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.
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.
ABURNING TAJ MAHALHOTEL DURING THE MUMBAI ATTACK IN 2008