Saturday, September 3, 2005

What is headline news?
Amita Malik

Amita MalikI watched in horror as our TV channels covered a building collapse in Mumbai in the middle of the night. The building had collapsed around 1 am when the inmates were asleep. And the minute it collapsed, neighbours as well as complete strangers from nearby areas chipped in to help. There was a lot of shouting and screaming as appeals of fire-fighters were ignored and the police and immediate relatives looked for survivors and their dear ones. But the well-meaning busybodies kept on hampering rescue work.

This is when the media, in search of "breaking news" and "exclusives" — two much-abused terms — also came in. You could see cameras thrust forward to get close-ups of the injured or dead people — with mutilated and partially uncovered bodies — being rushed off on stretchers to ambulances. Viewers were permitted a full view of the casualties and every bystander got a peek, while some enterprising reporters cornered weeping relatives to ask them what had happened.

Karisma Kapoor: Hounded by the media
Karisma Kapoor: Hounded by the media

I concede this is India, and everyone means well except the media that is out for firsts. But one could not help contrasting this with London on July 7. The police there had cordoned off danger areas, the people respectfully kept away from the barriers. Yes, London had rehearsed for long on how to act in an emergency and all the concerned people knew how to react. Also, as in New York 9/11, the media did not show close-ups of the injured or the dead people. Nor did London. So why do Indians, who are by and large decent people, act so badly and hamper rescue work? Why do they shout and scream and why does our media act as if we are a nation of voyeurs?

Well, it will take Indians, who are an undisciplined lot and lose their heads in an emergency, some more time to act responsibly and keep a distance when emergencies occur. It will also take time, though it should not, to have effective disaster plans in every Indian city, town and even villages — that is what the panchayats are for. But as our media claim to be educated, responsible and modern, it is time they put their act together.

As one looks back, their unseemly and ugly competition to get there first has taken the most bizarre and irresponsible turns, and I must put Zee News and Star at the top of the list. Remember Zee lining up the whole panchayat in the studios when a poor woman, pregnant by her second husband, was asked to go back to her first soldier husband, who had returned from across the border. It had been presumed by the family that the soldier had died. This confusing but strictly private issue was dragged to cruel lengths. The poor, bewildered village woman, who seemed to have no say in this highly personal matter, had microphones thrust in her face. After a time, even she rebelled. Then every train accident brings forth half-baked reporters getting in the way of officials, the police and trained rescuers. They ask silly questions and pander to the dictates of newscasters and anchors sitting comfortably in the studios.

But let us get back to our original question. What is headline news? Judging by recent events, when grave concerns like Mumbai floods, Delhi power crisis and many other national and international events were taking place, the channels were giving more space to the Dubai wedding of Dawood Ibrahim’s daughter, the marital spat between Sanjay Kapur and Karisma Kapoor. The worst were the channels, mainly Zee and Star, which used clips of the actress from her films where she was shown weeping or holding forth on filmi problems and juxtaposed them with what was happening in real life. I consider this immoral and disgusting.

Coming to the Sarabjit case, the appeals to "Unkle Mushraf" (sic) by children who must have had little understanding of what was at stake, might have contributed to the governments of the two countries taking more notice of the human aspect. But after a time, the whole coverage became so contrived and coldly competitive, that the human aspect lost its poignancy. We all take up arms when governments threaten to interfere in the freedom of expression of the Press and to a greater extent the electronic media. And we should continue to think that way. Because it is really up to the channels to become more responsible and mature and put an end to this unseemly rat race and blowing up of sheer gossip into headline news, and intruding into disasters and personal lives. The case of Govinda’s family being chased into even the ICU after their accident is another case in point. This shows that media treats decent citizens, who are the majority of its viewers, as if they are a nation of voyeurs. Enough is enough.