If the quality of the media is a reflection of the society in which it operates, I begin to wonder now, after repeated self-flagellation, if I have been unnecessarily severe on myself and my professional mates.
This philosophical realisation hit me as I was watching TV channels doing their usual breaking news ‘tandav’ on the Modern School mess Thursday high noon. I have often accused reporters and cameramen of lacking decorum when at work. But see what the camera makes even people like us do. The pushing and jostling, the shouting and screaming, the shoving and snatching of mikes… first grown ups behaving like kids and then kids wanting to be grown ups.
It militated against my sensibilities to see Akriti’s friend Aakarshika say things like “Don’t hide your face Goldy” (Goldy, by the way is Mrs Goldy Malhotra, her principal), while a parent was helpfully goading her: “Why are you crying, bolo, bolo.” And some children of her school and other schools saying “We will not give up until she goes to jail”. (Where are the editors? Can just about anything go on air?)
Let me leave Akriti’s parents out of this because as much as we all want to feel their loss, we just cannot. So, if their behaviour was dictated by emotion, we must rationalise. But what about the other parents? If Aakarshika was as traumatised as she seemed to be, she needed very careful handling. She should not have been anywhere near the school. Why was she sent and why was she pumped up to perform for the cameras? God forbid, if this incident were to leave scars, would we blame just the school?
To me the indignity of the whole episode was very disconcerting. I am not fully convinced the school blundered in handling Akriti (contrarily, I think they did a decent job), but I am convinced they blundered in allowing cameras into the school premises. They assumed that since they had nothing to hide (according to them, that is), they would make a full disclosure. They soon realised, to their eternal regret I would say, that national TV is not quite the show-and-tell kindergarten class they are used to.
One angry outburst would have caused the retinue of cameras to pan to the source, setting off an avalanche of more angry faces seeking more cameras and the cameras seeking more angry faces in an exercise of mutual profit. What was perhaps supposed to be some kind of a condolence meeting for the little girl, soon degenerated into a graceless slanging match, undermining everything and everybody, including Akriti’s memory.
If, as a society, we are turning out to be actors for TV, venting anger at the drop of a hat, ignoring acceptable norms of behaviour, I think I owe an apology to my professional mates. I suppose every society gets the media it deserves. But that does not mean the basics of news journalism can be brushed aside to load more emotion into an already sad story.
For example, why would no channel worth the money we pay, not point out to some basic things such as:
• That a school is not a medical institution, hence there is no case for medical negligence. That if the school had tried to “treat” her, that would have been illegal? (Headlines Today said they could be booked for culpable homicide not amounting to murder!)
• That there is no guarantee in this country that an ambulance turns up within five minutes of calling for it.
• That most offices, even all the channels that are screaming blue murder, can’t fetch a Band Aid in time, forget about keeping an oxygen cylinder.
• That there is a possibility that Akriti’s postmortem might throw up something we do not know. (A top police source told me that the postmortem has not definitively established the cause of death. Her viscera has been preserved and it will take weeks before we know.)
Or, why didn’t the channels address some doubts in our minds, such as:
• Why did her parents not rush to the school? They were called thrice at 10.09 am, 10.20 am and 10.32 am, but decided not to rush. Was it because it they thought that it was a routine attack and thought the school could handle it. Thereby suggesting the school had handled this before?
• But the school didn’t treat it as routine, did it? It was not routine for Akriti to be on oxygen, was it?
• Both versions, the school’s and Aakarshika’s, say her condition improved after the oxygenation. So, why are we saying the school wasted precious time?
• At 10.20 am, the school was informed. If it took 7-10 to get things going, Akriti would have been on oxygen by 10.30 am. She should have spent at least 15 minutes for her condition to improve, 10.45 am by now. In another few minutes she was being driven to hospital. So what is this delay we are talking of?
• When they realised she needed hospitalisation, would it have made sense to call for an ambulance and wait for it or make a dash? Yes, it would definitely have helped to carry the oxygen cylinder, but is that not hindsight? How many of us have had a patient suddenly dying on us, and still had the capacity to do everything by the book?
There was enough emotional quotient in this unfortunate incident without having to make a villain out of the school prematurely. But then as news channels we love to internalise the emotions of every event, be it 26/11 or Aarushi or Akriti (owning the event, as it is famously called in newsrooms these days). So, we feed on frenzy and in turn, we feed the frenzy. This symbiotic relationship ensures there is enough food for all, at all times.
So I agree with Aakarshika. Don’t hide your face Goldy. You are just collateral damage in a national pastime.
I’m trying, Gaurav, I’m trying!
Tailpiece: A mail from a friend who threw up a challenge last week: Hi, I read your piece on exchange4media and liked it. You now need to surprise us by doing something very difficult – find something praiseworthy in TV news! Cheers, Gaurav.
Hmmm… I suppose there’s always a next time, Gaurav?
(As you can see, Venkat, as the author is known, is hunting for something praiseworthy in news channels to write about. If you find something good, help him take up the challenge by writing to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)