There’s no doubt that popular anger has been driving the current agitation against corruption in India. It’s also clear that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government exacerbated this by demonstrating its helplessness in tackling the issue of corruption and by failing to demonstrate serious intent in addressing this chronic problem.
But if the government inflamed the frustrations of the people through its inept policies, the media – particularly the electronic media – has stoked and sustained the anger. In light of the latest fast by Anna Hazare, questions are now being asked in some quarters about the media’s role in this whole affair – is it playing fair? Has it simply been performing the role of objective messenger as it’s supposed to? Or has it been exploiting middle class anger to expand ratings and profits?
The day Anna Hazare left Tihar jail, I saw for myself the tremendous reception he received from gathered crowds. Indeed, some TV channels claimed hundreds of thousands had gathered to welcome the crusader. But looking around, even the most generous measure would have placed the number attending at no more than 20,000 people.
Questioning the role of the media in the whole saga, veteran journalist Sashi Kumar, writing in Outlook magazine, said: ‘What defies imagination, even as it stretches journalistic credibility, is that the messengers become the lead players, directing the route the story will run, conjuring up twists and turns where there are none and keeping the news-in-the-making illusion breathlessly alive.’
Media website ‘The Hoot,’ meanwhile, in an article entitled ‘Why TV channels love Anna Hazare,’ noted that the anti-corruption crusader ‘makes money for them.’
As Kumar observes, ‘truth-telling, at the core of journalism, may then become vulnerable to the market dictate of giving people what they want – this already serves as an alibi for the dumbing down and tabloidization of the news media…It is a rare confluence of big cause and huge profit.’
In this ‘tabloidization,’ dissenting voices become side-lined. Across the TV channels, little space was given to the government’s voice, or those of others critical of Anna’s style of brinkmanship. The media appears to have had little time for those who favour democratic debate and discussion. By providing round-the-clock coverage of the protest from the Ramlila Ground, where Hazare undertook his fast, the media has drummed up not just an anti-government mood in the country, but also an anti-politics atmosphere.
Kumar Ketkar, a senior journalist from Maharashtra, says that the media has, simply, been biased toward Hazare. Meanwhile, Sashi Kumar says that there’s a gnawing sense that there has been a gradual convergence of civil society, which sustains Hazare and his movement, and therefore the media market.
But while the media was fixated on Hazare’s fast, it paid little attention to the ongoing and acute desperation and helplessness of the country’s many poverty-stricken areas. The reason this has been the case, of course, is simple – people in rural and semi-urban areas don’t contribute to the TRP (Television Rating Points).
The danger with the kind of sustained media attention we have seen over Hazare is that it tends to promote direct democracy, which undermines the fundamental principle of liberal democracy holding that governance isn’t just about placating the most vocal sections of society. The media is supposed to be the watchdog of democracy, and so should be careful not to tar the whole political class, as well as the institutions of democracy, with the brush of corruption.
Still, when all is said and done, the anger that has spilled out onto the streets of India is an expression of the extreme disillusionment with the government and a system that has failed to realize its full potential due to the scourge of corruption. The new middle class, child of the economic liberalization that Manmohan Singh initiated 20 years ago, is aggrieved with the creator for his neglect and apathy. The relationship is now at the breaking point.