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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Two Tears for Barkha Dutt

The so called Barkhagate controversy raging here is a pointer to two significant truths.  The first is that the Alternative Media seems to have come of age.  It is much the more a moment of celebration for it, because it has stood up to question the powerful and established mainstream media, which has the backing of corporate houses and unlimited funds.  The second is that “Scandal”, as a "growth industry" spawned by 24/7  cable news,   now threatens to engulf the creators themselves. 

To briefly establish the context: an assorted transcript of wiretaps of conversations between journalists and a corporate PR consultant, regarding many issues, some of which now appear to have a bearing on the 2G scam, were leaked by unknown people, for unknown motives, to the leading media organizations.  Yet, barring a few exceptions, no one raised the issue.  Viewed in a certain manner, these transcripts appear to indicate an abuse of the privileged position of proximity to people in positions of power and influence that the media enjoys.  Uncharitable bloggers and tweeter birds have described them as “lobbyists”, “fixers” and “facilitators”.  Barkha Dutt of NDTV, for some reason or the other, has become the emblematic figure in the whole episode. 

The transcripts were discussed on some blogs and the trickle soon became a torrent, especially on Twitter.  It viralized to such an extent that the mainstream media, which had imposed a conspiracy of silence for so long in deference to their secret covenant of “not naming and shaming their own kind”, have been forced to fall in line, and now appear to have been themselves infected by the mood of the slugfest.  Some of the journalists whose names figure, prominent telecasters and columnists, have come out with their long explanations through their columns etc.  But it is the larger media that owes an explanation; as to why they studiously ignored it for so long and have engendered the debate only under duress, compelled by the outrage in the alternative media that itself leads to an adverse presumption of guilt against them.  Thus our concern is why the mainstream media played shy of airing an issue which was not only of great public interest, but of overarching media concern as well.  Their magisterial stance was that the public was better off not knowing it.  The censorship is the issue, not the content of the transcripts. 

One must, at the very outset, disclaim any view on the authenticity of the transcripts, or the allegations of wrong-doing.  That is a matter for detailed investigation.  But a TV channel came to the defence of its iconic but beleaguered colleague not so much with a marshalling of facts as with an admonition, a reprimand to those who had dared form their own opinion.  The channel would like to educate its viewers in the art and science of decoding meaning from a given text.  Aided and abetted by the mass media, in this post-modernist age, whatever random insight the audience can bring to bear upon the reading of a text or viewing footage is considered fair enough.  One must not submit to the criterion of authorized reading of a text. 

The fundamental requirement of the successful communication of a message, says famous semiologist and novelist Umberto Eco, “…is a code, shared by the source and addressee.  A code is an established system of probabibilities…. ” The inept, ill-informed and inquisitorial handling of serious issues related to corruption and wrong-doing in the past has established the code that allegation of wrong-doing is in itself the conclusive proof of wrong-doing.  Media has for long appropriated the job of institutions of polity charged with the responsibility of investigating matters according to a fair and codified procedure.  Now the media itself is on the wrong side and the lynch mob cannot wait to make a kill. 

Barkha Dutt, ring master of many a confrontational live wire big fight and gladiatorial duel, was in the unfamiliar role of defending herself on NDTV.  To her repeated pleas against the nebulousness of the charge and her plaintive query, “Why am I being singled out when a whole lot of other people from the media figure in the list”, Manu Joseph quipped that it was because she had a pretty face.  I don’t know if he was being facetious, but I shall attribute full seriousness and gravity to his remark. 

How long can tongue twisting South Indian names, to which no face can be attached, hold the interest of the baying voyeuristic crowd?  Better to hook a story to a well-known figure, and better still if it is a high profile woman in the public eye.  Who cares if, in the process, the eponymous Barkhagate overshadows the larger story of acquiescence, manipulation, power-broking and pervasive corruption in high places.