit occasionally, vocal. When that happens, it changes the balance that the panel was meant to represent and the outcome is unexpected because one or more persons functioned unpredictably. Since discussions are not scripted performances, the possibility of the unexpected happening is ever present. The result could be of consequence for the public at large or an embarrassment for the anchor and the television channel.
The careful framing of the discussion and the sense of being in control raises questions on why there is a surprisingly low level of participation amounting to absence of women from discussions on Bengali news television channels. Others who are regular viewers of Hindi news television channels suggest that there also, there is a bias reflected in the low rates of participation of women in discussions. The inclusion-exclusion bias does not extend to the presence of women as anchors or reporters; it is limited to the selection of specialists, spokespersons, and public persons.
The construction of the public sphere for television that so clearly reflects bias calls into question how it is imagined inside the studio in the first place. It raises the issue of whether women’s expertise, experience, insight, understanding, knowledge, and power is disregarded, denied, perhaps ignored in the constructed public sphere. This implies that entry into the public sphere is regulated by a latent or apparent patriarchal prejudice, exercising authority, mimicking at another level, the authority exercised by the individual armed with the remote, making his choice perforce the choice of all others. When choice or selection becomes a matter of exercising power or reflecting authority, the absence of women from discussion indicates a framing bias.
The invisibility and the reduction of women to the status of voiceless was striking on Bengali news television the day the financial powers of three Zilla Parishads, the top tier of the three-tier panchayati raj institutions were superseded by the West Bengal government. On not one of the panels that were assembled by the leading television channels in Bengali – 24 ghanta, Star Ananda, Kolkata TV, Channel 10 – was a single woman included. Given that panchayats are the one sphere where women’s representation is Constitutionally guaranteed with a one-third reservation, the absence of women, be they past or present panchayat leaders, political leaders, and experts including activists, analysts, academics, and bureaucrats is a deliberate denial of the expertise, experience, and knowledge that women possess. It is also an exercise through exclusion of making women powerless while in fact they are powerful.
The minority of women invited to participate in the panels that were constructed day after day to discuss the outrageous reaction of the West Bengal Government, its political leadership, and its police to the complaint of rape by a young woman implies that the exclusion was not accidental. It reflected a “multi-layered bias.” Even Star Ananda, which broke the story with an interview of the victim and courageously pursued the story despite Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee attempting to bring pressure to bear, by personally declaring it to be an incident staged to malign the government and followed it up by unleashing her Minister for Transport, Madan Mitra, who launched a vicious personal attack on the victim, reflected the bias in its choice of panellists day after day.
Among all the former policemen, lawyers, politicians, and others who strongly supported the victim and Star Ananda’s quest for justice, there were no women. It seemed as though women’s knowledge, expertise, insight, and power was limited to “stock roles” or “ghettoisation.” The token inclusion of women for certain categories -- teacher, author, actor, and of course the chairperson of the State Women’s Commission – confirms the bias. The minority of women reflects the perception that women are not significant participants in any activity within or outside the domestic sphere.
Describing this pattern as “ghettoisation of issues”, former State Women’s Commission chairperson and former National Women’s Commission member, and MP, Malini Bhattacharya, linked ghettoisation – women are not expected to speak on all matters – to “exclusion.” The same bias is evident when speakers are listed for discussion in Parliament, she added. The implication is that relegating women to the margins or boxing them in is an accepted practice. Asked if this was unintentional, as the men who organise panels on Bengali television channels claimed, Bhattacharya differed. She felt that there was an intention and this was to some extent “political.” Where there are successful anchors who are also women, the exclusion of other women cannot be unintentional, she seemed to argue.
This is borne out by two other days when women were missing from the discussions – the days on which the Railway Budget and the Union Budget were presented in Parliament. Nor were women present in the discussions organised during the political crisis over passenger fare hikes proposed in the railway budget. The exclusions are important because underlying the absence is the bigger issue of women’s status, with all its implications for autonomy of choice, decision-making, and authority. The absence of women during discussions on the Railway Budget implies that mobility is not a matter on which women independently make decisions, reinforcing the stereotype that the woman submissively follows where the man leads.
When the Union Budget was under discussion, the exclusion implied an equally strong prejudice; money matters are a male domain, contradicting the facts that over some 18 lakh households in West Bengal are headed by women. Asking a woman’s reaction on the street is not the same as engaging them in a peer group discussion. It is all very well when women declare that they are “sickened” by events or incidents; but this is a reaction. It does not reflect either expertise or experience.
Anjan Bandopadhyay, Editor Inputs of 24 ghanta, acknowledges that it has been brought to his notice that women were seriously underrepresented or absent from the discussions on his channel and that steps were being taken to correct the situation. He clarified that the under-representation or absence of women was not intentional. Channel head of Channel 10 and a member of the Rajya Sabha, Kunal Ghosh, said he was busy when asked about the policy on the participation of women in discussions on his channel.
The perhaps unintentional exclusion or significantly low presence of women during discussions points to several disturbing patterns. Over the past one year, since the elections, Dr. Samita Sen, Director, Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, has “noticed” that there is “definitely a significant and conspicuous absence,” of women from the discussion panels on television. In contrast, the presence of women on discussion panels after the Rizwanur suicide, in which the police allegedly exerted pressure at the prompting of Rizwanur’s wife’s family, reveals the communal and class prejudices, she added. In fact, there are some women who are regularly invited to the discussions on multiple Bengali news channels. It could be, Dr. Sen said, because the opinions of those women participants were widely known and consequently predictable. The implication was obvious: these responses would not disturb the universe.
While Dr. Sen is “not sure what the reason could be”, Dr. Anjan Bera, professor of journalism at the University of Calcutta, and earlier Minister of State for Information under Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, felt that there could be a multi-layered bias at work in the choice of panellists that resulted in the stereotyping of women as participants that reinforced their “subordinate” status in society. Is the public sphere “so less hospitable” now as Dr. Sen wondered, considering the fact that women in public sphere – panchayat sabhadhipatis, panchayat samiti pradhans and gram panchayat pradhans, former Ministers, legislators, academics, lawyers, judges, bureaucrats, school principals, and so on are being actively discouraged from public debates through exclusion? This calls into question the “real” in the acclaimed transformation of the Bengali social and cultural landscape in the 19th century where “at one level of perception, it was a liberal, woman-friendly, patriarchal society,” Dr. Sen said.
Part of the problem could be the absence of strong women political leaders in West Bengal, other than of course Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Dr. Sen felt. Unlike the articulate and confident Renuka Chowdhury, Jayanti Natarajan, Nirmala Sitaraman, Brinda Karat, and others, there is a noticeable lack of women engaging in public combat. Professor Bera believes that one reason could be cultural diffidence, which translated into Bengali is a common response on the competence of women: ora ki parbe? (can they handle it?)
Why anyone would imagine that the “ora” “other gender” cannot handle a verbal duel is difficult to conceive, unless women as a whole have been typecast. When some women are singled out for inclusion as discussants or commentators and their reaction, as opposed to response, is emotional, then it does reflect typecasting. It could indicate a certain laziness about finding the best among the women to take part in a discussion. “If I were to organise a panel to discuss the rape incident, qualified, vocal, and public figures such as Jashodhara Bagchi and Malini Bhattacharjee would be on it,” Dr Sen said.
Cultural diffidence and the absence of women as spokespersons from the political parties do not add up to an absence of women from the public sphere. The reservation of women in the panchayats, effective from 1993 has brought hundreds of women into the lowest tier of representative democracy and government. What exists is the multi-layered bias that Professor Bera spoke of. A study by Raghabenda Chattopadhyay of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, on the participation of women in the panchayats indicates: “Electing more women would really make a difference. Our findings strongly contradict the anecdote that nearly every male politician in India is ready to tell — that he met a woman leader in a village, and her husband was calling all the shots.”
The study says: “What these anecdotes reflect, more than women’s supposed lack of autonomy, is the prejudice they face. When we asked the villagers to evaluate the same political speech, read either by a man or by a woman, we found that those who heard the woman were less likely either to consider the politician to be competent or to agree with the policies she was endorsing.” Given that such a rich reservoir of experience, knowledge, and insight exists within the “system”, the absence of these women from the public sphere indicates a strong and effective barrier to acknowledging the changed role and authority of women based on their experience. This raises the question as to why women do not demand to be heard? It could be that “cultural diffidence” prevents them, because to do so would invite social disapproval, stigmatising them as pushy and uncivilised. It could be that women’s priorities are different. It could be that when the guest coordinators on local Bengali news channels call “people in public life” they do not have a list comprehensive enough to cover all the possible women who could speak on public matters. It could be that women as participants are unpredictable or, as Professor Bera felt, not combative enough. That it occurs so repeatedly is intentional, however much the television channels defend their actions as unintentional or accidental.
In making women appear voiceless and consequently powerless, there is a confirmation bias at work, just as there is a framing bias in the selection of panellists. The imagined public sphere of television studios is not the real public sphere, where thousands of women lead and participate on critical issues of power, politics, and policy.
Shikha Mukerjee is a senior journalist based in Kolkata