Television

Noisy signals

Print edition : October 31, 2014

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat addressing volunteers on the occasion of Vijayadashami, in Nagpur on October 3. This was telecast live on Doordarshan. Photo: S. Sudarshan

ONCE we get over the initial feeling of being scandalised —and that should not be very difficult given the number of scandals that hit public life with such regularity—and think just a little more patiently about what has happened, and try like reasonable people to incorporate the point of view of the other side into that thinking, we may wonder what the fuss is really all about. After all, Mohan Bhagwat is the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The party in power is the mouthpiece of the RSS, and proud to be so. And Doordarshan is the mouthpiece of the party in power, whether or not it is proud to be so. All the state broadcaster did was cut to the chase and get the original mouth saying his piece live on air on Vijayadashami day. For a medium increasingly riddled by spokespersons right, centre and left, who normally mouth inanities that do little more than keep the jabber going, it must be a refreshing change to get the real stuff right from the horse’s mouth.

Doordarshan and its apologists pointing out that about a dozen others covered the speech live, so there was nothing exceptional or objectionable about its own telecast, may, however, be a bit disingenuous for a channel which has made a scrupulous habit of not treading into areas where others rush in, especially if those areas are rife with news unpalatable to the ruling dispensation. On the other hand, Bhagwat’s views on sundry contemporary matters are undoubtedly noteworthy, and newsworthy, for their very incongruous, anachronistic and revivalist mindset; for their urge to turn the civilisational clock back.

There is then the aspect of the religious load. But here the credit must go to the Congress party’s opportunistic approach in cutting Doordarshan loose of its avowed secularist obligations by brazenly initiating Hindu religiosity on the channel in the form of the Ramayana a la Ramanand Sagar which, in turn, opened the floodgates of Hindu and Hindu-ising religious lore on television. Bhagwat on Doordarshan, even if no myth, could be seen as a culmination of that process of bipartisan Hinduisation of the channel and the medium. If the Congress has something to rue, rather than gripe, about, it must be for sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind. The forecast ahead in any case indicates heavy weather for secularism in the media.

Even as the last United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was floundering preparatory to its collapse in the elections, there was a well-meaning exercise (and it will remain just that in the absence of the political will to carry it through) under the chairmanship of Sam Pitroda to go into how the Prasar Bharati Corporation, which runs Doordarshan and All India Radio, might be made truly independent and responsible to the public.

As a member of the committee which went into this issue, I had helped draft a series of recommendations, among them some in the nature of caveats:

that Prasar Bharati must be a “public” broadcaster as against a “government” broadcaster; that there is a big difference between the two (and of course it is far worse when the government broadcaster is in effect a megaphone of the ruling party);

that it should be neither a creature of the government nor, like private broadcasters, a creature of the market;

it must be able to rely on public funding in a manner that will insulate the Corporation from direct and indirect government and corporate control;

that credibility is the social capital of the public interest broadcaster, perhaps more important than financial capital; that it is in the realm of news and news-related programming that credibility is essentially established and tested; that in this field the broadcaster must aspire to the stature of the equivalent of a “newspaper of record” in print journalism.

It must guard against understanding the “publics” in terms of vote banks, identity politics and majoritarianism; and aim for a cosmopolitan broadcast culture that accommodates to the extent possible the complexity and diversity of India.

It must proceed on the assumption that the right to information from the media is an extension of the people’s right to information guaranteed by an Act of Parliament; and irrespective of whether or not the private broadcasters fulfil this function, it becomes the duty and responsibility of the public-interest broadcaster to protect and further this right.

Media freedom

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has had the relative advantage of being seen as more committed to media freedom than the Congress, if only because the Congress has been in power for a far longer stretch during which it has used and misused the state media for all to see. That and what it did to the media during the Emergency have not exactly given the party a media-friendly image, even if it may have partly redeemed itself by pushing through the Right to Information Act in the previous UPA government. Indeed this difference between the two parties vis-a-vis media freedom has been a constant boast of the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the new government, Prakash Javadekar. The Bhagwat telecast by Doordarshan poses a big question mark on that vaunted role of championship of media freedom.

The yes-sir-present-sir response of Doordarshan to the ruling party, its slants and biases, are unfailingly all too obvious. What you see is what you get. So much so that what a news reader on the channel recently saw and read off the teleprompter as Roman numeral XI happened to be the first part of the visiting Chinese President’s name. Xi Jinping being delivered to the nation as “Eleven” Jinping is a typical Doordarshan gaffe—as naive as it is preposterous, without any malice aforethought.

“Dig here, not there”

The private channels of the corporate world have become adept at being more inscrutable, even devious, in their ways, much like their counterparts in the West. Pierre Bourdieu refers to the “dig here, not there” syndrome: you don’t dig where the ground yields news that matters, but keep scooping the dirt from here and there and elsewhere, precisely so that what matters is not drawn attention to or discussed. An alternative description, also Bourdieu’s, of this dissemblance is “reveal to conceal”. Umberto Eco, independently, arrives at the same observation of the contemporary Italian media. In a lecture given five years back at the Italian Semiotic Association, and which forms part of a published compilation of his speeches and essays ( Inventing the Enemy, 2011), he imagines that if he did not want something damaging about him appearing in the next day’s news, he would plant a bomb near the police headquarters or railway station. “The next day the newspaper front pages would be full of it and my personal misdemeanour would end up as a small inside story. And who knows how many real bombs have been planted to make other front-page stories disappear.”

In a situation where the big corporations have taken over the media, such diversionary tactics can become a stock-in-trade to keep any development inconvenient to their business out of the public eye. Journalism becomes a fig leaf of respectability and democratic pretence for naked corporate aggression and for representing the world increasingly as one made up of consumers rather than people. Eco goes on to demonstrate how ratcheting up the noise level can make insignificant or surrogate news appear like the real news. It is, in fact, “censorship through noise”. Pick up some trivia, any trivia, blast them out aloud, repeat them louder and louder, and they already begin to sound like important news.

We here in India are by now only too familiar with such decibel determination of news on our TV channels. It seems to make nonsense of the art and science of optimising the signal to noise ratio in the medium. Like in a riotous bar, adding noise to noise, electronically amplified noise to the already raucous ambient noise, is part of the heady atmospherics of distraction and escapism —more and more noise that signifies less and less.

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