Should Barkha Dutt be taken off air? Of course not, I think she’s one of the best news anchors we have in the country. And even though a 4,500+ strong Facebook group would make you believe that she’d better not seen on telly, the fact is that we are making a huge mistake by damning her so much.
An expected reaction from me is what some may say, given that I’ve been rather vocal in my support of news TV in this column. Yes, I am, and have no regrets about it. I still believe our TV journos didn’t do any wrong with the Mumbai siege.
And Barkha Dutt? Well, let’s look at the various complaints against her: One, irresponsible reporting, giving away vital security positions to terrorists. Two, inane, insensitive questions. And three, shrill, screechy speech.
You know my response to Crib #1. It’s the government which messed it up, and in private, even law-enforcers tell you this. But just as politicians are soft targets for journos, all politicians – especially those in the ruling parties at the Centre, State and local levels – love to whip the media. I will be happy to see concrete evidence to change my view on this, but from my discussions with various journalists on the spot, I don’t think there was anything very wrong with the facts presented. There were marginal mistakes, but no excesses.
Crib #2: Inane, insensitive. Yes, it was, though not terribly. But that’s the nature of the beast. As channel heads study their own coverage (I hope they do) – not just around November 26, but on various such occasions, they’ll realise how insensitive they get over and over again. Some of it is downright amateurish – how are you feeling today, what message would you send home, etc., etc.
Crib #3. Shrill and screechy speech. It exists in degrees across channels, and some of it happens given that one is reporting from the scene of the action. So your emotions do come in when you are live. Of the two star editors present on the occasion – Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt, there were times when Rajdeep, too, may have overstretched, but he tempered himself well and hence, didn’t attract as much hate as Barkha did.
But does all of this allow the online community to indulge in hatred against her? Well, as long as it is done within the purview of what’s legally tenable, why not? As I write this, I’m aware that this can article can be linked to ‘hazaar’ blogs and ripped apart or praised to the skies. But then, when you are doing anything in the public domain, you should be willing to take some scrutiny. And heat. Akshay Kumar has had to do that for his ‘Chandni Chowk to China’, Sachin Tendulkar should to be ready for it if he doesn’t play well enough, and so must restaurant-owners, media owners, ministers, bureaucrats… why, even the cabbie who takes you home. Every act can in a sense be subjected to commentary.
As someone who has had to pay much in legal fees for what I have written on a weblog, I do realise that a blog or a Facebook/ messageboard comment is as liable for legal action as is a comment in mainstream media – print, radio or television. I must confess I got carried away a few times on Mediaah!, a blog-based media site that I would run (2003-05), and when I did a fair bit of homework on the issue, I realised that my consistent criticism of certain entities could be construed as a slanderous campaign against them. And, rightly so.
Freedom of speech cannot afford to be “bigoted, blasphemous and banal”. Those words are not mine, but Barkha’s in her column in Khaleej Times (and Hindustan Times) in January 2007, when she was referring to popular opinion coming in to newsrooms (note: she wasn’t referring to blogs, as has been written by some irate bloggers). I chose not to revive Mediaah! as I figured that I could well get carried away again and repeat the act since as an individual blogger I had no gatekeeper to check all copies and alert me. And in order to build in the checks and balances, I needed deep pockets.
So, should NDTV have sent a notice to blogger Chyetanya Kunte for writing a post, which I didn’t think was very blasphemous. I tried to reconfirm with my colleagues tracking news and TV to ascertain whether NDTV and/or Barkha had indeed sent ckunte.com a legal notice, which has got him to publish an apology. While Barkha was away and promised to speak to my colleague today, NDTV Group CEO KVL Narayan Rao was forthcoming. “We have nothing against freedom of speech or opinion. But if we find that someone is trying to defame us, we will do anything to uphold our image. This was a wrong statement that this person has made, and these allegations were completely false,” he said.
My view on this is that I think it would’ve been nicer if the channel and the editor had not sent the notice to Chyetanya. There were better ways to handle this. One, explain your stand. This Barkha did, and rightfully so soon after November 26.
Two, do not damn bloggers. Most of them – like Mr Kunte – are exceedingly bright people. The online space has allowed them to vent their sentiments.
They are all individuals in various parts of the world (Chyetanya lives in the Netherlands), but you nail one of them, and they could get together online and turn into a mob. While I’m against any attempt to damn one’s character and publish correct/ incorrect info on the personal lives of anyone, I would’ve thought this could’ve been countered well by either ignoring the blog altogether or politely requesting those who’ve written the scandalous stuff to delete the excesses.
And, three, counter the propaganda. I’m not sure if NDTV’s internal and external public relations cell has had a role in this, but there’s perhaps reason for a relook at the strategy and do a quick damage control. For there is a lot of negativity against Barkha and NDTV in the blogosphere as newer hate groups are surfacing on social networks. Sadly, a lot of this engages the strata of society that channels like NDTV 24x7 appeal to. The numbers are small as you read this – just some 10,000-15,000 people are part of the hate brigade, but this could grow. Surely, the last thing a media company would want is loss of goodwill, especially when it is combating the wicked ways of the recession.
It upsets me no end to see a fellow-journalist being subjected so much of the shabby stuff. I think Barkha Dutt is one of the brightest television faces in this country. She has tremendous equity in the social and political circles, is deservedly very successful and has done much good work. Agreed, freedom of speech has to be handled with responsibility, but there’s a way to win over critics. While the CKunte case may be different, Indian media companies have double standards on criticism. We do not think twice about exposing others and using strong language in our critiques, but are appallingly not sporting when we are subjected to criticism. This is one reason why very few Indian publications carry media critiques. But all of that is best discussed in another Mixed Media.
(The views expressed here are my own. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you agree/disagree with what’s written.)