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Guest Column Retrofit: Wielding the double-edged sword responsibly

25-March-2009
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Guest Column  Retrofit: Wielding the double-edged sword responsibly

Media has to play a responsible role. Yes, that is how media is viewed. Its very credibility revolves around its role as a responsible facilitator and disseminator of news and current affairs. No, this is not a sermon from the mount. This responsibility, which weighs down media, is also like a double-edged sword. It can cut and hurt. It can impale an enemy or foe, but it can also be used to commit seppuku.

When media highlights say a Varun Gandhi and his scary hate speech, it is acting responsibly, for it needs to bring to the fore something as vile and obnoxious as the gross venom on display. That is of course if the tape is not doctored and is the genuine article. We still don’t unequivocally know whether Varun Gandhi had said those vile things or not. The bottomline is that in the process media has turned Varun into a star. The political paparazzi is beginning to chase him. When the CNN-IBN correspondent quizzed Varun Gandhi in his lawn on the said speech, he showed remarkable composure while answering the posers. He even shooed away his aunt Ambika Shukla and told her softly, yet sternly, that he would complete the interview and then come inside.

But that is not what this treatise is all about. Varun Gandhi, courtesy the media, has caught the ball and is running with it. He is the reluctant media poster boy. The media is fanning the flames by playing the hate tapes repeatedly ad nauseam. One can argue – what else will media do? The sword cuts and hurts, too, remember? News telly is going overboard, in fact, it is going ballistic on this subject. Varun Gandhi is telly land’s hottest property. In fact, he has usurped the crown from his Gandhi cousins – Rahul and Priyanka. What it has hopefully not done is create another media Frankenstien. In the recent past, we have seen Maharashtrian media – English and vernacular – go overboard with Raj Thackeray. They created such a song and dance about Raj Thackeray and his goons that it almost got monotonous. Why the lumpen proletariat should be given such prominence is something that confounds all and sundry.

A lot of people in Maharashtra have noticed that ever since the fateful happenings of 26/11, Raj Thackeray has more or less gone underground. After trashing and thrashing north Indians in different locations in Maharashtra, the poor hapless north Indians turned out to be the saviours of Mumbaikars in the form and shape of NSG commandos. Life has altered for the north Indian in Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and other towns and cities in Maharashtra. A fear factor came into play, but those flames have now been doused with the valour displayed by the same north Indians who were being needlessly targeted till the other day.

One needs to understand that in Raj Thackeray’s case, it was a deliberate calibrated strategy. All he was doing was reprise what his more famous uncle Balasaheb did years ago in Mumbai when he launched an attack against south Indians or ‘lungi wallahs’ as they were referred to. The sons of soil theme has worked in the past. Most right wing parties have used this plank to evoke a strange sense of jingosim. Raj Thackeray got the spotlight because the media hype supported his planned attacks against people and establishments. Media turned him into a star, covering and writing about his public misdemeanors. Thackeray’s strategy, if viewed in isolation, would not have gained so much mindpsace had the media not played up his dubious stand.

I remember the Shiv Sena lampooning Anil Dharker for carrying derogatory remarks against Shivaji Maharaj in the ‘Illustrated Weekly’. I also remember Kumar Ketkar bearing the brunt of a Sena onslaught several times for his editorials. That was journos taking a hit because of something that appeared in the magazine that they edited or the stand that they took in their paper against a dangerous xenophobic ideology. That is different from the position that the media is taking in stoking the Varun Gandhi fires. Turn to any channel and there is only one debate. The entire electoral process has been hijacked by Varun Gandhi’s pronouncements. Communalism was not on any anyone’s radar. It has just popped up and is refusing to go away. One speech has changed the course of this election. The BJP, for want of any plank, has found a readymade star, event and ideology. For the Congress, it is deja vu. It can launch broadsides all over again at the BJP. And the fusillade is thick and fast from both sides.

The BJP was floundering for a subject, a topic, a plank, a posture. It has found one in Varun Gandhi. For right or wrong, the BJP is backing and defending Varun to the hilt. The Congress goes for broke in its onslaught against the BJP and Varun. Who enjoys the slugfest and feeds off it? Yes, the electronic media, which debates Varun Gandhi with great gusto and glee. A hungry media feeds off everything remotely controversial. Could it have ignored the Varunspeak? An emphatic ‘No’. Should it have given it so much prominence is another matter? So, we come back to the sword that cuts and hurts. Where should the electronic media draw the line? How much should it feed off the likes of Raj Thackeray and Varun Gandhi? In Raj’s case, he has never run away from his stand and stance. He espouses a cause and he doesn’t run away from that cause. In Varun Gandhi’s case, there is no undiluted proof of his complicity. It is still not proved inconclusively that Varun did actually say what he is supposed to have said. Doctored tapes are his challenge. Media, meanwhile, continues to go ape.

It is tough for an owner or an editor to steer clear of something like a Varun copy. The trick is how to play a copy like this. Or is it that political parties are making capital out of Varun Gandhi’s bizarre outburst, for different and divergent reasons? The Congress because it has got a knife to twist in the BJP’s back for two different reasons – the obvious brazen communal overtones and the other not so subtle handle that it gets against the outcast Gandhi – Varun. The BJP, in disarray since the Delhi debacle and recently jolted with the infighting between ‘master’ strategist Arun Jaitley and wannabe campaign manager Sudanshu Mittal, has found a ‘mudda’, a strand which is in sync with its basic instinct. And it gets to launch a counter-attack against the Congress on tainted leaders in the UPA – Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler and even Lalu Prasad. If all that wasn’t enough, Mulayam Singh with his gender biased attack against the DM has also set the cat amongst the pigeons.

An election process, which was meandering along without any spark, has been livened up by the media and Varun Gandhi’s strange speech. It has given politicos without a ‘mudda’ something to shout about, and media something to go to town with. As one politico asked on one of the channels – why are you singling Varun out, just because he is part inheritor of a famous legacy? More than one politician drones on and on about religion, communalism and xenophobia in different parts of this country every time an election comes along. Does the media bother then? No. Does it track all these politicos and their speeches? Beware the sword that cuts and impales, it also helps as an instrument in facilitating seppuku. Which still doesn’t answer a small question playing on the fringes of my grey cells – why did Varun do it? If at all he did it, that is. Shouldn’t the media be more responsible?

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist who started his career with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi - with The Indian Express, Illustrated Weekly, Sunday Observer, Dalal Street Journal, Plus Channel where he ran India's first morning business show on Doordarshan, The Times of India Group, Business India, Hindustan Times and Reliance Big Entertainment. Starting his career as a cricket writer, he graduated to becoming a man for all seasons under Pritish Nandy, who he considers as the premier influence on his career. Since he studied economics at Calcutta University, Bamzai decided in 1993 to branch out into business and financial journalism. Familiar with all three media, he is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not necessarily those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)

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