Die and do
BJP leader Gopinath Munde's death on a lean news day led to television channels launching a relentless hagiographic coverage of his life. Varuna Verma examines how dying at the right time can transform a person's after-death image
After life: Munde's funeral
In academic parlance, it's called the "museum effect" — a situation where everything is turned into a spectacle. It was a bit like that when central minister Gopinath Munde was killed in a car crash earlier this week. A lean day for news — just as ennui was setting in after the collective media euphoria over the formation of a new government at the Centre — Munde's death was the sole news for hours.
Death is almost always mourned, but some — on television, at least — are mourned more than others. Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh died the day after terror was unleashed in Mumbai — a reason why he hardly figured in the news. On the day after Mother Teresa breathed her last, Princess Diana's grand funeral was being aired live — and the latter hogged the airwaves. Television and newspapers were so full of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray's death that the meagre coverage given to former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral on his demise some days later looked pathetic in comparison.
Munde's death, unlike that of two former prime ministers, was the subject of 24x7 television. And in death, he was transformed into an idol.
Indeed, it is the "museum effect" at work. "The discourse around news has become bigger than the news," says Ruchi Jaggi, assistant professor, Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune.
Few found it important to remember that just three years ago, Munde was contemplating leaving the Bharatiya Janata Party. Every worker knew about his differences with then party president, Nitin Gadkari. There were rumours that he would join the Congress — which he denied in an interview to The Telegraph.
Anchors and journalists did not recall that Munde — nor did they remember that the politician was not greatly known for political acumen or policy. There was no mention of the man who once openly said that he would kick Sharad Pawar in the face.
"Why is it surprising that Munde was given 24x7 hagiographic coverage," asks a senior Mumbai-based print editor. "Contemporary media have by and large fallen into the trap of the 'sound bite spectacle coverage model' practised by TV channels. There is no attempt at an objective evaluation of a person's legacy or rise. It happens with every leader, more when their stars are in the ascendant."
Media watcher Sevanti Ninan stresses that television is all about instant reporting. "There is no room for evaluation of an event because the event is not 'news' beyond the first or second day," she points out. "We have no journalistic tradition of objective obituary writing. And the problem with television is that there are young enthusiastic anchors who have no idea of history."
To top it, with the rise of militant politics, there is always the concern that judging a person dispassionately after his or her death could lead to outrage, or even physical violence. "Even slight criticism may invite the wrath of party workers or mobs," Ninan, who edits a media site called The Hoot, points out.
Whatever the reason, the odes to Munde's were grossly one-sided. The real Munde — forthright and rude, yet generous and colourful — did not emerge out of the studio discussions.
Sociologist Ramchandra Guha believes this is the outcome of the media's growing fixation with politics. "The approach to news has become completely politics-centred," he says. When Kannada poet Shivarama Karanth died in 1997, Guha recalls reading a one-column news snippet in a Bangalore daily. "That too was about the state chief minister condoling the death," he adds.
But it's not always politicians the media sing paeans to. Narendra Nayak, president, Federation of Indian Rationalists Association, recalls astrologer-mathematician Shakuntala Devi's death April 2013. Reams were written on her mathematical skills. But what surprised Nayak was that no one mentioned the thriving career she made as an astrologer.
"She claimed she could read the future. There were reports that she saw up to 60 clients a day in hotel suites around the world and charged exorbitant fees," he says. "This side of Devi was whitewashed in the obituaries."
Bangalore-based sociologist G.K. Karanth recalls the day Kannada actor Rajkumar died. It started with a sombre crowd gathering outside his residence. "But as news reporters and OB vans descended, people started throwing stones and raising slogans to grab the camera's attention, leading to an almost curfew-like situation across the city" says Karanth. "News was created for the benefit of the media," he holds.
"Sensation sells. More people are more interested in the latest crime than they are in the development of a new form of energy," says Jaggi, who conducted a survey in Delhi on what viewers thought of sensationalism for a paper she wrote in 2009. "A majority said they enjoyed the drama," she recalls.
Senior journalist Kumar Ketkar recalls that the "same incessant coverage" was given to the Congress's Vilasrao Deshmukh when he died. "Electronic media goes overboard on everything today. It is part of the entertainment circus. They blow up inconsequential things. Like Raj Thackeray going to visit his cousin, Uddhav, after he had an angioplasty."
Jaggi believes that news is also being blown out of proportion because of a growing demand for it. "TV channels have to deliver news every minute — and it should not be stale."
But then, as some argue, news has to be sold. Shashwati Goswami, associate professor, Indian Institute of Mass Communications (IIMC), Delhi, believes it is in the nature of the business to up the pitch while telling a story. It's like a toothpaste advertisement saying the product will give you sparkling, white teeth. "The media blows things up similarly," Goswami says.
What worries the IIMC professor is the media policy vacuum in India. "The news that most media houses take up is not dictated by any policy, it's mostly a knee-jerk reaction to situations. So there's no vision for growth," she says.
But does the trend have wider implications? One of democracy's main arms, after all, is free and responsible media. "In a country, the press is free when it can criticise the government. And the free media should not spare the dead either," says Partha S. Ghosh, senior fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
What is unhealthy for democracy, adds Ketkar, is that there are issues that are completely ignored by the media. "The question to be asked is why these serious issues are not covered," he asks.
The problem with much of the electronic media, Ghosh adds, is that they want to create instant history. "Only the 'present' appeals to them — they are not too keen on the past. That's why they lack perspective." And it was perspective, many say, that was lacking in the Munde coverage.
Munde was an orator, and one of the few BJP leaders in Maharashtra with a mass base. At the same time, he was also seen largely as a politician who was still to leave a mark.
"This is a south Asian mentality — of not speaking ill of the dead. We avoid doing it even in family or social circles. And television channels do not want to take the risk of doing anything different from others," Ghosh sums up.
When the media went overboard
Bal Thackeray's death stopped the clock
Princess Diana's funeral loomed large over Mother Teresa's death reportage
V.P. Singh's death overshadowed by Mumbai terror attacks
Shakuntala Devi's homage one-sided
Coverage of Rajkumar's death brings Bangalore to a halt