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Big media neglects news from outside our big cities. This makes it less and less 'national', despite its own grandiose claims to the contrary, writes Ajaz Ashraf.
The expanding footprint of the national media and its campaign style of journalism have projected India as a nation in perpetual rage. It is debatable whether this rage is national in its sweep and depth or it has such an appearance because of the media's projections of it, reflecting the priorities of those who manage it.
It is imperative to determine the reality of this rage because of the close connection between the nation and its media. It is through the media that a people spread over a vast area evolve common perceptions about the vital issues pertaining to them, thereby developing a sense of belonging to a national community. The content of the media consequently reflects the quality of conversation the nation is engaged in.
The conversation India is seemingly engaged in, as discerned from its media, is one of disenchantment and rage. Take a look at the stories which have dominated over the last few months. Corruption grabbed the headlines for well over a year, as many mounted crusades to fight this scourge. Campaign style journalism, however, reached a new apogee after the brutal rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi. The extensive media coverage of the tragic incident compelled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to deliver a speech and institute a commission to recommend changes in laws to deal with sexual offences. And even before the fury had abated, the nation found yet another reason to turn apoplectic - this time over the reprehensible action of Pakistani troops beheading one of the two soldiers killed along the Line of Control. The bristling tone of media reports saw the return of Pakistani hockey players to their country and New Delhi temporarily suspending a new visa agreement.
The three issues cited above - corruption, rape, Indo-Pak relations - share certain common features. Delhi was the proscenium on which the drama of corruption and rape unfolded. All the dramatis personae, the heroes and villains alike, belonged to Delhi or had made it the epicenter of their activities. Jammu and Kashmir is far removed from India's capital, yet it is here that occurrences across the Line of Control have been traditionally interpreted and transmitted countrywide. Is it then appropriate to describe as national the rage which has its provenance in Delhi?
Perhaps the problem stems from considering the word 'national' synonymous with Delhi. No doubt, the Union government constitutes the 'national' but it is debatable whether the term can be invoked to describe protest in the city that happens to be its seat. Since Delhi also houses most national media houses, their extensive coverage of agitations in Delhi catapults them into the national consciousness. They are subsequently analysed threadbare, in the process acquiring an altogether different salience. In the modern era, don't we all know, reality is what we see on our TV screen?
Yet it is an arduous task to measure the national importance of an issue. Perhaps in a country of a billion-plus, the turnout of crowds agitating at different places over an issue can be a barometer of the national mood. We could also quibble over what the size of the crowds ought to be. Perhaps some would want to factor in the social media. Others would say a rage is national based on the impact it could have on the voting pattern.
The media's role in determining what constitutes the national, despite its inherently contentious nature, is provoking a litany of complaints, particularly against TV news channels. Drive out of Delhi to sense the popular discontent, even anger, against the media. People here believe the media is extremely short-sighted, guilty of conflating Delhi and the metros with the national, and ignoring what they describe are the "real issues" confronting the nation. For them, the creaking infrastructure, most tragically symbolised through interminable power cuts, galloping prices, grinding poverty and rampant unemployment are issues the national media should build their relentless campaigns on. Their relative exclusion from the discourse in the national media bewilders them.
The marginalisation of the local in the national media, in some ways, mirrors the earlier failure of national political parties to respond to regional aspirations, ultimately culminating in the fracturing of the Indian polity and emergence of a clutch of regional and caste outfits. Think of the last time an incident outside India's metros prompted the national media to launch a campaign on it. Think why the stories of brutality reported from outside the metros don't shock the media into demanding justice. Think why Irom Sharmila hasn't been persuaded to call off her hunger strike even 12 years after having launched it for the abolition of the Armed Forces Special Act and Anna Hazare is within a couple of weeks of going on fast on an issue.
In other words, the media is being accused of what the Indian political class has been for decades - of neglecting the hinterland, allowing it to languish, and concentrating their energies on cities where its members reside. Media can't be called national unless it is also talking to and about people outside big cities.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist
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