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Newshounds or Citizens?
Food for Thought for fellow mediapersons

Sevanti Ninan

Last fortnight TV cameras captured the attack of Shiv Sainiks in Delhi on Regal cinema where ‘Fire’ was being screened. Complete with the audio of shattering glass. You had to ask yourself--how did they happen to be there? Did they know this was going to happen? Were some TV crews tipped off?

Of course they were. It turned out TV channels were called up by the Shiv Sainiks in Delhi and they dutifully turned up. If so many socially responsible members of the media knew in advance that the Shiv Sena was going to protest the screening of the film how come the attack was not prevented? Why did they not tip off the police so that the attack was warded off? Is action-filled news footage preferable to civic order? The channels might argue that they did not know the protest was going to turn violent, but that is hogwash. They had the example of what happened in Mumbai a few days before to go by.

At the end of the 2 0th Century, we are still no wiser on what the ethics of the media should be in situations of violence. Should they be professionals first and citizens second? Film hooliganism rather than prevent it because preventing it is not their job? Film a youth immolating himself rather than stop him?

Then there is the issue of giving anti-socials the oxygen of publicity. Should violence of this kind be reported or ignored? Should it be reported knowing that politically motivated violence aims at being reported?

The Regal cinema footage evidently had two kinds of impact. Among one category of viewers it createdanger and revulsion at the Shiv Sena’ s arrogance and intolerance. The anger resulted in a protest which provided more photo- opportunities. (It is a sign of our media-savvy times that the protest organisers informed yours truly of their plans by e-mail. )

The other kind of impact the footage had is described by a youth in Shiv Sena’ s Delhi chief Jai Bhagwan Goyal’ s office. He told the Indian Express, "After ‘Fire’, lots of people are coming to us. They have seen us on television. These people want help from us without paying the party subscription". The kind of "help" being discussed is described later in this news story. Says Goyal, " We do work which is beyond the police. People are scared of us." In other words, he nurtures a goon squad and the obliging TV exposure helps him get more clients for its services.

Then there is a charming little nugget in the Outlook interview with Goyal. He is asked: "You live in Shahadara where there are cases of rape, incest with 3, 6, 10- year-olds every other day. Why has the Sena never picketed outside rapists’ homes? Is that unimportant?"

Goyal: "We do so. Only you people in the media do not write about us then."

"In Delhi, your office called up press/television people. Started attacking and destroying Rs 25,000 worth Regal property after ensuring TV cameras were on. Why don’ t you call us if you picket rapists black marketeers if ever?"

"We always picket. Next time I’ll inform you."

In the welter of seminars that Delhi gets caught up in every winter a favourite theme this year has been "Children and Violence on Television". One analyst from Germany Michael Kunczik, who arrived for one such seminar made some telling points about violence in the news. Crime news is the most used news in newspapers and television. And down the years, there is plenty of evidence to show that the presence of media increases violence Those who have covered militancy in Kashmir will vouch for that. As one journalist puts it," the moment the cameras roll they turn hysterical."

So from good guys to bad guys, everybody has learnt to stage pseudo-events to get attention. Mahatma Gandhi did it by staging satyagrahas, which he knew would provoke the British to violence and, bring publicity to his cause. Greenpeace has done it, terrorists in today s world do it from the Kashmiris and Bodos to the Palestinians. And Mr. Jai Bhagwan Goyal has learnt the art as well. The media falls for it every time; peer pressure leaves it no option.

Should journalists inform the police? Ask them and they tell you that it was the police’ s business to know that something might happen at Regal and do something about it. It is an extension of the logic that makes the press run interviews with criminals (like Veerappan) or militants in hiding. They don’ t inform the police of their whereabouts.

In other words, they choose to be newshounds first citizens second. What the news media is learning to do is examine violent footage more carefully before putting it on air. This is partly because satellite channels are governed by Hong Kong s broadcasting laws because they uplink from there and partly because the extended debate on TV violence may be having some effect. One must be grateful for small mercies.

(Reproduced from ‘The Hindu’)


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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .