Editorial/Damned by excellence
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Letters to the Editor

When corruption is the common factor, it may be asked how sportsmen are so different from politicians. The popular disillusion and bitterness that Mr Manoj Prabhakar’s tapes have generated are never in evidence when politicians of various hues and stature are revealed to be corrupt. In a different world, the collective passion behind the demonstrations and demands for the removal of Kapil Dev, Mohammed Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja could have been channelled into protests against unscrupulous politicians. But Indians have accepted the fact that the political world is murky, and nothing about anybody in it can be disillusioning. As a matter of fact, popular opinion in this sphere takes off after taking corruption for granted. Witness the triumphant comeback of Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav, after being sent to jail for one of the biggest scandals in the country. There are standards other than dishonesty by which a popular leader and politician will be judged. At a different level, a similar phenomenon was evident during the saga of Mr Bill Clinton and Ms Monica Lewinsky. Whatever the establishment might have thought about abuse of power, public opinion won the day. Cupidity or sexual appetite could be ignored, because, evidently, Mr Yadav and Mr Clinton could satisfy to some extent the particular expectations people had of them.

Perhaps herein lies the nub. Every sphere of activity produces icons, and certain values pertaining to that field adhere to them in popular perception. Kapil Dev is a great cricketer and cricket is the Indians’ favourite game. There is a conjunction of values here. The game epitomizes the fair play expected of all sports, and within that sphere Kapil Dev is a hero. That he should move a huge section of the nation by a painful exhibition of tears when questioned about his role in matchfixing and then turn out to be a possible kingpin in the dirtiest game of fooling his adoring public is not a betrayal of ordinary sorts. Hansie Cronje’s confessions were upsetting enough. Worse, Mr Prabhakar’s tapes suggest that the many of the most admired cricketers could be involved or were actually in the know. For devoted followers of the game, it is a world come crashing down. Ironically, what has been revealed to the public so far would not constitute damning evidence in court. It is a case like the Bofors episode, where public belief is the only conviction.

The divergence of public opinion from the actual or potential legal verdict is not new. Falls from grace in popular perception do affect the lives of celebrities to some extent and for some time — witness the low that Michael Jackson or Woody Allen went through immediately after charges of paederasty and quasi-incest respectively. There too it was question of the violation of very specific expectations: neither singers nor film personalities are expected to be sexually austere. But the question is not really one of public disillusion alone. What is being witnessed now is the growing power of the popular court in an age of expanding media reach and information technology. In effect it is a revival of the old shame culture. Even the central vigilance commissioner, Mr N. Vittal, is, knowingly or unknowingly, making use of it, by posting the names of allegedly corrupt civil sevice officers on the internet.

But this is still not enough. The guilty cannot be punished without a court verdict. And this is a country which has one of the lowest rates of conviction. The matchfixers among the players know that. Perhaps their endorsements and their public appearances may wane for a while, but nothing will change unless the court says so. Besides, the players are part of a much bigger network, and unless the investigators and the police catch the movers, very little will be legally established. For a truly corrupt person, a fall from public grace may not really matter — yet.    

Open a newspaper or watch a television news bulletin, and they are replete with stories of matchfixing; how cricket matches were deliberately lost so that bookies and some unscrupulous players could make fat amounts of money. There are pictures of Kapil Dev crying, of Kapil Dev shouting, declarations by Manoj Prabhakar that Kapil was the man, statements by I.S. Bindra, counter-statements by Jagmohan Dalmiya, and, of course, columns by the wise men of cricket analysing what all this is about, other wise men appearing in TV news bulletins or in panel discussions making fine points about the business, bringing to our notice what we, ignorant as we are, would otherwise have missed. All very appropriate, very necessary.

A tribute to the dynamic, keen, functioning of media, of journalists who are “driven”, as one news czar likes to think his news staff are; all reporting, commenting on, analysing this one story, day after day, in bulletin after bulletin.

This, of course, is what the 21st century is all about; information, information and more information. A man came to see me once when I was director general, Doordarshan with a rather novel idea; he wanted to do a series on events in Indian history as it would have been reported on TV, with sleek news presenters telling viewers in 1757 very pleasantly that a battle was raging near a village called Palashi, now known to the world as Plassey, with the English forces facing the army of the nawab of Murshidabad, and then would follow video footage of an interview with an enigmatic Mir Jafar before the camera cut back to the sleek news presenter.

It was a novel idea; in fact, the man had done a series like that for some United States channel. Unfortunately, it was clearly far too expensive for us to contemplate. But as he was explaining the idea, it struck me how different history would have been if, in fact, the battle of Plassey had been reported as widely on TV and in newspapers as a modern conflict is today. Would Mir Jafar have been able to do his betrayal act so brazenly? What would have happened if the events of 1857 had been covered by TV, and reported every day in newspapers to millions of people?

Of course, we make an almost instinctive assumption that the media are purveyors of truth, that reporters tell us what is actually going on. The fact that this assumption is made by a very large number of people is what keeps newspapers and TV news channels going. And that is where, in actual fact, a dark, almost frightening aspect of the business of reporting the news rears its head, rising as grimly before us as the great mountain rose up before the terrified young William Wordsworth as he rowed across Lake Windermere.

A story is reported, and reported and reported. Until one knows it all; until one is sick with the manic churning out of report after report even when there is nothing left to tell. Some time ago it was the murder of a young woman; yesterday it was the drought; today it is matchfixing; and tomorrow it will be something else. And, always, there is the near manic search for some “angle”, something which will reveal a dirty side to things. If it is a murder, then some instance — or, as is more usual — many instances of the failure of the police to act; if it is the drought it is an angle of how the authorities were indifferent to it or pretended it was not a drought at all; and if it is matchfixing, then who said who took how much money, how many crores Mohammed Azharuddin has, or Kapil Dev has, and so on. “Angles” are what the news editors want, and the reporters in the field scamper about for angles, for that scoop, that sensational revelation.

Do the managers of the news media really care that too much is being made of one particular event? Not likely. They, too, are driven — to quote, once again, that much respected czar of news dispensation, but not in the sense the czar meant. They need to ensure that they keep one jump ahead of the competition, such as it is; to keep more viewers, more readers, not because of some urge to inform as many as possible, but to pull in as much advertising as possible. Over the reasons why Doordarshan keeps repeating or expanding on a particular event we will discreetly draw a veil; not only because it might embarrass some Important People, but also because it would take up too much time, the reasons being more complex than a normal person might think.

And all of this is, of course, meat and drink to our wise analysts and commentators in newspapers, journals and on TV. Nothing is more interesting than the regular flagellation of the social conscience of people at large; the keen observation of our several shortcomings make good copy and come across well on the small screen. No country writes and talks more about its own failings, as India does, of its corruption, its laziness, its callousness, its cruelty and the breathtaking number of other unspeakable evils that it has, as a country, been born with.

And if, as a consequence, there is a collective sense of inadequacy, a draining away of the confidence of society in itself, does it really matter? The hysteria which erupts when some pretty woman is named Miss Universe or Miss Milky Way, is immediately met with stern reproof and wise thoughtful analyses of such events, so the celebrants are packed off, muttering to their choley bhaturey and vadas, sheepishly but only vaguely aware of the foolishness of their jubilation. Flagellation is all.

There is also another angle; the angle that is a little more devious than would appear at first sight. An example would be the stories reported every so often on social evils in a particular state, like Andhra Pradesh. Children are being sold, especially girl children; drought is bringing in destitution and ruin to thousands. All painfully true, but which is that state in this country where such evils do not exist? There are such and even worse evils just outside one’s door, perhaps even within it. So why Andhra Pradesh, a state where one of our better chief ministers is at least trying to better conditions? A question of angles, naturally.

One is not extolling the virtues of “positive” reporting or anything so silly. One is merely pointing to the angles that stories can have, and also to the ease with which an angle can become what some journalists call spin, the tarting up of a story to give it some masala, draw more readers, more viewers.

One is also not talking of that other foolishness, the duty of the media. The duty of the media is no more and no less than that all of us have; to do what one is being paid to do. The traumas of society are not their concern, whatever they may say.

The onus is really, and finally, on the reader, on the viewer. It is for them as individuals to judge, to realize the great virtue of skipping a page, or a story, and of switching channels.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting    


South Pacific bogey

Sir — “Blame it on the church” is obviously the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s credo. No matter that it makes a laughing stock of itself in the process. Why was the Fijian prime minister of Indian origin deposed? Due to the villainy of the church, of course (“Sangh raps church for island coup”, June 1). The RSS’s spurious Hindu-centric readings of Indian history are bad enough without it trying to reinterpret Fijian history in the same light. The RSS is wrong to presume it can comment on the affairs of Fiji because Mahendra Chaudhry is of Indian origin. The ethnic divide on the island has its origins in colonialism, differences over land ownership and the aloofness of Indians themselves.

Yours faithfully,
Fatima Sheikh, Calcutta

Gang of four

Sir — V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral — the gang of four men who became prime ministers by fluke — are seeking attention by talking about the “weaker sections” and slum dwellers (“VP steps up slave-slum drive” May 22). They have suddenly discovered backwardness in their retirement. They talk constantly about the lapses of the Bharatiya Janata Party led government at the Centre. Don’t they realize what a joke their statements and actions have become?

Some of these people owe millions of rupees to the government for using state property or using state facilities for private purposes (“Party drops bill-bomb on jetset Gowda,” May 23). They scarcely realize they have misappropriated people’s funds. That they indulge in these cheap gimmicks to keep alive their dying political careers only underlines their mediocrity. Indians should treat them with indifference, if not contempt.

Yours faithfully,
M. Nagender Goud, Hyderabad

Sir — The four ex-prime ministers are spent forces who seem to be on the lookout for a new job. They would be doing themselves a favour if they decide to exit gracefully. Yet they are trying to create a third force, and that too with a leader like Jyoti Basu who has almost finished off West Bengal. Isn’t it time the people of India sent these men into oblivion?

Yours faithfully,
N.S. Dua, Calcutta

Sir — India should be thankful it still has a posse of former prime ministers as a sounding board for a new breed of men who haven’t proved themselves any better than the rest. The four of them might be creating trouble, but the diversion is welcome.

Yours faithfully,
G. Singhania, Calcutta

Short and sullied

Sir — As a former pupil, I protest the abbreviated use of the name of my school, La Martiniere for Girls in the “Metro” section (“Roof accident fails to daunt La Marts topper”, May 25). This corrupted version of the name is prevalent among less educated people who have no inkling of its French origin. Would the writer, Sumit Das Gupta, call St Xavier’s Xav’s or the Presidency College as Presy in the headline, although these are the informal names of these institutions?

Of late, there have been articles on the Northeast in the “Weekend retreat” section. This is inappropriate when you consider it takes more than a weekend to just travel to many of these places like Arunachal Pradesh. Drop the word “weekend” from the column if places and ideas are proving so hard to come by.

Yours faithfully,
Sharmila Bose, Calcutta

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