The puerile musings of India's trigger happy politicians & society hobnobbers on Twitter have not merely dominated, but dictated primetime television news agenda in recent months.
In the past week, General V K Singh and writer-socialite Shobha De hijacked the 9 PM slot after creating an online storm of sorts. Singh for his unbefitting jibe at media persons, calling them presstitutes, and De for her cheeky remark that Maharashtrian snacks rather than popcorn would go better with Marathi movies (proposed by the state's chief minister, to be mandatorily screened during primetime shows at multiplexes). This enraged the Shiv Sena to such an extent, that it moved a privilege motion against De, and sent, along with protesting hoards, packages of Vada Pao and Dahi Misal to mingle with the aromas of risotto and ravioli in the kitchen of her tony Cuffe Parade apartment.
The increased impact of Twitter in usurping editorial decision-making across India’s newsrooms was felt truly around the time of the general elections, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders like Arvind Kejriwal took to the medium to make official pronouncements and muster up political support. Every word of theirs was diligently reported. 'This was an election fought primarily on social media', asserted one high profile news anchor, betraying both, a privileged hubris, and the sad reality of her breed's shrinking realm of journalistic focus.
Hashtag journalism (as it has since come to be known), has ever since, been ruthlessly exploited by TV news to manufacture Twitter trends, create buzz around events (of scant national importance, but with a hefty quarrel quotient) and hammer down shrill opinion on viewers. Twitter and TV have developed a alluring symbiotic relationship, enabling the former to increase its subscriber base and the latter to accelerate the already fast moving process of dispensing with costly newsgathering teams.
After all, why hire a reporter when you have Twitter?
Technology's grievously disempowering effect on the serious but costly pursuit of journalism has been well documented. From mass sackings and stagnant paychecks to dwindling ad traffic and the slow dismantling of the Chinese wall between editorial and management, the gradual unraveling of news has sparked off all kinds of cultural propulsions as well. Photojournalist Will Steacy's stunning pictorial chronicle of the decline of America's third oldest surviving daily newspaper - the Inquirer – made for a moving eulogy to the death of the newsroom, as we once knew it.
But the damages of the digital onslaught aren't any longer borne solely by those in the business of news. The thrift in sourcing material from Twitter comes with a hefty invisible price tag that democracy ultimately has to pay. India's 30 million Twitter users now run roughshod over what's newsworthy & what’s not for a population of nearly 1.3 billion people, effectively provoking a further estrangement from those on the other side of India's digital divide.
The 'curious case of the Indian media's rural blind spot' as Al Jazeera appropriately described the current news context in a recent broadcast, highlighted how exclusive the media's gaze has been towards metropolitan India. The channel commissioned a study on 6 English and Hindi news outlets for the months of November and December 2014, the results of which were astounding for even someone who's been inside the system for a reasonable period of time.
News time dedicated to rural programming on primetime shows across the 6 TV news channels in question ranged between an appalling 0.19% to a dismal 7%. Newspapers, which pride themselves for having more gravitas than TV had – hold your chair – a sum total of zero stories with a rural focus on the front pages in the two months under study. The only exception being, The Hindu which scored an unbragworthy 1.37%.
The Lakme Fashion Week, could amass 500 accredited journalists to cover the ramp as opposed to a mere 6 who were put on the beat to report the farmer suicide epidemic in Maharashtra, mourned P Sainath - India's rural lone ranger - on the program.
Today, #Presstitute quickly becomes primetime news in India, but not the army’s heroic rescue mission in Yemen. After all the Indians trapped there aren’t high profile diplomats like Devayani Khobragade. They are by and large trifling blue-collar migrants.
From problematic ownership structures to a broken financial model, the myriad reasons for this blatant disregard for the concerns of the non-rich, non-powerful are well understood. But it was another simple observation of an Eenadu journalist featured on the Al Jazeera program that was particularly pertinent in adding another dimension to this apathy. The vernacular press, he said, still had its roots back in India's villages. Its reporters and editors identified with stories of desperation and suffering back home, and could thus report extensively on it.
Can we say the same about those that occupy the high chairs in national newsrooms? The global cosmopolitans who perhaps feel more at home in Vienna than Vidarbha?
It is a strange paradox that we journalists shout the loudest when a political attempt is made to muzzle the voice of people, but seem rather well adjusted to this sickly scenario where economics and technology have systematically rendered the majority voiceless at any rate.
News in India has today unabashedly become the exclusive sphere of, for and by the rich. And 5 star journalists are in utmost servitude.