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Discretion Is Not Censorship
By KANCHAN GUPTA
The Pioneer, Jan. 6, 2008
Photo: Kanchan Gupta
Last Thursday I was invited to speak on 'violence in media' at a panel discussion organised by Pioneer Media School and Gargi College in south Delhi. The room was packed with students and it was refreshing to be among young people who are not yet afflicted by the disease most Indians suffer from - cynicism. I began by asking how many of the students track news every day. Hands shot up in the air and it was an impressive majority. Second question: How many track news on 24x7 news channels? About a third of them raised their hands, some raised theirs hesitantly. Third question: And how many read newspapers every day? Almost everybody raised their hands enthusiastically. There's hope yet for the print media.
For the next half-an-hour, I held forth on the portrayal of violence in media, especially television, its impact on society, how it perpetuates gender stereotypes and adversely affects women and children the most. Unlike many of my professional colleagues, I am not much of a speaker. And teaching at Pioneer Media School, where we do a course on writing, has taught me that it's extremely difficult to retain the attention of kids who have barely turned 20, that too for an hour, unless you peg everything to something that they feel is of concern to them. At Gargi College, I had planned to speak for no more than 10 to 15 minutes and say thank you for the opportunity, etc, before the yawning began. Surprisingly, the students were so responsive that I continued well beyond the time I had allotted myself.
This brings me to two conclusions, drawn from my experience in participating in similar panel discussions in various colleges. First, kids at non-campus colleges are perhaps more interested in contemporary issues than those in the 'top' campus colleges with their snooty teachers and equally snooty students. Second, television may have dumbed down news and entertainment but it has not had a dumbing impact on viewers, at least not as yet. The students at Gargi College had a fair idea of why the audiovisual media resorts to portrayal of violence (to push up ratings), how it breeds violence in society and provides a certain legitimacy for violent behaviour. So, there is hope yet that television will not succeed in its mission to create a society dominated by the lowest common denominator.
Some interesting points came up during the discussion. For instance, why was I drawing a distinction between print and audiovisual media, and berating television while sparing newspapers? Partly because I am biased towards newspapers and largely because television channels are the bigger offenders. I cited several reasons. For instance, a great degree of editorial discretion is still exercised by newspaper editors while deciding what should be published and what should be spiked.
The Pioneer's editor, Mr. Chandan Mitra, tirelessly points out every few days that photographs of dead people or anything that is gory should not be published on the front page, just so that such visuals do not get in due to oversight. It is unlikely that editors who decide programme content for television channels exercise such caution; on the contrary, they probably live by the motto that the gorier the footage, the better for ratings. For evidence, look at what is broadcast in the name of news and entertainment.
Two incidents from my early years in journalism come to mind.
Mediapersons were asked to leave Amritsar before 'Operation Bluestar' began in June 1984. The only news about the Army storming the Golden Temple that reached newsdesks across the country was based on official briefing by the Government's spokesman in Delhi. People were reluctant to believe the Government's version and rumour mongers had a field day.
Within hours of the Army taking control of the holiest Sikh shrine after neutralising the terrorists who had holed up in the Akal Takht and in the sanctum sanctorum, a story spread like wildfire that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had escaped from the Golden Temple premises and would soon lead a counter-attack against the Army. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, alarmed by reports of desertions by Sikh soldiers following Operation Bluestar, authorised the release of photographs taken after the Army action. One of the photographs showed Bhindranwale sprawled out on the ground, his body peppered with bullets. He could not have been alive. Newspapers were expected to publish the photograph to scotch rumours about his 'escape' but very few did so because it violated the principle of publishing gory pictures. Similarly, great restraint was exercised by newspapers during the 1984 pogrom against Sikhs following Mrs. Gandhi's assassination.
From there we have travelled to a point where nothing is taboo for media. If there is no footage, then it is simulated, as was done while broadcasting the bogus 'sting operation' conducted by Tehelka to 'expose' those behind the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat.
Television content editors insist that it is their job to show it as it is, that they are merely broadcasting that which is true and real. This is nothing but an attempt to seize the moral high ground and make newspapers look silly for being 'lily-livered'. What they forget is that moving images have a lasting impression on viewers, that editorial discretion is not about suppressing the truth but packaging it in a manner which may not please advertisers and sponsors but prevents our collective conscience from being brutalised. In a sense, television editors need to exercise greater discretion than those in the print media; if that means self-censorship, so be it. After all, to quote the Supreme Court's observations while upholding censorship of films, the audiovisual media 'motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word.'
The printed word is still guided, to a great extent, if not by the letter then by the spirit of the recommendations of the Second Press Commission headed by the redoubtable Justice K.M. Mathew. But television has no such moral compass and is reluctant to come up with guidelines that would form the core of self-restraint. As for Government adopting a broadcast code, every time this comes up for discussion, broadcasters cry foul and denounce it as censorship and an assault on media's freedom.
Those offended by what newspapers publish can approach the Press Council of India with their grievances, but no such forum exists for television channels; for all practical purposes, they are above the law and want to remain so. This is neither healthy nor desirable for our society. Unless checked, the damage caused by unrestrained broadcast of anything and everything will be irreversible.