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FOCUS: INDIA 2009
Media in the Indian melting pot
Doubts have surfaced over journalistic objectivity, balance and detachment.
Last Modified: 14 Apr 2009 08:42 GMT

Journalist Jarnail Singh is led away after throwing his shoe at the Indian home minister [REUTERS]

As a copycat shoe act at a news conference, it was a pale imitation of the original. Muntazer al-Zaidi aimed better, threw with robust force, and might have got his target but for George Bush's proverbial ducking skill.

Jarnail Singh's shoe last week carefully avoided its mark.

Special report

As is apparent from the footage played ad nauseam on Indian TV channels since the incident, the senior journalist of the Hindi daily Dainik Jagran did not mean to hit P Chidambaram, the Indian home minister.

Nor, ostensibly, to become the news himself at the press conference he went to cover.

An agitated exchange between the journalist and the minister culminated in Singh, almost desultorily, flipping his shoe across the table between them and on to the dais.

At issue was the exoneration by the country's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) of Jagdish Tytler, a prominent leader of the Congress party accused of inciting the riots against the Sikh population in the capital in the wake of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.

Chidambaram did not have to dodge the curious object that arced safely away from him and fell by the side. But the fudge and dodge of his party and government, over the last 25 years, in bringing those guilty of that carnage to book were again up for the community's ire.

Journalistic virtues challenged

A rash of street rallies and demonstrations erupted in Delhi and Punjab, the native home of the Sikhs.

Tytler and his party colleague, Sajjan Kumar, also implicated in the case, have been forced to withdraw as Congress candidates from Delhi in the polls to the Indian parliament this month.

Jarnail Singh's Sikh identity and sense of victimhood perhaps got the better of him in the situation. But, overnight, media circles were agog with the implications of - to pun - Jarnailism versus Journalism.

Beyond the immediate comic worry about whether footwear would any more be allowed into press conferences, the news media were awakening to a larger more uncomfortable doubt: whether clinical objectivity, balance and detachment as vaunted virtues of the profession are now things of the past.
 
That doubt had surfaced dramatically in the television coverage of the attack on Mumbai last November when channels vied with one another in compromising the security operations, in sabre-rattling against Pakistan, and in generally rubbishing politicians as utterly contemptible.

It was, paradoxically, left to the government to inject some sobriety into this free-for-all by making it clear that it was not about to oblige the media by going to war with Pakistan.
 
A strong undercurrent of political and peer reaction against the media flying off the handle, and becoming part of the problem, did have some demonstrative effect. For a brief period TV news channels appeared a shade subdued and chastened.

But with elections being announced the tone is again growing strident.

Bottom-up journalism

There is, of course, no case for any ivory tower journalism, which gazes with equanimity at the seething, full-blooded and bloodying process that Indian elections have become.

Journalists here cannot but get their hands dirty in their coverage of this ground-level churning of votes on and across caste, religious and community lines.

From the dominant Congress-ism of the Nehruvian age, through a tenuous bipolar phase, the national electorate now seems set to devolve into multiple regional party formations, each of them decisive in their own way in the new era of coalition politics.

The shoe may have missed its mark but it raised questions about jouralistic values [AFP]
This bottoming out of the franchise has, on the one hand, segmented it into numerous sectarian vote banks and, on the other, led to miscegenation and loosening social hierarchies.

The English language TV news channels find themselves getting more raucous and earthy to cope with this changing electoral demographic. The mainstream national English dailies and periodicals, for the most part, try to stay above the fray, even as they have grown more banal.

These two news media together form the privileged, influential, creamy layer of the fourth estate, which seeks to set the agenda in terms of a national-global consciousness. But in a polarised polity the trend is not so much top-down as bottom-up.

Vote-fetching platforms

In the regional languages of India a media scramble is on to identify and occupy the niches that constitute the multi-party system.

Local-language newspapers run by, or loyal to, one or the other political party, have been buttressed by the recent spurt in the growth rate of the regional press. This, in turn, is sustained by urbanisation, growing social mobility and the success of national literacy campaigns bringing newer readers into their fold.

Their television counterparts also reach out to the illiterate sections and therefore become that much more valuable as platforms to fetch votes and bond constituencies.

There is little place for professional news value in this scheme of things.

A stark example of partisan news ruling the roost is the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Both the major political parties of the state, the DMK and the AIDMK, run TV channels in the local Tamil language, directly or by proxy. In the name of news and current affairs, the two channels are, for the most part, talking to, and taunting, one another.

Other Tamil channels are similarly glib and aggressive mouthpieces of their respective parties. They are all in campaign mode round the clock and the year, not only during elections.

Caught in this crossfire, the only option the neutral Tamil viewer has is the state-owned television channel, Doordarshan, where, unfortunately, the editorial mindset is to sanitise to such an extent that no news is good news.

Extended forums

The smaller, neighbouring state of Kerala is a study in contrast. With full literacy and  sparkling development indices, the state has near saturation news media penetration and coverage, in both print and television.

The Congress and the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPM), which head the two coalition formations that alternate in government in successive elections, have their own newspapers and TV channels. But they both strive for a semblance of credibility even among their cadres.

In any case, the dominant newspapers and channels here are professional business entities, which may have political sympathies one way or the other, but are careful to appear even-handed to their large and ideologically disparate readership or viewership.

With the rightist BJP party having only a marginal presence, the political discourse in the state has conventionally been left of centre.

Ideologically, the differences between the parties on the same side of the political spectrum are narrow and cast more in terms of one-upmanship in their secular and progressive agendas.

This lack of differentiation becomes all the more manifest on television during elections when spokespersons of these political parties tend to soft pedal extreme positions in a bid to be acceptable to the bulk of the viewers and end up saying pretty much the same thing in different words. They cannot be too careful in a state where a one per cent vote shift makes or unmakes governments.

Voters in the northern states do not have to grapple with such subtleties. The election themes of the right, centre and left, and of national and regional parties, are writ large and acrimoniously contested in the media.

But for all this hyper media atmospherics, no direct linkage has been established between media, particularly TV, visibility and electoral success.

Whether that will change with television channels panning out as extended forums of regional political parties, remains to be seen. For now, what is certain is that the Indian media, like Indian politics, is in the melting pot.

Sashi Kumar is a leading media educator and commentator,  filmmaker, and chairman of the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, India.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

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Al Jazeera
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