In the Crosshairs of Bollywood
Though corruption in media is as old as media itself, several new Bollywood films are hauling the media over coals for their fast disappearing lack of ethics and dipping journalistic standards
Three recent Bollywood films, Rann, Knock Out and Peepli Live, have had Indian media in the crosshairs of their narratives. The picture that emerges out of this depiction is unflattering and underlines the erosion of ethics in the Indian media.
In the Ramgopal Varma-directed Rann, a principled media tycoon played by Amitabh Bachchan, represents the old values – the owner-editor who puts ethics above everything else. His young son represents the new values of the market where sensationalism and partisanship at any cost chases advertising rupees. The film's conflict is the father's fight with his own son to expose the truth.
Knock Out, directed by Mani Shankar, is a thriller about the black money stashed away by Indian politicians in secret Swiss bank accounts. The protagonist of the film, played by Sanjay Dutt, wants to bring back the billions of rupees to India. In a plot structure similar to Hollywood films such as Phone Booth (2002) and Liberty Stands Still (2002), the protagonist takes a media person (played by Kangna Ranaut) on the scene into confidence. He appeals to her patriotism, asking her to choose her duty to her country over her career.
There is a scene in the film where the director shows how politicians have a stronghold over media companies. Fearing public backlash in the face of an election, the politician villain, played by Gulshan Grover, tries to get the TV channels bury the news of the emerging scandal that involves his Swiss accounts.
Anusha Rizvi's Peepli Live is a blisteringly brave film. It holds no bars in exposing the lack of ethics in the Indian media. This film, which is India's official entry to the Oscars this year, takes a realistic dig at the media scene in India today.
After India's economic liberalisation, the country's media industry, especially the electronic media, took off and over the years, dozens of news channels have bloomed. But being a market economy, the bottomline-driven and ratings-led media companies have exchanged ethics for profit. Rizvi knows this world very well as she herself comes from a television news background.
On balance, along with the focus on media, Peepli Live also takes a sarcastic look at India's politicians and bureaucracy and shows how the country's grassroot democracy has been turned into a caricature. When Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), a poor farmer, decides to commit suicide because of his indebtedness, it becomes a major media story. The country's media pounces upon Natha mercilessly and twists and turns his story into a bizarre drama – all for the sake of ratings. The story gets to its lowest point when a Hindi TV newsman turns even the farmer's turd into a big story.
Maybe there is some exaggeration for the sake of drama in these films but the reality of Indian media is not very far from what these Bollywood films have shown. In his commentary, Cut-Rate Democracy (Outlook, November 1, 2010) veteran journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta writes: “In recent times corruption in the Indian media has gone way beyond individuals and specific media organisations – from 'planting' information and spinning views in lieu of favours received in cash or kind – to institutionalised and organised forms of corruption wherein newspapers and TV channels receive funds for publishing or broadcasting information that is sought to be disguised as 'news' – but are actually designed to favour particular individuals, corporate entities, representatives of political parties or cash-rich candidates contesting elections.”
Agrees former journalist Sumir Lal, who writes in his essay, “Why I quit the media”: “India's media barons are no longer in the news business, but news is unavoidable: after all, you do need something to fill the space between the ads, and must dupe enough consumers into picking up your 'newspaper' (or tuning in to your 'news' channel), else your real customers – advertisers – will not be interested. So 'news' today is sleight of hand: paid news by politicians, private treaties with advertisers, celebrity coverage for a fee, PR feeds masquerading as reportage, the business story slanted to serve the stockmarket, the deserving story not done.”
Lal's reading is frightening for anyone who wants to join the profession in India today. “With proprietors not interested in selling what good journalists produce, the crisis in India is not one of the media industry, but of the profession of journalism,” he says.
Unfortunately, this rot in the ethics of journalism is not limited to India alone. Recently, commenting on the American media, Singapore's Law and Home Affairs minister K Shanmugam said that while liberal theory holds that a fair and independent media checks the Government, keeping it honest - in reality, journalists are biased, media companies are profit-driven, ethics can be compromised by advertising dollars, and the media itself is not subject to any checks and balances (Today, November 6-7, 2010).
The minister makes some valid points. For example, in the US, only 32 percent of people have confidence in the quality and integrity of the media (according to a Gallop poll).
Another recent example of the media's irresponsibility was seen in the Manila Bus Hijacking of August 23. Like the Mumbai terror attacks, this hostage drama by a former police officer involving a tourist bus in the streets of Manila, sent the Philippine's media into a tizzy and chasing ratings over ethics, they seemingly jeopardized the entire police operation. Now broadcast networks in the Philippines are assessing their coverage of the hostage crisis in Manila amid criticism and there are proposals to curb media's freedom in similar incidents.
The loss of media's credibility, as highlighted by Bollywood, can be seen in two ways: either it is a lapse on the media's part that will be corrected over time, or cynically, this erosion of values is a natural corollary of marketisation.
But if media is to survive with its best traditions, it is time media companies do some soul-searching before it is too late and this fourth pillar of democracy crumbles for ever.
Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based journalist and writer.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010