Sunday, May 20, 2012

Are we turning into a voyeuristic society?

Seeing the kind of news coverage, both in print and electronic media, I often wonder whether we are turning out to be a society of inconsiderate voyeurs?

Are we driven too much by “page 3” kind of news? Is the trend of ‘peeping into the lives of so-called glamorous newsmakers and celebrities becoming more of a habit? Are serious social issues (current affairs, policy issues and other such issues which affect all of us) been a thing of the past? Has cheap sensationalization of irrelevant and useless newsfeeds have become the order of the day?

Notice some of the news items appeared recently...

1. I was reading today’s Times of India (Sunday Times, New Delhi – late city edition, dated May 20th) was distressed to see the news coverage on Luke vs Zohal controversy occupying the top half of first page, entire 2nd page and most of the 3rd page. While those of you not aware of this “news of such national importance”, its about how an non-playing, never heard of IPL player of Australian origin Luke tried to molest Zohal, an allegedly American model and her manhandled her “fiancée” at 5 am in the morning at the top star hotel in the capital. A Delhi court on Saturday had granted bail to Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) player Luke Pomersbach who was arrested earlier for allegedly molesting her.

Not only this, you open any channel these days and you would notice Zohail all over. Wonder would it be the same coverage if any poor middle ages woman been molested somewhere and her fiancée /husband beaten up which incidentally keeps happening in almost various parts of the country with amazing regularity.

2. We are all aware of the Aarushi murder case and how it continues to grab the headlines in both print and electronic media even after four year. It's intriguing, if only in a forgettable voyeuristic way. A double-murder with both a teenage girl and the family's domestic help winding up dead. And the needle of suspicion being on the parents of the girl, .with an angle of likely sex-sleaze, parents discovering about it and involved in her killing not being able to accept such ‘socially unacceptable behaviour and so on. So why has the 'nation' been held captive by the Aarushi (and, yes Hemraj) case, four years on? What's so different about this murder that it involves candlelight vigils and 24/ 7 invasive news coverage? I wonder whether would we still know Aarushi's name if she lived in some remote non-descript village or came from a poor family? Are we going to be held hostage to society's (and our TV channels') relentless interest in the fate of this family? Is it not being voyeuristic?

3. It’s more like a chase of one’s own tail. A self-righteous, delusional Anna, ably exploiting the willing media sets out to stigmatise politics and in a way, ills of Indian democracy and the media, both electronic and print, salivating the situation and becoming a cheerleader of the slanging match. I have covered this issues in my blog elsewhere.

4. The Bhanwari Devi case reads like a B-grade sexploitation flick. A beautiful woman with a bevy of powerful lovers, sexual blackmail and political intrigue, culminating in a gruesome murder. Lost in the gory details, however, is Bhanwari herself. She is hardly the ideal victim, a  midwife with vaulting ambitions, willing to trade her body for money and status. More femme fatale than bharatiya naari, her death perhaps evokes more voyeurism and the manner in which a 'helpless woman belonging to a 'particular community' (& thereby being branded easliy by media) is being exploited by the system and somewhere she became a willing victim. There will be no candlelight vigils or rallies at India Gate if in the end her killers go free. Much as we pretend otherwise, there are tens of thousands of Bhanwari Devis in India. Poor women who leverage the only asset they possess to get ahead, unwilling to accept the paltry cards life has dealt them. Sexual exploitation is a routine part of life for many Dalit women – Bhanwari may have just been trying to even the terms of exchange. As a Tehelka story notes: One aspect of the Bhanwari scandal points to the political subjugation of women. Visram Meena of the All India Scheduled Caste Federation says often some women are transferred to remote areas and made to arrive at a compromise (to prevent the transfer) through various representatives. Once the woman gets caught in this mess, she falls victim to the very people she’d trusted to help her out.

5. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, resigned recently as the spokesman of the Congress party, after a video purportedly showing him having sex with a woman was distributed on YouTube and other websites. The former spokesman and prominent lawyer, Singhvi, said the video was fake and strongly denied news reports that he had offered to help the woman become a judge.

6. We still haven’t forgotten Jessica Lal murder case . Infact, a movie “nobody killed Jessica” cashed rich on the story .

7. Further, the case of princess Diana and the media sympathy and the public sympathy that follows continues despite it being more than a decade old issue.

Why do we, as a society, obsessed with such news, which at best, can be classified as individual crimes and when, crimes in each of these categories keep happening in plenty all over the country and with amazing regularity.? Why does media highlight cases involving glamorous victims who are often rich and from bigger cities?

They call it the Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS) in the US. The young, upper-middle class story gets spun into a tragic (TRP-grabbing) tale that exposes the horrors of our society, while those further down the socio-economic ladder are relegated to 'crime-in-brief' columns, if at all.

The question is why is there so much coverage of such news items, which otherwise, have little relevance and doesn’t also address the basic issues involved in them? Is it because people like to read such news or is it because its all media driven and people get what comes their way? Either way, the fact remains that we are all voyeuristic, deriving our little pleasures by watching voyeuristically in the gory details of such cases.

I guess It wasn't always like this. As society's fixation on celebrities turned to obsession, media became more willing to abandon common decency in exchange for “a juicy news”. But can we blame the media alone? They are only providing what people want. Whats tragic is that in this process, the ethical and journalistic standards have come down and so is the overall credibility of newspapers as well as electronic media. I remember growing up reading Times of India with so much of respect (early eighties) and where it has brought itself now!

I am not getting into the right of free speech guaranteed under article 19(1)(a) of the Indian constitution and whether citizen’s right of freedom of free speech is or should be available to institutions like media or the ongoing case of SIRECL vs SEBI in Supreme Court. Likewise, I am not commenting on the controversial “Print and Electronic Media Standards and regulation Bill 2012” or the IT (intermediaries guidelines) Rules 2011. There also is a fact that “paid news”, corporate cronyism ,libellous insinuation, blatant violation of privacy and all kind of subjectivities masquerading as journalistic objectivity threatens to unseat the moral high media claims to be clinging on for a long time. Also, most of the bigger media houses are now owned by big corporate, dictating thereby the kind of news and the kink it will have, that get published.

What I am incensed is at the aberration and trivialization in media where titbits of the flippant and the sensational get preference over stories of impinging social and economic reality that are crying to be told and will make a difference in the lives of people if told. There is a growing mismatch and disjuncture between journalism as a socially powerful calling and what’s turning out to be trivialization of real issues to accommodate the voyeuristic taste. Things do need to change and we are all responsible to act mature if it has to happen.

While the yellow journalism often becomes an area for stories that have the potential of scoops, it is the tendency of national dailies and electronic media to turn into yellow journalism that, according to me, is causing a stinking decay in the media standards, both in English and vernacular press.

Is it an Indian phenomenon or a disease spread world over and its varying degree needs to be debated. However, the point remains that serious policy issues of social relevance are gettting neglected as a result of media's and general public's obsession with voyeurism and it has to stop.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I am against corruption. I am also against Anna and his ways..

I am going to take a stand on the issue of corruption, not many are in favour of. I have had very animated discussion whenever I have expressed my views which are against the common views. I was almost scared during August- September 2011 when the movement against corruption was at its peak as being singled out and almost made to look like someone supporting the corruption. However, its not so. I am totally against corruption and I am in favour of tackling the issue by understanding why it exists and what should be done to curb the menace. Policing, to me, is not an answer. It will only create yet another layer of corruption and nepotism.

Corruption is a of the worst ills of the society. In a country like India, where we take pride in almost any defeat and where the population growth, more as a result of, to use Malthusian phrase, lack of ‘preventive measures’ leads almost 98% of the population to lead in general sense of depravity and always competing for those ‘limited resources’ be it jobs, education, comforts, road space, space in life etc and almost everything, corruption has crept in all walks of life like a shadow. Nothing gets done routinely and timely on its own and one necessarily has to grease the other side who is in a position of authority or decider in order to get things done seems to be the firm belief and almost rightly so. From the smallest of things like getting your child admitted to a school to getting your passport made/renewed, everything revolves around “connections” and “bribe”. And it truly sucks.

I would think that except for those at the top end of the population spectrum constituting less than one percent of the population, everybody is affected with this malaise and has been a victim of it in varying degrees at some point in life. Almost everybody who I have met has an unpleasant personal experience to share.

It is in this regard that Anna’s “India Against Corruption” movement came as a much required relief and brought with it a great hope for all the Indians. It was thus no surprise that there was an instantaneous outpour of emotions and response from a common man when the movement staged its demonstration in August in Delhi. It literally caught the imagination of everybody who has suffered at some point or the other and was ably supported by media-both print and more so by the electronic media by publicising the event 24/7 during its entire duration. The response was unprecedented. Ramlila Maidan, the venue seemed to be a sea of people from all walks of life and it was almost as if anybody who had suffered the wrath the bribery wanted to be present there to show solidarity with the movement against corruption. The response, so huge and unimaginable, caught the organisers (of India Against Corruption) by total surprise.

And this to me was the beginning of the fall of this movement. People’s anger and ire which was instantaneous and which was against corruption, was taken as a symbol of individual grandiose and popularity of those leading the movement. The movement, which was supposed to have been a faceless mass movement – where the sheer force of the masses and the pressure it brings along with could have unshackled any system out of its lethargy and systemic rot, became an exercise of individual glorification of few individuals where they started treating themselves as mass heroes and others with utter contempt. It almost has come to an extent that they have assumed upon themselves the role of being the “sole representatives” on the issue of corruption. Everybody has to necessarily speak their language (basically agree with whatever they say and whichever way they say) and any differing or dissenting voice on the methodology, issues and processes is treated with such hatred that such a voice is almost ostracized and boycotted. Such differing voices are almost made to sound like villains. Its “either Anna way or no other way” or “either Anna way or you are corrupt” philosophy that these individuals manning the “India Against Corruption” have adopted that has taken the steam off the movement. This group is just not willing to listen to any other version of “Lokpal Bill”. Whatever they say is “patthar ki lakeer”! As a result, some of the saner voices , including Aruna Roy & Nikhil Dey have distanced themselves from the so called movement. This is not all, some of the core committee members of IAC including Rajendra Singh, the Raman Magsaysay award winner have distanced themselves from the movement. Does that make them corrupt? The problem lies somewhere else.

Key proponents of IAC, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi have made it look as if their version of “Jan Lokpal Bill” (whats the difference between ‘jan’ and ‘lok’ ?) will be the panacea of all corruption and all the ills that come along with. And thats how they have been projecting throughout. The basic issue is whether it will be the panacea of all corruption? The greatest damage, the trio (Anna, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi) have done is that they are exploiting people’s anger and frustration against corruption, by giving them false and unrealistic hope of the Bill being the solution to contain all the corruption. It will not be the case and nobody knows better than the trio. Worst still is the likely blame they are going to attribute on the bureaucracy and the delivery system on the failure rather than addressing the basic issue of corruption. The problem of corruption lies elsewhere and no amount of policing can contain it. We are ingenious enough to devise newer methods to overcome provisions of any legal provisions.
The answer to me lies in (i) having systemic improvements in delivery mechanisms of the services in a manner that minimizes human interface. The online facilitation of services which does not require any human interface can bring in lot of transparency and thereby minimize corruption. Also (ii) a major answer lies within each of us. As they say, it takes two to clap. Corruption exists because there is a giver, however forced or unwilling. Can we go on justifying corruption on the compulsions of our circumstances? If we all decide to follow rules and be mentally ready to pay the fine/penalties if we flout them, half the battle is won. How many of us look for short cuts whenever we jump the traffic signals and happily bribe the traffic constable for over-speeding, or violation of rules? There might be delays or unnecessary delays initially but if all of us decide to be a part of this cleansing drive, things will ultimately fall in place.
It’s very easy to look elsewhere and blame everything on politicians and babus but is it that simple? Is Politics or Babudom the only breeds that are corrupt? Is there no corruption in corporate sector, among NGOs and in formal and informal sector? If we are talking about removing corruption and holding people accountable, why not talk of all such sectors ? Its like this – we don’t want to talk about ourselves and our acts of omission and commission whenever we are a party to corruption when it suit us but we would like to blame politicians and bureaucracy for all our ills. They are the favorite and most easily available targets waiting to be whipped. Is it fair? Is it not closing our eyes to the reality? I remember when somebody asked Anna as to why he doesnt contest an election, his answer was that he will never win because voters can be purchased. Now, my question is, where lies the answer? Are politicians alone to be blamed? It's much more deep rooted and we cant take as easy route out by blaming everything on politicians. Why arent we willing to look into the societal dynamics and the complex Malthusian perspective on deprivation and resulting desire to seek a short cut in everything we do?

Kiran Bedi mocking politicians
The sort of adulation and hero-worship that the troika got, it perhaps has got into their head. A situation came that nobody should question their own credentials. Well, it’s a well established principle of leadership that the best leadership is the one which leads by his/her own example. And here, cases of improprieties and corrupt practices against some of these members of troika and those closely associated are blatantly ignored by them and infact laughed over. Such arrogance against the truth can only bring them down- there’s no other way and its happening. Everytime I saw it on television the way Anna said "inquilab zindabad" or "bharat Mata ki jai", I got scared..there was so much violence and threat in the tone. What was so gandhian about it? Or the way Kiran Bedi mocked politicians on stage in Ramlila Maidan. The entire issue got so trivialized in the process.

What's Gandhian about it?

The IAC movement has always prided itself in advocating a transparent system in whatever we do in public. I really wonder why one of the IAC members, Mufti Shamum Kazmi, was thrown out of the IAC when he was recording the proceedings of the IAC ? where’s the internal transparency gone? I wonder why this issue has not been raised in the press? Somehow, the majority of media has been subdued to subjugation with the self perceived belief that they have taken up the right cause however illogical or autocratic it might be. In any case, media goes by TRP ratings and all said and done, Anna makes news and sells.

The movement, with its new found popularity , has ventured into newer areas of reforms such as electoral practices. It has also taken up, riding on its popularity, some of the most ridiculous issue such as alcoholism etc. This is totally weird and a complete digression from the very purpose for which people had identified themselves with the drive against corruption.

Anna, as also the media, revels in giving the impression that he is a Gandhian. Anna, basically has been, in my opinion, a village simpleton with very simplistic views on life. For him, everything seems to be black and white. I remember having him as chief guest in one of our functions in Vijaywada in early 2000 when I was Municipal Commissioner. He is a man of principles and lives a simple life.

But I feel, exposure to media and instant stardom and publicity has had its debilitating affect on him and he seems to have lost his sense of balance. Notice some of his recent statements – that somebody

who consumes alcohol should be asked to give it up and if he doesn’t, he should be tied to an electric pole and flogged!! Or that Singhavi “should be hanged if found guilty”. There are umpteen examples of his autocratic violent utterances. Wonder whether Anna+Talibanish statements = Gandhi ? or merely, wearing khadi kurta dhoti and a Gandhian cap make anybody Gandhian? The rate at which Anna is going, the day is not far off unfortunately when he will be a totally discredited figure. His comments regarding Ashok Singhavi that he should be hanged if he is indeed the person in a controversial CD, represents yet another instance of Anna letting his tongue loose, with complete disregard for propriety or good sense. Such remarks , as pointed out in Mail Today, betray Anna as a man with a medieval mindset and narrow vision who has through accident or force of circumstances, been catapulted to the national stage. Somebody needs to tell him that leading an austere existence and seeking
change alone is not enough to qualify as a Gandhian. He is surrounded by sycophants who are using him as a ladder to climb on their own personal glories and gains and he needs to realise how he is being used (abused) by those surrounding him. It’s a pity that Anna doesn’t realise that showing his intemperate side will soon leave him with few options or supporters. The movement off late has become media driven and hardly a people’s movement. The movement, in its last few phases, has become a huntin
g ground of lampoon elements and hooligans who, drunk on “people’s power” and alcohol, go around menacingly on bikes, without helmets and flouting all saner rules. Time for authorities to act tough and time for people to realise whether their frustrations are being used by selected few for their very selfish motives.