Kushwant Singh’s surgery to create a cross between Play Boy and Pent House out of the staid Illustrated Weekly of India hastened the magazine’s endgame to use Mukul Sharma’s pun. Sharma was one of those who was trying to nurse the magazine back to life during its dying days. He ran a brilliant column called Mindsport – MS for short again punning his own initials. He called one of the items in MS, ‘Managrams’ in which readers were asked to describe a celebrity in witty ‘shorthand’. For example one reader described Sridevi as “Winker, wailer, boulder thigh” recalling the film star’s debut with huge hoardings showing her lavish thighs. Those were also the days when Bofors’ made headline news and triggered creative juices in the English novelist Geoffrey Archer, who included the story with thin camouflage in his anthology of stories, A Twist in the Tale. To cut a long story short, a participant in MS’ Managrams reveled in his creativity by describing the pilot turned Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi thus: “Sonia Mania flying high; drawbacks kickbacks plenty why?”
V.P. Singh India’s homegrown Machiavelli used the issue to usurp the throne; Rajiv was never able to deflect the ‘needle of suspicion’ even after ‘meeting his maker’ and the story did not die. It continues to unwind and recur at regular intervals like a soap opera. “The more things change; the more they remain the same” is not just a cliché of the Indian media – it is by it, for it and of it. It aptly describes it.
Indira ended her disruption of Indian democracy between 1975-77 mainly bowing to pressure from the western media. During the draconian ‘emergency’ with a few honorable exceptions India’s print media joined her sycophantic party in genuflecting before her. The only electronic media that existed then, All India Radio, was in any case government controlled and was nicknamed ‘All Indira Radio’. An opposition leader who was Indira’s guest for 19 months in one of her majesty’s correction centers tersely commented that during the emergency many journalists crawled when merely asked to bend.
The advent of the electronic media and 24-hour news channels changed much of that. The media of 2007 is much freer and bolder, brought many errant politicians to heel and many criminals to book. On the flip side Indian media often demonstrates its penchant for trivia at the cost of ignoring events of national interest. It made no mention of the recent case of a major of the Indian army, Manish Pitambare laying down his life in an operation against one of the most wanted terrorists, Sohel Faisal. It was left to the BBC to inform us about the major’s sacrifice for his motherland, making the world a wee bit more safe by slaying another demon. On the other hand Sanjay Dutt’s bail plea got saturation coverage. Indian media’s obsession with celebreties was again to the fore when it went ‘ga-ga’ over an expatriate film-maker acquiring a second hand clebrity wife.
‘Sting operations’ replaced ‘scoops’, which the print media of a bygone era boasted of. News channels feature them with the same regularity as the vernacular channels telecast ‘soap operas’. These ‘sting operations’ could be about anything ranging from ‘casting-couch’ episodes to ‘graft’ by government officials. Going by the rate at which the vernacular channels catch officialdom with their ‘pants down’, in a competitive bid to outdo each other, the nation should be rid of ‘graft’ soon or the channels will run out of officials. The situation recalls the gag about ‘multi-level marketing’ schemes: one customer sells to five friends; these five in turn sell to twenty-five and so on. As the scheme is continuously extrapolated, the first seller runs out of friends and the company runs out of customers – they outnumber the population of the earth, men, women and children included!
The second gulf war, which Uncle Sam fought to discipline a disrespectful ally introduced a new phenomenon – the ‘embedded journalists’. The uninitiated might think that the male ‘embedded journalists’ bedded female soldiers and the female ‘embedded journalists’ bedded the male soldiers. But no, the expression merely means that the journalists attach themselves to fighting units and report about the war from the ‘front’.
The opposition leader mentioned earlier might have made a pithy comment with respect to the media of the time but he did not have a crystal ball and could not gaze into the future. The new millennium saw the emergence of ‘embedded journalists’ attached to – or should we say embedded in – political parties. They made some national political magazines appear like party organs. Being more loyal than the ‘queen’, they use every opportunity to decimate her majesty’s opposition, even to the extent of portraying familial calamities of opposition leaders as monumental scams. Media persons, who feel larger than life when they interact with others, bow and scrape when they interview her majesty, the dowager Italian ‘queen’ of India. If this happens sixty years after we were freed, when our young media persons were not even born, it must be attributed to embedded genes that are hung over from an earlier colonial era.
During the Falklands war the British public was reported to have been miffed about BBC’s obsession with objectivity as being against national interests. Indian public does not seem to have noticed this gem from a senior journalist describing a border skirmish between India and Pakistan, as ‘the Indians lighting up the border on the eve of Collin Powell’s visit.’ Sometime later, the newspaper excerpted a book – without editorial comments. The excerpt says that 200,000 Muslims were killed during the liberation of Hyderabad whereas the truth is that the Nizam surrendered with not a shot being fired in the Indian police action. Or the newspaper’s attempts to portray that the Mumbai and Malegaon blasts of 2006 were perpetrated by Hindu organizations. For a columnist of the newspaper, Mr. Narendra Modi is the ‘ugly’ Indian but Parvez Musharaff is not an ‘ugly’ Pakistani.
Then there are senior journalists who make their bread by writing graffiti in elegant prose.
To return to Sonia Mania the story of Sonia representing India at the UN commemoration of Mahatma Gandhi drew loud protests in New York. Times Now the joint venture of the Times of India and Reuters made a passing mention of the protests but the rest of the Indian media largely remained mute. The contrast of the Indian media going to town with the US’ denial of a VISA to Mr. Narendra Modi is stark and reflects its objectivity. According to Times Now these organizations spent US$ 65,000 to place a full-page advertisement in New York Times, to explain the reasons for their protest.