The pen is mightier than the sword, but what happens when the pen becomes the sword – leaving a trail of violence, death, shame and lies in its wake?
I wish I could call my words hyperbole. Media trials and judgements are old news, and they’ve been a highlight of the prime-time programme for a while. While they are necessary, most end up as dramatized and sensationalized versions of the truth. I speak to you, the readers and viewers, to understand the difference between facts and mind games.
In the wrong direction, media trials have the worst outcomes possible. They’ve ruined the lives of families, careers of thousands of people and have also caused deaths. The media’s obsession with celebrities, tracking their every movement has definitely violated their right to privacy at every possible level.
The Netflix documentary on Princess Diana’s life has thrown enough light on how achieving ‘fame’ is not a glam show. The powerful woman, a true royal idol had to struggle throughout her life to be barred from the “unwanted attention” that her royalty brought along. The pressure was such that even her children weren’t spared from the wrath of it. In the documentary we see Diana requesting a journalist to not capture their private time as a family, but we see it all going in vain. Not only did she struggle while living, but the audacity of these repeated intrusions led to her untimely demise.
Back home, we stood witness to the infamous witch hunt that followed Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. The “accused’s” life and mental health was ruthlessly destroyed. The late actor’s public image was also put at stake by various news agencies looking for “masala content”. This media turned SSR’s death into a circus, with 6-8 windowed appearances blabbering irrelevant information on news channels, for months that followed. The nation was sure stirred with the news. After all, we had lost a shining star. But for the media, it was all an oblivion – a dazed oblivious rush for TRP.
The relentless focus on Rajput’s alleged suicide was the noise; as always, it buried or dismissed the news that should have been foregrounded.
Indian Media Circus and the Art of Distraction
Though multiple instances can be brought into light, here I will be talking specifically in reference to time period between June and December of 2020. At the time, India was witnessing a peak in coronavirus cases and the severity of the virus was being downcast on mainstream news forecasts. Film-news has always been a money gamble genre. While it was necessary for the viewers to know the truth behind their favorite star’s untimely demise, the extravagance of the exercise was in the 24*7 coverage that went on air for months.
The nation’s economy has hurtled towards an enormous crash with the GDP shrinking by 23.9 percent in the first quarter of 2020-21. The economic impact of the pandemic-induced lockdown that had gone on for over five months meant that 19 million formal economy jobs were lost in addition to millions of jobs in the informal economy, according to a Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) report. More than four million Indians below the age of 30 had lost their jobs or work during the lockdown, as per an Asian Development Bank estimate. The situation carried on its back the recessive remnants of the ill-advised demonetization in November, 2016.
The sustained shrinking of jobs, falling labor force participation, exacerbated by a stringent lockdown that did not help control the pandemic, should have been the subject of heated panel discussions. But that would have meant training the spotlight on the villain or villains of this narrative. It would have meant asking questions of those in high public office, making the buck stop at the very top. It must seem a daunting task for most media.
The Solicitor General of India told the Supreme Court that 97 lakh migrants had returned home from cities. Migration scholars have put this figure at over 2 crores. 41% of the migrants who had returned home had to make do with only one meal a day or go hungry occasionally, showed a survey by Gaon Connection. Over 92% of rural poor households still face difficulty in accessing food, the same survey finds. Putting this on top of news lists or at the center of news debates would again lead the media to question those in power — the key role of journalism in a democracy that most media seem to have abdicated or forgotten.
They brought suicide and mental health issues into the limelight through SSR’s case. What caught our eye is at the same time many farmers and migrants had died due to suicide. So did shopkeepers, transportation workers, construction and daily wage laborers. Unfortunately, no coverage was found on major news outlets. The infamous HATHRAS CASE was also not given the needed attention by mainstream media. They were perhaps meekly reported in passing, but their collective impact did not burn the screens as Rajput’s alleged suicide did. As many as 826 farmers battling poor crops and indebtedness committed suicide from January to May only in Maharashtra. Tens of students had died by suicide in these months. Both sets of lives found no voice in the hands of the people’s representatives.
Undoubtedly if the ulterior motive was to shift the attention from such heinous circumstances, it worked. All this reminds us, is of legendary journalist-documentary maker John Pilger’s memorable words.
“It’s not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it.”
Sympathetic journalism and the ethics of reporting a tragedy are lost on these dark knights. Is it okay to interview a parent right after their child lost their life on the battlefield? Is it okay if the media questions a victim right after their worst nightmares had turned into reality? Why does the label ‘desh ki beti’ not entail respect for the living, but theatrical disdain for a victim who fell through the cracks?
News and media were supposed to be the voice of the poor and unheard. But has now become a circus, a battleground of the rich. The weaker sections of the society are defamed, and tales of the government are manipulated according to their own convenience. Random mistakes of the celebrities are twisted and brought into the limelight. But major issues like the economy, protests and other serious cases are overshadowed by the so-called ‘prime time news.’
But who is to be blamed for all this? The news agencies? For sure. But are they the only ones to be shamed? No. It is also a realization point for us – the viewers and readers. How long will it take us to realize that we are the ones that promote such controversies by giving them our undivided attention? It is only when we stop reading articles with shady and clickbait headlines that they will stop getting the attention that they receive.