Monday, March 15, 2010

TWITTER WARS: OLD MEDIA VS NEW

There is a new watch dog in town. Its bark may be small but its bite is big. 140 characters can and do pack a real punch, particularly when both sides are at each other at the same time, in near real-time.

India's old media, the traditional watch dog that many believe has become the pet dog of at least some of those it is meant to watch, is under scrutiny like it has never been. Journalists, long used to writing columns in isolation or imperiously holding centre stage in studios, with those invited taking great care to not annoy them by holding a mirror, have been hit by the unforgiving Twitter gale that has rattled some of them so much that they, the loudest proponents of freedom of speech, the staunchest opponents of any code of conduct for themselves, have begun to cry that the unfettered freedom that the net provides to everyone should be restrained.

There is no doubt that, as is to be naturally expected in any genuinely free environment, there are some individuals on Twitter and the net who tend to get more than abusive or create mischief. That is a hazard that has to be accepted by those who volunteer to be on Twitter to enrich themselves by engaging in a two-way interaction with thousands of others from a wide spectrum of the society. Here they cannot herd in a carefully chosen audience or abruptly shut out or ignore those who change the terms of debate and uproot them from their comfort zones. This is not proving to be easy for some of India's leading journalists who have been rattled by strident criticism, day in and out, 24/7.

For the first time ever, not only have they become subjects of microscopic public scrutiny, but are also not in a position to hide from the whole world the unrestrained views of those who find them wanting, even dishonest. This new experience, dramatically different from the ones they face in real life, where no one wants to put his hand into their beehives, is making them mad.

The first journalist who vented his frustration was the pompous Vir Sanghvi who, in his characteristic abusive style, branded many bloggers and tweeters as "sad losers who escape their pathetic little lives by abusing other people on the net." Soon, rattled perhaps by criticism of what many believe are demeaning, obsequious pro-Family views that he tries to sell as objective analysis, he accused them of being pro-BJP while lamenting the fact that there were few pro-Congress bloggers to respond to them with equal ferocity. Sagarika Ghose, to everyone's surprise, then set Twitter on fire, not with her much practiced smile, but by vitriol of the worst kind that exposed the ugly canines behind the charming façade, the class condescension beneath the egalitarian pretence. Twitter-world had got its Queen of Hate, the queen bee who attracted swarms of bees to deliver not honey but venom of the kind she thought she alone had the right to spew from her perch as the wife of perhaps India's wealthiest and most ambitious corporate journalist.

Corporatisation of the media has created a new breed of journalists who have become immensely rich in double-quick time. The jhola wallas have become 'suitcase' wallas. Rajdeep Sardesai, for example, has already made himself worth a few hundred crore rupees legally (See pages 51/370 and 112/370). One can imagine how some others might be doing. Let us not even get into the vast ocean of paid news that had probably once prompted Kapil Sibal, if I remember correctly, to tell a journalist on TV that some of his tribe too had stashed money in Swiss banks. That is why, while they all shout that judges and politicians should declare their legally declared 'white' assets, none of them wants the same disclosure norms applied to them. Perhaps they know what that will do to their hollow claims of objectivity, impartiality and honesty, and middle class pretensions.

The new Sultans and Spouses of the media - arrogant, intolerant, patronising - are fuming because they are being questioned, interrogated, probed, exposed, by ordinary guys who they want to summarily dismiss just because they are much below their material station, but cannot. So, they are hitting back in the only manner they have been employing successfully in sanitised studios and out-of-reach news offices: put their attackers on the defensive by accusing and abusing them viciously, and showering praise on members of their own fraternity who are groveling for crumbs.

The liberal mask has been violently thrown away along with the much quoted Voltaire; they were meant to be used only to justify their own right to offend and insult. Now that they are on the receiving end, they are discovering that the bite is actually unbearable. Now had this pain led to some sort of a realisation that they need to first exercise restraint and treat people with dignity, the ongoing Twitter war would have ended. But, the arrogance of money, power and reach has seeped into their very souls. They are not going to back off just because a few unseen guys on Twitter are forcing them to look within; there are far too many known and powerful faces in the real world who are going to keep them from falling off their fake pedestals.

That is why this call for some sort of code of conduct to be imposed - they won't use the word - on those who follow them on Twitter and say what they feel and not what they get paid to vomit. I hope that does not happen. Just as readers of news papers and viewers of TV do not have to read and watch what they don't want, those on the net, including Twitter, have the same freedom. If some journalists of the old media can't take the heat, too bad; they should get off Twitter, stop browsing the net and get back into their bubbles, professional and social. The new media, growing bigger and more powerful with every passing day, will not miss them at all.

For those interested in checking out Twitter Wars themselves, a look at the tweets on the pages of the following individuals (in alphabetical order) will make for a good start:
Related reading: New media: is the Congress really a 'loser' already?