Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Sakshi of our troubled times

Finally Jagan Reddy and entourage have resigned from the Congress party. But there is an uneasy calm, with everyone involved waiting for his next move. A new party is expected to be launched in less than 45 days. Sakshi TV and channel have benefited from the entire ‘just war’, according to some media observers.
News television in South India is a peculiar animal. It is brazen, it is loud, it is openly aligned with political parties; it practices a no-holds-barred brand of journalism. It will be a poor joke to even talk of journalistic ethics. No one ever claimed anything of the sort.
Since public memory is short, many viewers may have forgotten the ugly footage of Karunanidhi’s midnight arrest during Jayalalithaa’s rule. Such vicious skirmishes are routine in Andhra Pradesh too, though no former chief minister is subjected to similar treatment so far.
In Andhra Pradesh, YS Rajasekhar Reddy’s death has brought twin tragedies to the state – his death itself and his son wanting to be king. As a fond father and loving relative, YSR is rumoured to have been more than generous with favours to family and friends. Just like the unbelievable majority with which he won the state elections, the magnitude of the sums also is said to be unbelievable.
One manifestation of the robust wealth of the family is the media empire they have created out of nowhere, Sakshi newspaper and Sakshi TV. Some 400 to 500 crores of rupees all told to start and further expense till the media house stabilised was available. If not, it is perhaps indicative of the net worth of a politician in power. Eenadu and others washed much dirty linen in public about the nature of investment in the enterprise.
The avowed purpose of the paper and the news channel were quite openly declared during YSR’s lifetime. There are too many powerful anti-Congress media houses; Congress needs its own media house to counter them. The paper was launched with good design and massive print run to outweigh the market leader Eenadu. From the earliest edition of the paper, there was open confrontation between Eenadu and Sakshi. Then the Sakshi news channel was launched with state-of-the-art equipment and very good-looking graphics. Money, as one might guess, was never a problem. Because it either did not get or did not need the small time advertisements that pop-up and clutter the screens of other channels, its screen looked more elegant. The partisan behaviour of the channel was overlooked because that particular malaise was not new to Telugu news channels and papers. When the channel was launched, there was hope that it could be a genuine counterpoint to the existing brand of journalism.
Then, after a glorious electoral victory for a second term, YSR was plucked from the political scene by death. True to Congress tradition, the son Jagan Reddy expected to be crowned as CM. Intense speculation about leadership began even before the funeral was over. Sakshi TV began to orchestrate Jagan’s desire to step in to his father’s shoes. Every second of his public life was put on Sakshi television. YSR’s smiling visage with flower petals showering on it became the second station logo that is fixed on the top right corner of the screen.
Despite the rumoured proximity of Veerappa Moily’s son to Jagan, the Congress high command put Rosaiah in CM’s chair. The Jagan camp began a vicious media campaign ridiculing and jeering everything that the new CM did on the Sakshi channel. Mr Rosaiah was considered one of the most experienced (decades of work as a loyal Congressman) and well-informed finance ministers and was much respected. But for Sakshi he was YSR’s courtier and ‘never in his wildest dreams expected to be CM’, according to one of Sakshi TV reports. The report implied that by default he should have been a Jagan loyalist and ought not to have accepted chief ministership. The weeks of attack on Rosaiah and his repeated complaints in public that Sakshi TV and newspaper were targeting him more frequently and viciously than the traditional opposition papers and channels, Eenadu, ETV and ABN-Andhrajyothi, found no response from the high command.
Jagan began a public mobilization strategy of touring the state to ‘console’ families of those who are supposed to have died of shock and grief on YSR’s tragic death. This he undertook despite the high command and the local party discouraging him. For months after YSR’s death, the son kept up a relentless stream of live coverage of his ‘Odarpu Yatra’ across the state on his channel. The attempt was also to keep YSR’s memory alive in public consciousness so that he can cash-in on it later, a la the Gandhis. Innumerable statues of YSR were erected all over the state.
This strategy was of course supplemented on the channel by direct attacks on rival channels and papers and Telugu Desam party. When Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu was caught on camera being impatient with a woman petitioner at a public meeting, the channel went to town the whole day repeatedly showing him and calling him Dussasana (the one who disrobed Draupati in court) with sensational graphic/music play-up, interspersed with studio discussions by ‘experts and politicians’.
When serious transgressions and show of public support during the yatras were not evoking any response from the high command, the channel aired a special on the occasion of 125 anniversary of Congress that directly took sideswipes at the party icons, Rajiv and Sonia. In addition to several uncouth titbits about Sonia’s early life in Italy, the programme had references to Bofors. Enraged Congressmen took to the streets, burning Sakshi copies and holding protests in front of Sakshi offices. There was a spate of studio debates on that old chestnut, ‘freedom of speech and expression’.
That week also saw the resignation of Rosaiah and installation of Kiran Kumar Reddy as the Chief Minister. The stage is set for the next round of blackmail through media. Already Sakshi channel is emphasising the fact that Kiran Kumar Reddy never held any ministerial post and that he has no previous administrative experience.
Today, the channel looks like a God channel, with hours of transmission time dedicated to Jagan himself holding forth on how YSR and his family were instrumental in putting the Congress party in power in Delhi.
Most channels and newspapers in Andhra Pradesh have obvious political loyalties. The political parties themselves are fiefdoms built around individuals. Whether Telugu Desam, TRS or Congress, all have feudal, hierarchical and therefore, dynastic inclinations which do not appear to have any desire to democratise. Electoral politics are seen as horse-trading, money-liquor affairs which require enormous amounts of unaccounted for money. Politician-criminals and criminal-politicians have taken over in all parties. Attaining power is all about looting the state exchequer and building the wealth of friends and relatives. It is clear why someone wants to be king.
The tragedy is, the channels and newspapers are being started/used blatantly to promote the political ambitions of one individual or the other. If it is Jagan today, earlier it was Chandrababu. The unemployed lumpen gangs maintained by the politicians are used to ‘astroturf’ spontaneous protests and ‘public response’. The pseudo-events of screaming protestors breaking buses, burning effigies, disrupting civic life are brought in to our living rooms through live coverage, with smatterings of studio discussions. During the 70s and 80s, criminalization of politics was debated much. Now that generation of criminal-politician has understood that media can be used as a tool to promote self and near and dear. We can naively call it democratisation of the media. But what is happening is the systematic undermining of democracy to promote a feudal, caste-ridden, hierarchical system. The ordinary person’s ordinary desire for food, shelter, clothing and education have been invisible on the media over the last several months. Civic administration in cities like Hyderabad has collapsed. At a time when unprecedented rains have facilitated good power generation, there are power shut-downs. Even if any thing is shown/written on these issues, it is deeply coloured by partisan agendas.
The Sakshi saga has some lessons to offer us.
1. If the issue is one of political parties differing in ideology and using the media houses to enlighten people of these differences, it may still be acceptable to an extent. But this is not so. Sakshi TV and paper have begun the attack on a duly elected government belonging to the same party as their owner. The fight here is not ideological, but merely the desire to ‘be king’. This raises an important question about whether politicians can run channels and papers, just as it can be questioned whether individuals with extensive business interests in the economy can be allowed to run media houses. In both cases, when push comes to shove, the media houses resort to blatant promotion of self-interest. In case of the politician, at least the public knows the political connections of the individual. In the case of the business tycoon, without adequate disclosure norms in media, the public has no way of knowing what is news and what is being done to promote business interests.
If political parties run the channels/papers, there is a chance of them serving the ideological agenda of the party, which is also understood as such by the consumer. When an individual belonging to a party owns the media house, as in the case of Sakshi, given the right conditions and the ‘right’ aspirations, the entire political process can be perverted with the help of media.
2. Media houses, by virtue of their origins in partisan political and economic agendas, cannot represent public interest. Public interest is used merely as rhetoric, while personal empires are built through privileged access to power. The media houses, in the name of providing access to grassroots leadership, are actually showcasing local mafias who help strong-arm the local elections. The media houses are abdicating their responsibility to question the antecedents of the so-called local pretenders to leadership, leaving the ordinary citizen to their mercies. In their pretensions to egalitarian access, they are losing sight of what is in public interest and what is not. In such media ecology, which individual journalist can survive if s/he wishes to practice ethical journalism?
Years ago, Justice Sawant as the Chairman of Press Council of India called for alternative ownership models for media industries. Predictably, august media bodies like the Indian Newspaper Society shouted him down. The political class in India seems to be riding on corruption and malleable media. The time has come once again to debate whether business interests and politicians should own and operate media houses in a democracy; whether there is any regulatory framework that can limit the impact of such ownership on general public.