The media and public events

Published : Dec 17, 2004 00:00 IST

Television cameramen trying to photograph an associate of Abdul Karim Telgi, the prime accused in the fake stamp paper scam, when he was produced before a court in Visakhapatnam. A file picture. - K.R. DEEPAK

Television cameramen trying to photograph an associate of Abdul Karim Telgi, the prime accused in the fake stamp paper scam, when he was produced before a court in Visakhapatnam. A file picture. - K.R. DEEPAK

The media come under attack when they point to unpleasant truths. But it is undeniable that they have done a great deal to deepen people's knowledge.

THE media, both print and electronic, have been excoriated by many over their coverage of the arrest and detention of the Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. They have been accused of being unfeelingly intrusive, of being cynically indifferent to the anguish felt by thousands of Hindu households at what happened. Many have angrily accused them of turning what is a sorrowful, even traumatic event to many into a brassy media tamasha.

Perhaps, to an extent, some of the anger is merited. Television, in particular, because it is, of all the media, the most visibly intrusive, with cameras and microphones and television journalists excitedly doing pieces to camera in front of the usually quiet mutt or some other location in Kancheepuram.

But if any one organisation that has made it and continues to make it a media event, it is the Bharatiya Janata Party. Statements have been made, some leaders, including the inexplicable George Fernandes, have been to see the Sankaracharya, and there has been a fast by senior BJP leaders and others demanding his release. Interestingly, all this is happening in north India; in the south, in Tamil Nadu, particularly, apart from some histrionics from the local unit of the BJP, there has been quiet. The shock and the sorrow that thousands of devotees of the mutt feel have been intensely personal and they have kept it to themselves. The BJP, which has made a strident public issue out of it, has clearly no such feelings; if it had, it would not parade it before the media as it has. It is almost as if the pontiff was a major figure in the BJP the way it has been going on.

But is it fair to demonise the media as many, not the BJP of course, are doing? As I have said, to an extent, having been able to judge the feelings of many in the South, the media have been a little too excited and aggressive, but they hardly deserve to be made out to be the soulless unfeeling villains that some claim they are, interested in only what they consider a juicy story and nothing else. The sad fact is that at times like this, we resent their presence; at other times we eagerly seek them out and are infuriated if they do not cover an event that we want covered!

I have pointed out in this column more than once that the performing arts are sadly neglected by the media, but on one or two occasions they have done really great work. Take what All India Radio - the first of the electronic media - did to make a wider audience appreciate classical music. Thanks to the wide appeal that it now has, both in the North and in the South, the beauty and infinite layers of emotion in music that many of the better performers present are available to many, and have made the traditions stronger, as more and more singers and musicians see in these fields a means of giving to people truly great music and at the same time making it a lucrative profession for themselves.

A recent example of this is even more telling. I have had occasion to point out that theatre has been one of the most neglected of the performing arts, but not so long ago the Prithvi Theatre Festival has been covered by the media all over the country, and the festival itself has toured - the original festival was held in Mumbai and then a portion of it moved to Delhi, and may well have moved elsewhere. But it was noticed widely in the media, as has been the inauguration of Ranga Shankara, the dream theatre built by Arundhati Nag in memory of her late husband Shankar Nag. There, too, a festival was held; and that, again, was noticed in the media.

It means that many more people will have watched the plays presented; more people will have been exposed to the delights of theatre, to the heady, almost sensual process of enrichment as perceptions widen, and sensitivities sharpen. They will, in turn, bring in more people to see plays whenever they are performed, and theatre will receive a noticeable amount of the support that it very badly needs.

TELEVISION, Doordarshan in particular, has not done as good a job for dance as AIR has done for music. This is not the place to go into the reasons, but the sad fact is that it has not. And one is tempted to say that because it did not do what it could have, classical dance still languishes, lacking the wider appeal of classical music. If it is still a live tradition - which, thankfully, it still is - it is owing to the efforts of a few great exponents of the different styles of dance, and the untiring efforts of some rasikas. But every dancer will tell you that, apart from a very few at the top of their profession, most simply cannot make a decent living from what they earn from their performances. Hence, the proliferation of dance schools, which, in a rather odd fashion, become the instruments that spread the tradition of dance among young performers who are enchanted by the sheer beauty and significance in the dance they see. If only television had spread dance among people and drawn them to it, one wonders what the dance world would have then become. But half of our dreams of a better world are predicated by that phrase "if only".

The fact is that the media will inevitably report and comment on events that touch our lives, and while there are occasions when we may feel they are intrusive, they have done a great deal to deepen the knowledge and information we have of the world around us, have hemmed in the arbitrary use of power, exposed injustice, and, as I have tried to explain, have in some cases supported and widened the appreciation of the arts.

It is easy enough to say that the media should behave `responsibly'; but who defines that word? Why should that onus be cast on the media when society itself acts, or some individuals act, in a manner that calls for those acts to be known, whether it is a statement by Pervez Musharraf, the turnabout by Zahira Sheikh when the Best Bakery case is being re-tried in Mumbai, or when the Sankaracharya of Kancheepuram is detained on charges of being involved with a murder? The media are purveyors of information, not organisers of it.

True, a certain degree of organisation is involved, but not to the extent that it interferes with the truth; what has happened cannot be ignored in a society where the media is free. The truth is not always palatable, and can often be bitter and tragic. But it cannot be compromised with. Yes, there is a case for a degree of restraint which individual journals, television channels and other elements of the media that are concerned about the sensitivities in society will, and do, always exercise. But such an exercise can never be censorship.

We have seen how on some occasions the media can support what is valuable to our arts; the general feeling is that they should do even more. But what they actually do is substantial, and it will help all of us if we realise that they do it as a part of their presenting of the truth. That truth may be pleasant, or unpleasant; but it is the truth, and the media will present it as it is.

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