Sunday, January 9, 2011

MEDIA, AUCTIONS AND AAM ADMI

Who was on auction yesterday and is even today? Yes, everyone knows that cricket players are being bid for and bought by owners of various IPL teams. Exciting? Sure, to some. Glamorous? You bet. Do the proceedings spread over two days merit being screened live? Arguably yes, on sports channels. On national news channels? Are you crazy?

You and I may not be crazy, but some owners of India’s 'free' media think we are. That’s why they have decided that a nation of 1.2 billion people grappling with innumerable problems, wants to see nothing but the entire proceedings, live on, yes, news channels and regional channels too.

Is there any such precedent anywhere else in the world other than in a failed banana republic, even there? I cannot imagine. Why, then, is India being subjected to this blitz by media barons?

On Jan 07, Rajdeep Sardesai, part-owner and part-editor-in-chief of CNN IBN, tweeted: “while aam admi worries about price of onions, franchisees will worry about the price of players. yeh hai india.” Touching sentiments. The same gentleman had, however, a minute earlier tweeted: "tomorrow morning, IPL 4 auction. dont miss our coverage 10 am onwards with harsha bhogle and sanjay manjrekar, should be fun.” Many on Twitter spotted the emotional disconnect, the hypocrisy, and there was a barrage of tweets highlighting the same. On Jan 08, he replied to one: “@alok10823 everyone loves a good auction, esp when cricketers are on sale, including the aam admi.” If Sardesai is to be believed, he is loving it today too.

The aam admi, as you can easily infer, has become some kind of a joke. Earlier only politicians used to claim to speak on his behalf even as they lining their pockets with money meant for him. Now the media is doing the same. Politicians have to speak of and for him because they need his vote once in a few years. Media needs no votes but cannot do without him too primarily because it has unilaterally appropriated the right to question politicians and everyone else, on his behalf. For both he is the real sovereign. However, the media is completely unaccountable to him and, therefore, has no interest in him save the revenue he generates by watching himself being made the invisible star every evening in someone else’s voice and of someone else’s agenda.

Rajdeep Sardesai the businessman understands what a terrific tool this media-created aam admi is. Even a chameleon can’t do what he can be made to. That is why Sardesai can in one breath make him look worried about onion prices and in the next project him as someone who loves watching, for two full days, ‘news’ showing cricketers being sold. The real aam admi may forget his onions, media owners never forget theirs.

The question that is begging to be asked, but never will be on any TV channel, is: why are news channels run this tamasha, suspending everything else in time and space?

News channels are not entertainment channels for running shows that people love; nor are they sports channels, otherwise they would telecast revenue-jackpot 20:20 matches live. Then why? The entire IPL auction drams, as I understand, is nothing more than one big non-stop advertisement whose sole objective is to increase consumer awareness of the IPL brand so as to maximise spectator and viewer participation in the upcoming tournament. Since it is not a live cricket match, playing it live on the one authorised sports channel that will telecast the tournament, will not get its promoters and owners the number of eyeballs they want to attract. Viewers across India can, however, be carpet-bombed and mind-numbed into making IPL a bumper success if news and regional channels carry it live.

A two-day running advertisement for India’s most successful sports brand is a mouth-wateringly lucrative business proposition. An independent news editor concerned about core values and principles of journalism will, as per my understanding, not be a party such blatant prostitution of a news channel. An owner, possibly lubricated even more by additional ‘personal’ payments/inducements under the table, will, on the other hand, hasten to summon the non-existent aam aadmi, like Sardesai has done, to justify the decision, to hell with ethics, to hell with the real aam aadmi.

Now this is not an isolated aberration. This is one more recent example that I must briefly dwell upon to highlight the fact that media has become slave to pecuniary interests of owners in a tearing hurry to become billionaires, whatever it takes. Yes, Radia tapes also tell us much about the deep rot and the quid pro quos, but this is not the time to discuss them.

Post Radia, there’s been much debate about the alarming manner in which lobbyists have infiltrated and corrupted the media and the government. Sardesai, one of ‘Radias’ still not singed due to lack of 'clinching' evidence of quid pro quo, cleverly used his position as editor-in-chief to host a program on the channel he owns, to lobby for legalizing lobbying. An alert netizen caught him in the act. Sardesai -- difficult to swallow -- actually went to the extent of creating false Twitter accounts to deceive viewers – and policy makers too -- into believing that public opinion was in favour of lobbying. When caught, he and Sagarika Ghose, his wife, tried to get away by fibbing that the comments were genuine but were wrongly attributed to Twitter. To their bad luck and surprise, alert netizens dug deeper and discovered that lie too. The faking was wilful. Full details, available on dalalmedia posterous will shock you. CNN IBN was finally forced to tender an apology. And the furore subsided. It should not have.

The cleverly-worded apology was not a call of conscience; it was given out of sheer compulsion, to plug further damage. Sardesai had simply no choice, the documentary evidence, like in the Adarsh society case, was clear and damning; there was no escape route available. It was TINA that got Sardesai to cut his losses and pour ganga jal over the crime he had deliberately committed with all his faculties in fine fettle.

The question that was not asked loudly enough then was: what was Sardesai’s motivation to go to the extent of faking public opinion in favour of lobbying? That there had to be a strong personal stake in, firstly, asking such a question at such an inopportune moment and, secondly, taking the risk of falsifying tweets, was clear as day light. But, no one else, including in the media, probed any further. No one asked him why he instructed his staff to create false tweets; his staff was also not asked what exactly they were told by him. Who knows what else would have spilled out after the questioning had started? There is little doubt in my mind that an honest follow up would have opened the eyes of the whole country to the fact that the then President of the Editor’s Guild is a corrupt man who can go to any extent to push his personal business interests on the platform of his channel. The journalist in him, there is little doubt, has been all but killed by the businessman he has chosen to become.

You can close your eyes and bet that this was not the first such case. Before Radia, no one suspected the integrity of these guys and no one bothered to check. Now every little twitch is viewed with suspicion, and that is why Sardesai was caught. He will be much more careful in future, but remains otherwise unfazed. That is why on being questioned about telecasting the IPL auction live he has summarily informed us that 'his' aam aadmi, who is no one other than him, wants it. You and I can take a walk, and can keep walking.

Know and never forget that rich Radia media owners are in the game only for the bucks. And they won’t let you, even India, stop them. That's why they are not at all concerned that they and the journalists they employ have been exposed as a class and that trust has been lost. It does not trouble them that the quid pro quo is now visible even to the blind, that though the evidence may or may not stand scrutiny in a court of law, in the court of public opinion it is more than enough.

So the next time you switch on a news channel and hear an anchor passionately asking a question on behalf of the aam admi, be very wary. Always try to imagine what might have gone on behind the scenes, and what the unspoken agenda is, personal, political, pecuniary. Someone, something is being 'auctioned' behind the scenes all the time. Radia may have not have been the TINA that India had hoped it would be. But if you and I are alert, and the few men and women of unimpeachable integrity in the bordello can muster enough courage, it is only a question of time before the sticky garbage is shoveled out.
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