FROM VIL­LAIN TO VEENA MA­LIK

In­dian me­dia has learnt to see Pak­ista­nis as peo­ple, not en­e­mies. Hate sells only dur­ing in­ter­ludes of war. Oth­er­wise, it’s rock bands and fast bowlers.

India Today - - SIGNATURE - Samit Basu The au­thor is a writer of books, films and comics. He di­vides his time be­tween Delhi and Mum­bai.

At the time of writ­ing this ar­ti­cle, Pak­istan is, for­tu­nately, not on the best­seller list of In­dian news sto­ries. The BSF ( Bor­der Se­cu­rity Force) has found a big un­der­ground tun­nel, used, they say, for cross- bor­der in­fil­tra­tion, but they don’t know where it leads at ei­ther end, which is a bit mys­ti­fy­ing. There’ll be a lot of shout­ing about the Gov­ern­ment’s weak­ness in not know­ing about its con­struc­tion, but a tun­nel, thank­fully, is not sexy: A larger story might lit­er­ally emerge out of it in due course, but we’ll leave that for an­other day.

Any day when Pak­istan is not right on top of the news cy­cle is a good day. Any day when Pak­istan’s ap­pear­ances in our me­dia is lim­ited to non- lethal schaden­freude news— ball- tam­per­ing, match- fix­ing, de­bates over whether we should play cricket— or just en­ter­tain­ment— mu­si­cal col­lab­o­ra­tions, Veena Ma­lik nude ap­pear­ances with or with­out ISI tat­toos, dal­liances with Bol­ly­wood peo­ple— is a day to feel good about. The best neigh­bours are quiet neigh­bours.

Yes, there are larger machi­na­tions at play— the con­tin­ued de­mand for some form of clo­sure over the 2008 at­tack, the cap­ture of Zabi­ud­din An­sari in Saudi Ara­bia, the on- off peace process as ev­ery­one waits for Afghanistan to set­tle down— and sooner or later these will bub­ble up all over the coun­try, through ev­ery chan­nel and pa­per, and hate will be sexy again. When the next se­ri­ous con­flict oc­curs— and it will— there will be more il­lus­tri­ous an­chors shout­ing and fin­ger­wag­ging on TV, more de­mands for an­swers, more ha­tred fill­ing the In­ter­net, more gov­ern­ment dou­ble­s­peak, more fu­tile out­rage, more empty in­ter­na­tional mourn­ing, more help­less cel­e­bra­tions of the spirit of the most re­cently at­tacked city, more col­lec­tive pray­ing that In­dia stays sane and does not suc­cumb to a hideous wave of com­mu­nal ri­ots. There will be more pa­tri­otic chest­thump­ing, more unan­swered ques­tions, more pres­sure on our se­cu­rity agen­cies to get their act to­gether. And then those of us who can will get on with our lives. It’s a pat­tern we’re all fa­mil­iar with, a cy­cle we’ve known all our lives. Most of the peo­ple who work in the me­dia to­day have grown up in this world, and their own ex­pe­ri­ences have shaped the way this story is told. They’ve changed, and so has the story.

For the gen­er­a­tion that was born in the 1980s,

Pak­istan was a sim­ple, leer­ing car­toon vil­lain far off to the west and ev­ery­one who lived there was like Javed Mian­dad. For some rea­son, though, the Amer­i­cans loved them— in fact, for a lot of us, this was the first in­di­ca­tion that there was more to the story than we knew. How come In­dia, the land of Mithun, Mad­huri and Kapil Dev, clearly good and per­fect in ev­ery way, was a bet­ter friend of the USSR, with its earnest sci­ence books and folk­tales and space­ships, than with the land of Rambo and Mr T? Was the world not as bi­nary as we thought?

The In­dian broad­cast me­dia en­tered its ado­les­cence at about the same time we did, and sud­denly the world was a lot more com­pli­cated. Those peo­ple across the bor­der be­came peo­ple, not just tar­gets for Sunny Deol tube­well vi­o­lence. Kargil hap­pened, and we didn’t cel­e­brate: Peo­ple died, and no one won. And the sense be­gan to set in that this con­flict, that started well be­fore we were born, wasn’t go­ing to go away through our life­times. Gov­ern­ments came and went, both coun­tries suf­fered, both coun­tries grew. Our me­dia changed at a re­mark­able rate. Sud­denly jour­nal­ists weren’t dour author­ity fig­ures giv­ing us bor­ing sta­tis­tics any more. They be­came peo­ple too— peo­ple we knew, peo­ple we owned, peo­ple we loved and hated, celebri­ties, opin­ion- mak­ers, bile tar­gets, sex sym­bols. In the rush of the new econ­omy, the world seemed open. Our voices grew louder, our backs grew straighter, our skins grew thicker. We grew self­ob­sessed, and learned to crit­i­cise our­selves too. There were new voices, lan­guages, opin­ions in the main­stream: No one was defin­ing our taste for us, and we went ahead and de­cided what we liked for our­selves. We gave up try­ing to ex­plain In­dia, and be­gan to de­mand things from it. We grew up. It’s al­ways a dis­ap­point­ment.

The In­dian me­dia’s pri­mary con­cern is in sell­ing it­self to In­dian con­sumers. So when, for in­stance, the Pak­istani me­dia ac­cuses the In­dian me­dia of be­ing hy­per- na­tion­al­is­tic, gov­ern­ment- bootlick­ing, para­noid liars, as it did in the af­ter­math of the 2008 at­tack, it misses the point. The In­dian me­dia isn’t a gov­ern­ment tool. It’s a bunch of peo­ple try­ing to make a liv­ing. And if hate is sell­able, hate is what they’ll sell. In times of peace, it will be ex­cit­ing rock bands and fast bowlers again.

And what sells to In­di­ans is the In­dia story. And right now, it’s In­dia’s own prob­lems that ob­sess us. We pro­duce out­rage at world- class lev­els, and the only thing that changes is the sub­ject of the day. In­evitably, one of the big­gest movers and shak­ers on this chart is the In­dian me­dia it­self. We’ve moved from In­dia Learn­ing through In­dia Churn­ing and In­dia Shin­ing to In­dia Whin­ing. Be­tween Ra­di­a­gate and the re­cent hor­rific ma­nip­u­lated mob at­tack on a lone woman in Guwahati, the In­dian me­dia has now reached a point where its cred­i­bil­ity is the low­est that I for one can re­mem­ber. At the same time, we’re see­ing a lot of jour­nal­ism that’s of a higher qual­ity than we’ve had be­fore. As the worst clichérid­den Ex­plain­ing In­dia nar­ra­tives will tell you, we are masters of dual­ity.

But it’s easy to see why the In­dian me­dia is go­ing through a cred­i­bil­ity cri­sis: The is­sue is one of qual­ity. The in­con­sis­ten­cies are stag­ger­ing. Ev­ery well- done piece is fol­lowed by some shoddy ex­am­ple of lazy jour­nal­ism. Worst of all, the open prac­tice of paid news, the shame­less In­dian phe­nom­e­non in which huge me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions pros­ti­tute them­selves to cor­po­rates, tar­nishes not just the prac­ti­tion­ers of paid news but the me­dia as a whole.

This isn’t the time for knee- jerk re­sponses about how you can find these in the me­dia in the West as well. But if we’re look­ing at the West, even the tabloids have stan­dards of con­sis­tency within their own pa­pers. Con­sis­tency, logic, san­ity, rea­son: These are what the In­dian me­dia needs now, and to achieve these will re­quire a lot of in­tro­spec­tion. In­tro­spec­tion that’s harder to achieve in an age where mar­ket­ing and ad sales push ed­i­tors con­sis­tently, and bad jour­nal­ism at­tracts more eye­balls. But it’s also an age when ev­ery­one’s a broad­caster and no one wants to lis­ten, an age where the reader and viewer have choices, and power, and only by go­ing back to the ba­sics of good jour­nal­ism will any me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tion sur­vive the dig­i­tal age. The me­dia needs to wake up to this at once, or the story of our na­tion will grow even darker.

REUTERS/ ARKO DATTA

ABURN­ING TAJ MAHALHOTEL DUR­ING THE MUM­BAI AT­TACK IN 2008

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