An accident has taken place, where people are dying. A man imperils his safety and tries to rescue a woman. However, based on part of a video clip, he is labeled a molester rather than an exemplary citizen. The mistake is established as a longer video is found. So the media-person who labeled this rescuer a molester should say sorry to the individual, right?
Wrong. Indian media ethics – what little remains in the profession – is not just wafer thin; it is also devoid of commonly accepted societal norms of logic and decency. The accuser issued a general regret – “I erred, won’t happen again”. There was no compensation, not even a word, for the model citizen turned global poster boy of Indian male sexual deviancy.
A debate rages on Twitter every day, how abusive RW (short for right wing, dog whistle for Modi supporting Hindus) are towards media. There is no doubt that media-persons face a barrage of strong language and counters every day on Twitter. But why is that? There are five key reasons.
Showing mirror to power
Media-persons often like to standby their favourite dictum – comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, attributed to American humourist Finley Peter Dunne. They also want to show mirror to the power of the day. In a two-tier system, when politicians represented power, and media represented the conscience keepers, this dictum worked smoothly. With the advent of social media however, we now have a three tier opinion making system.
Media loves to believe it has all the rights to question the politicians – the unsaid part being especially the ones who they don’t like – but gets agitated when the same yardstick is applied to them. Twitter user and editor of OpIndia Rahul Roushan says – Establishment is the bunch that systematically controls your thoughts through media and academics, not the government that’s there for 5 years. Media however doesn’t like accountability, but demands sweeping, discretionary powers.
While media has direct access to their bête noire political class, social media users can only exercise their right of questioning on Twitter. When they are denied access and answers, they write strong words.
Collective mediocrity trumps individual brilliance
Let’s say a Twitter user says “all doctors are thieves”. What is the likely reaction to this statement? Some people may agree with the sweeping generalization, most won’t. Some doctors may actually reason saying “not everyone is a thief – look at me”. Some doctors may even agree that due to crass commercial tendencies of a few individuals, the entire profession is getting a bad name. But what’s the probability of the best doctor on Twitter shooting an angry tweet-storm tagged to this user’s employer and saying “where do these abusive people come from?” Zero – this will never happen for doctors. Or engineers, CAs, or lawyers. In fact this won’t even happen for politicians!
This however happens every single time for media-persons. Make a statement like “media is wrong” and quite likely the best in the business will send you a direct message in passive aggressive tone saying “you bhakts will just not get it”. Don’t believe it? Well, I would love to add screenshots of DMs from a national business editor – an absolutely rocking, delightful, and knowledgeable individual – but let’s not get there.
Media is the only profession where individual brilliance comes to the rescue of collective mediocrity. This is the only profession where the best in the business defend the worst in the name of professional solidarity. And this is the only business where participants believe that they are all above average when it comes to professional morality – laws of central tendency be damned.
Consumer is the king – or not
Every neighbourhood kirana shop in Hindi belt will likely have a sticker – “grahak bhagwan ka roop hota hai.” The consumer is king, but not in Indian media business. This is the only industry in India, which has no responsibility for the consumer – the lay reader. Of course, the reasons are structural.
While most people believe Indian media is in the business of taking news to the readers, in reality this business is about taking influence, or rather the threat of it, to the powers that be. Long before Google create a product out of the user, Indian media had perfected the model. Our media aggregates readers and sells their collective influence in form of threats – what if! – to politicians to influence decisions or industry to get advertisements.
Their consumers are advertisers and people in important positions, but not the readers.
Look at any professional career in India – there are entrance tests to qualify before one is accepted in a good quality educational institute and there are exams to clear before one gets out of these institutes and starts practicing the said profession. Engineering? Check. Medicine? Check. Accountancy? Check. Law? Check. Design? Check. Management? Check.
One can get an admission to most media schools without any real entrance competition. There is no tollgate on who makes it. So who really makes it? Well, anyone who could not make it anywhere else will be a significant part of the population studying journalism. What does that say about the competence in the system? Not a lot, theoretically.
Over time, this available incompetence meets irresistible access – access to the power. And it assumes that the gatekeeper is the owner of the mansion. For the qualifications and skills of a gatekeeper, the media-persons start owning mansions in the posh Jor Bagh. Sometimes literally.
Consequences are inconsequential
What happens when you or I do a terrible job at work? When we lose a deal? When we don’t deliver a project? When we make a mistake? You or I get fired. Or least take a bonus cut. Or at the minimum, we get no wage hike as a consequence.
What happens when a media-person wrongly and incompetently accuses a person of being a molester? She is praised by her fellow professionals for expressing regret. Don’t believe it? Check the Twitter timelines of any Indian media employee from October 4th 2017. Even the sane one – and there are many in the profession despite the general mediocrity – heaped praises on the concerned newspaper, its editor and the reporter for expressing regret. Guess we are lucky no one demanded a Bharat Ratna for the said reporter for being regretful.
Media-persons face little or no consequences for acting in the disinterest of the readers. Yes, they may face consequences of their real consumers’ ire – a politician or an industrialist may well get someone fired. But it would not be for the lack of job skills.
So here we are – say something strong to someone incompetent, shaping a public discourse, potentially incorrectly, and who is not likely to face any consequence of this action – and you will be labeled abusive. The little power of narrative disintermediation which social media has bestowed upon you is abusive to the media-persons – it has taken away their carte blanche.
When you can neither peek in the mirror nor break it, it is best to call the ones holding the mirror abusive. For it is not your words they are labeling – it’s your intent. Something’s got to give, to quote Ravi Shastri – we just don’t know when.
a Pune based IT professional with keen interest in politics