Desensitising society

Free airwaves, far from being the harbingers of the sound of music, are sounding more and more raucous, and jarring. The recent handling of the case of a Bollywood actor who is accused of raping a person working as a maid in his house is a case in point.

Recently the Radio Jockey (RJ), a popular private FM channel, punned on words like “made”, as in “made it” and “maid” and his insensitivity was galling. He was using the language without knowing it, and in the process was, besides trivialising a serious crime, also contributing to further desensitising a society that in any case is benumbed to an alarming level.

Indians lived in a sanitised world of All India Radio until 1993 when the government sold airtime blocks on AIR’s FM channels in a few cities. All the content thus broadcast had to be submitted to AIR and there were restrictions that included not encouraging the use of tobacco or alcoholic drinks as well as not inciting any ill-will among communities.

When the government auctioned 108 FM frequencies across India in 2000, many private players entered the market. There is no separate regulatory authority for FM stations and the Association of Radio Operators of India (AROI) has formed an advisory committee for the creation of a self-regulatory content code for private FM radio broadcasting.

Television's first U.S. broadcast - 1956 film
Image by bobster855 via Flickr

At times the free-rolling tongue of RJs has landed them and their stations in trouble. Red FM RJ’s ill-advised comments about the Gurkhas in 2007 resulted in street violence as far away as in Darjeeling.

RJs would rightly protest that they should not be singled out and VJs, their counterparts on television, should also share the spotlight on this issue. Well, anyone who has seen shows like Roadies and Splitsvilla, where the young participants compete by wearing skimpiest of clothes and use abusive language, in an environment laced with sexual innuendos, knows what unbridled TV is capable of.

While these are the prominent shows, there are many others, in many languages, that twist the notion of reality TV to unreal and often debasing extent. Those who listen to the radio will find echoes in various programmes that encourage dating, or “setting” as in setting up a date. Again the appeal is to the lowest common denominator among the listeners.

What was shocking only a little while ago is no longer so. As we sit in front of the idiot box, that memorable phrase which dates back to the time when television was first introduced in India—1959. We are so willing to watch and absorb anything that comes on TV that our natural instincts towards decency and values are given a short shrift.

TV stations chasing news also show an amazing lack of propriety. It was in evidence when a Delhi schoolgirl, Arushi, was found murdered at her home in Noida in May this year. The way in which TV channels “recreated” the crime was disturbing…and worrying.

Allegations flew in various directions, and it became a Whodunit tamasha, in which scraps of often unverified information were put on air with minimal, if any, verification, bit players and bystanders were given the centre stage—if you turned on the news channel for knowledge or sober reflection, you were tuned in at the wrong place.

Where is our sensitivity towards the victims, and indeed towards viewers? Following the live images of the terrorist attack in Mumbai that showed— gun shots, bomb blasts, raging fires and charred bodies, there were reports of serious mental trauma among kids. One report, in fact, maintained that there was a 25 per cent increase in the number of cases of children suffering from anxiety and insomnia.

Parents have little idea of how much television is safe. The coverage of the event by television channels came in for much criticism and renewed the demand for more control, and even regulation to instil a sense of responsibility among the TV channels.

While the print media is answerable to the Press Council of India, there is no such body for TV channels. The News Broadcasters Association, comprising 12 TV companies that run 25 news channels, is still working out a self-control mechanism, including a Code of Ethics and a Disputes Redressal Authority to entertain and decide on complaints regarding any news broadcast.

Prominent members of the NBA are TV Today Network Ltd., NDTV Limited, Times Global Broadcasting Company Ltd., TV18 Group, Global Broadcast News Limited, Media Content & Communication Services Pvt. Ltd., Independent News Service Pvt. Ltd. and Zee News Ltd.

While some sting operations have shown a clear intent towards public interest, the concept went out of hand and in 2007 there were two particularly notorious cases that came in for strong criticism. A fabricated story of a Delhi schoolteacher who was alleged to be a Madam was exposed as a fraud, but only after the teacher had been victimised and violence had erupted on the streets of Delhi.

In another case, the Supreme Court directed the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to restrain all television news channels from telecasting purported nude photographs of a Bollywood actress, allegedly shot in bathroom when she was detained in Bhopal jail.

These instances brought about strong condemnation from all quarters, and violated the NBA’s Code of Ethics, which lays down that sting operations must have an “identifiable public interest”, must be used “as a last resort” and must not use illegal methods, like sex and sleaze to get the information.

The pressures of competition are indeed great. 24X7 news channels are ever-hungry beasts and all are fighting to increase their TRPs (television rating points). It should not come at the cost of trivialising news—a major English news channel ran the following breaking news ticker: “Former maid says current maid in love with Shiny Ahuja”. Really, that’s “breaking news” now!

During the recent violence in Jalandhar, a news channel continually showed a visual of a truck burning on a street, and another of a clash between the police and the protesters. The looped visual, and statements from bit players or lumpen elements in the agitation, made one wonder if trouble was being “fanned” rather than being reported.

While no one wants the “members of one community clashed with the members of another community” kind of journalism, surely some restraint needs to be exercised by reporters and anchors, more so because the public at large takes its clues from them.

The private broadcasters need to get their act together, and fast, otherwise political interference, indeed even censorship in some form, can’t be ruled out. Those who have the power to shape perceptions in society would do well to keep in mind Aristotle’s principle of the Golden Mean, the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. There is, often only a delicate line that delineates the differences—but it is there and it should not be blurred.

The article by Roopinder Singh was published in The Tribune on June 23, 2009