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Sridevi is dead, and so is the self-regulation promise of Indian media

Outrage is not enough; it has to be understood and dealt with, and to some extent, accepted as an inevitable part of a quarter-baked media in a half-baked democracy.

Madhavan Narayanan 

Photo: PTI

Media channels have been condemned for their 'ghastly'coverage of the death of Bollywood superstar as the nation continues to mourn her passing. Television channels have covered the 54-year-old actress' death relentlessly since she passed away unexpectedly Saturday night in Dubai. This author decodes the "third degree" journalism in India given the TV channels' tendency to behave like power-drunk interrogators.

It is time to face a simple truth after the outrage over Indian media coverage of the death of Bollywood's first female superstar, Sridevi: that outrage is not enough; it has to be understood and dealt with, and to some extent, accepted as an inevitable part of a quarter-baked media in a half-baked democracy.

In case you have not watched the prurient TV channels that made a macabre masquerade out of a solemn event (I confess even I did not watch much), the news in brief, elaborately tracked on the Web is this: they conjectured that the death was more than unnatural, hinted towards crimes and/or misdismeanours, and created scenarios and digital constructions that included a wine glass near a bathtub, a reporter crouching inside a bathtub, and detailed forensic measurements that would have been better off in a fictional channel specialising in crime.

But there are those who are outraged by the outrage over the media coverage, which has resulted in predictable and understandable articles that deride the fall of balance, ethics and responsibility in journalism. It is necessary to look beyond this outrage, at least to focus on the belief of the channels and their viewers who think they were indeed doing the right thing in "investigating" the death by drowning in a bathtub in a Dubai hotel.

Typically, stories have three angles that editors would like to highlight: one is the news of the death itself, second is the manner of the death, and the third would be on obituary references, which in the case of achievers like are phenomenal. Ideally, the news of the death would be reported in solemn tones, obituary references in laudatory tones and the manner of death in proportion to the detail.

It is in the last that TV channels have triggered outrage, as they virtually abandoned the first two angles and used recent events like her dancing in a wedding the previous week and her cinematic persona to create a construction that smacks of what they call yellow journalism. We could call it "third degree" journalism, given the channels' tendency to behave like power-drunk interrogators.

Here is the problem: in the eyes of those who did it, obviously with television rating points (TRPs) in mind, what they were doing is an investigative journalism of sorts, given its forensic trappings. However, a culturally forensic look at this forensic journalism reveals a bias for presumption of some crime, a bias towards judging the morality of a woman who may have sipped alcohol, and a bias towards examining choices including marriage to a previously married man, a plastic surgery or eating habits.

Gossip is not new to us, but the old New York Times maxim, "All The News That Is Fit to Print", and thereby the role of a responsible editor, is being called into question. Good old rules dictate that responsible editors do not publish hearsay, conjecture or gossip without exercising their minds, hearts and souls, not necessarily in that order.

But now comes another saying, attributed to Lord Northcliffe: "News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising."

The big puzzle is that those who practised third-degree journalism think they are following Lord Northcliffe while those who deride them believe they are following the NYT maxim.

Where is the real deal? Clues may lie in three Ps: Perspective, Proportion and Plausibility.

The moralist, scurrilous perspective smacks of a presumption of guilt. Was there any reasonable ground for this in Sridevi's death? That brings us to plausibility. There are those who alluded to the death of Sunanda Pushkar, in which law enforcers suspected foul play. But that case had details of a possible marital discord that amounted to plausibility for examining the death in detail. In Sridevi's case, everything seemed normal with the trappings of a reasonably stable and happy marriage up until the news of her death. The TV channels that focused more on the "possible" (not even probable) details of her death in gory detail were thus pilloried because they failed on the third P - Proportion - as well.

But that does not necessarily leave us any wiser. Can we police, regulate or control bad journalism?

In the UK, The Guardian and media baron Rupert Murdoch-run "News of the World" co-existed successfully for years - one as a beacon of progressive journalism and the other as one of sensationalism, until 2011, when the latter closed down after a phone-hacking scandal. In the US, Murdoch's controversially biased Fox News continues to be a success, and National Enquirer seen to be its equivalent in the pre-television era, is doing fine with its gossipy stories in the digital age, folded into its Web sibling, Radar Online. Fox News even enjoys presidential patronage, as many of us of know.

I stumbled on a quote from American writer Jeff Rovin: "Look, the The New York Times has become the Enquirer, the Enquirer has become The New York Times. The world is upside down. We've got to set it right again."

Are we heading for a scenario in India where, say, Republic TV or Times Now represent the new normal where NDTV or Indian Express once were? One tweet that came my way even suggested that the Indian Embassy pressured Dubai authorities to close the case of Sridevi's death - with no basis that I am aware of. It is as if conjecture and suspicion are taken to be gospel. The channels that enact strange scenes are doing what they do because they get viewers and there is no restraint on them.

Activists on Twitter suggest that advertisers who support these channels can be hounded and their mobile apps uninstalled. Can the Advertising Standards Council of India, whose essential job is to ensure ethical advertising, extend its famous tentacles to the mouths it feeds in journalism?

Now, what do the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association have to say on the media coverage of Sridevi's death? Nearly 48 hours after the controversial coverage, their silence is deafening. NBA guidelines
are strangely silent on scurrilous broadcasting while their mission statement says NBA aims "to serve as the eyes and ears of the private news & current affairs broadcasters, to lobby on its behalf and to act as a central point of joint action on matters of interest."

NBA is supposed to a self-regulatory body. With its cut-throat members and vague pronouncements, it seems to lie substantially dead, or maybe its mission has got drowned in a bathtub.

(The author is a senior journalist and editor who has worked for Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent media entrepreneur, consultant and columnist. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Thu, March 01 2018. 10:00 IST