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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The media mob

Woe betide anyone it gets its claws into…

Hard as it for me to admit, of late news television in India has begun to remind me of nothing more than a lynch mob. One target – or three, on a busy day – is identified by TV news, and then the entire evening is devoted to bashing him or her to a pulp. There is not even a passing nod to fairness or impartiality, or an attempt to get both sides of the story. Don’t be so silly; that is too old-fashioned for words. These days, the narrative is set in the morning news meeting and the only facts that are of relevance are the ones that fit it. 

Other than that, it’s just a gladiatorial contest between several talking heads (fitted into tiny windows on the screen) while the anchor encourages them to be even more outrageous and out-shout the others. Except, of course, for those who have the temerity to oppose his worldview on that particular evening. They can barely get out a few disjointed words amidst loud interruptions before being told by the anchor that they are speaking nonsense and ought to be ashamed of themselves.

And where one channel leads, the others follow. So, every evening we are treated to the sorry sight of one or another ‘celebrity’ being pummeled across channels, with many of the same suspects doing duty as guest speakers on the ‘debates’. That is, if a ‘debate’ means shouting at one another but refusing to hear what the other has to say. Not that it matters what anyone says or hears. Even before the ‘debate’ begins, we know which side will win. Yes, it’s the one the anchor is on.

But while I have begun to treat prime-time news television (or Super Prime Time, or Mega Prime Time or Meta Prime Time, or whatever they are calling it this week) as a comedy show, good for a few laughs, there are times when my exasperation wins out over amusement. And that’s when I want to tell those star anchors a few home truths. So, here, in no particular order of importance, are some of them.

An anchor is supposed to ask questions, not make long speeches about how the country has gone to the dogs and how only his/her channel seems to care. And these questions should be framed to elicit a reply, rather than just insult the person being questioned. 
The point of asking a question is to get a reply. And to get a reply, you have to allow the other party to speak. And when I say ‘speak’, I mean ‘speak entire sentences without being interrupted and shouted at’. And then – I know this is hard, but stay with me – you have to actually listen to the answer.
You may not like, or agree with, the reply a person is giving. That’s fine. But that doesn’t mean that he/she has ‘dodged the question’ or ‘refused to reply’. A journalist decides the questions he asks. He cannot decide what the answers should be. 
If every guest on your show starts his comments with, “Please, can you give me one minute…” that is a fair indication that you have got this entire panel discussion thingy quite wrong. In case you’re reading this, it means that everyone gets the same amount of point to make their points (and the anchor does, on no account, get double the time to hector them).
If the media can (and does) attack everyone everyday, then it is only to be expected that the media will be attacked in return. And that’s how it should be. Everybody has the right to criticize the media and to question its methods. That is the right of every citizen in a democracy. That does not mean that ‘the media is under attack’. That means we live in a functional democracy (and thank God for that).
If news television channels want to introduce the culture of ‘door-stepping’ (popularized by the British tabloids) in India, they are welcome to do so. But simply parking yourself on the doorstep of someone in the news does not mean you are entitled to answers. Even public figures are perfectly within their rights to refuse to respond to questions. Just as the media have the right to conduct impromptu ‘interviews’, those ‘interviewed’ have the right to decline the pleasure. This does not make them venal, evil, corrupt, arrogant or even guilty. It makes them people who do not want to be ‘door-stepped’.
If any news channel sells itself as the voice of the people and says that it speaks on behalf of the entire country, then the nation would also like to know on what basis it makes these tall claims. Did it win some sort of secret poll? And if it did, can we please ask for a recount?
If you’re going to proclaim over and over again that this is ‘your news channel’ then I would like to get a slice of the profits at the end of each financial year. And so, I assume, would every other viewer who is making you the ‘number one channel’ every week. So, how exactly do we go about this? Yes, the nation does, indeed, want to know.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

When Imran wed Reham

What did we learn from the wall-to-wall coverage?

So, after claiming (a tad disingenuously) that the rumours of his marriage were ‘greatly exaggerated’, Imran Khan finally bit the bullet and got married a second time round. His new begum, Reham Khan, is a lovely, lissome, long-haired beauty, cast in the same mould as his ex-wife, Jemima Khan (who has since announced that she intends to revert to her maiden name, Goldsmith, now that there is a new Mrs Khan on the scene).

But amid the wall-to-wall coverage in Pakistan, India and Britain (where Jemima – and hence Imran – is still a staple of the gossip pages), and the many, many jokes doing the rounds of social media, there are still some things that stood out in the Imran-weds-Reham coverage. 

So here, in no particular order of importance, is what we learnt:

It doesn’t matter how old, or how important, a man is. When it comes to marriage, his immediate family will always have strong views – and won’t be afraid of airing them in front of the international media. So, even though Imran is now a venerable 62, his sisters still managed to throw a hissy fit about his marrying a woman they did not approve of. They had no idea about the wedding, they snorted, and in any case, they had no intention of attending. So, that’s one in your face, Reham. On the brighter side, things can only look up from here.
As that old cliché goes, a second marriage represents a triumph of hope over experience. But sometimes experience plays a role in the choice of the new spouse as well. So, after years of trying to make his ‘multicultural’ marriage to Jemima work (though frankly, she had to do most of the work: adjusting to life in Pakistan, learning Urdu, adopting the salwar-kameez, bringing up two boys, and coping with the anti-Semitic attacks of the Urdu press) Imran has chosen a woman who he has much more in common with. Reham was born of Pakistani parents but educated mostly in Britain. She now lives in Pakistan and works in the media, but like Imran, feels at home in both cultures. Fingers crossed, everyone.
No matter how hard we try and convince ourselves that a measure of gender neutrality exists in the media, the sad truth is that sexism is still alive and well in the newsroom. So, every story of the Khan nuptials takes great trouble to tell us that Reham is a divorced mother of three. Nobody really bothers to make the point that Imran is a divorced father of two. And then, there are some who helpfully point out that at 43, poor old Reham can’t hope to make any bonny babies with Imran (tsk, tsk).
Age-gap relationships never bother us much when it comes to older man-younger woman combines. No surprises then that the 20-year age gap between Imran and Reham doesn’t merit much discussion (though you can be sure that if their ages were reversed, the commentary would be quite different). So, full marks to the Pakistani channel that showed visuals of their wedding overlaid with an audio track of that old Hindi film song, “Mai kya karoon Ram, mujhe budha mil gaya”. Way to land a blow for gender equality!
No matter how good-looking the man, he always looks spectacularly silly in his wedding finery. And Imran – who has broken a million hearts in his time, but is now beginning to look like that wrinkly uncle who scowls bad-temperedly in every family photograph – is no exception to the rule. Looking ill-at-ease in a shimmering gold sherwani, paired rather ludicrously with what looked like a platform-heeled sandals, Imran was less Lion (or Loin, as they fondly call him) of Punjab and more Rabbit Caught in the Headlights.
Ah, now Reham, on the other hand: she looked simply spectacular. But then, we all know that weddings are essentially about the dulhan. And boy, did she make the perfect bride! All demurely wrapped-up in white and gold, with just a splash of red brocade, she looked radiant and oh-so-in-love, flashing a smile of sheer happiness (never mind the scowling dulha, glowering by her side).
But no matter how old and wrinkly the man, and how radiant and beautiful the bride, he is always the Big Catch and she is the Lucky One who managed to land him. We saw this during the George Clooney-Amal Alamuddin nuptials. And now much the same sort of stuff is being recycled for the Imran-Reham pairing. How did she get so lucky? Surely, he deserves better? How did she manage to trap him? Why did give up his long-time bachelor (well, okay, divorcee) status for her? But if you ask me, the only people who got it right were those who captioned the Khans’ wedding picture: “Former BBC newscaster marries Taliban sympathizer.” Score!
But never mind the jokesters and the naysayers. What’s not to love about two people in love? And two people brave enough to take another chance on marital bliss? So, Imran and Reham Khan, many congratulations. And may you live happily ever after…

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Say please!

This year, let’s try and revive that quaint old concept called good manners

The first day of the New Year. What better way to mark it than with a fun family lunch? Well, that was the plan, anyway. But things didn’t quite work out that way. Because the next table was occupied by a large, extended family, which came complete with many small children, all of whom came equipped with their own toy horns. Yes, I kid you not, actual horns, which make the most godawful noise when you blow into them. Which is exactly what these kids did, over and over again.

Ah well, kids will be kids, right? The poor mites, they really don’t know any better. But what about their parents (and grandparents)? Surely, they couldn’t be oblivious to the pained looks being cast in their direction by all the other diners? And there was no way they couldn’t have heard that loud shushing sound emanating from that irate lady at the corner table (well, okay, it was me!).  

But not one adult on that table managed to muster up an embarrassed look. Not one of them stopped stuffing their mouths with butter chicken long enough to admonish the horn-touting children. And it certainly never occurred to them to confiscate the horns from their hyperactive kids so that the rest of us could eat in peace.

Oh no, that would be asking for too much. Because good manners, and a little consideration for others, is not something that you can ever expect from your fellow human beings these days. Everybody is far too busy – eating, working, texting, tweeting, or whatever else it is they do – to actually take a moment to discipline their children.

Is it any surprise then that these spoilt, entitled brats grow up to drive Daddy’s car far too fast, having had a bit too much to drink, and don’t spare a thought for the safety of other people on the road? Isn’t it only to be expected that these children grow up to believe that the rules don’t apply to them, because they are oh-so-special? After all, didn’t Mummy and Daddy bring them up to believe just that? And, as sure as night follows day, they will bring up their own children in exactly the same way.

Which is why, this year I intend to launch a campaign to revive that quaint old concept: good manners. You know, the kind that they taught us in school when we were growing up. Speak softly when you are in company. Say hello or offer to shake hands when you meet someone. Say ‘please’ when you want something and ‘thank you’ when you get it. And don’t lie flat on the floor and throw the mother of all tantrums if you don’t. 

So here, in no particular order of importance, are just some of the things that I would like to see happen this year (and every year thereafter):

That people put their phones on silent during business meetings, while eating at restaurants or watching a movie – and better still, slide them into their pockets or purses. There is nothing more annoying than to be discussing business with someone whose one eye is on his/her phone, who keeps picking it up when it beeps to check messages, and then starts replying to these messages, ignoring you completely. We’ve all had dinner with that self-important sod, who keeps taking calls all through the meal or texting incessantly, telling you with every swipe of the screen that you are not really worthy of his/her full attention. And then, there are those obnoxious creatures who keep their phones on in movie halls, picking them up every 10 minutes to whisper loudly, “I am in a movie,”. Oh, for God’s sake, put it away already!
That people respect other people’s time as they would their own. So, doctors don’t give you an appointment for 2 pm and then see you a good two hours later. Your friends don’t fetch up for dinner for 10 pm when the invitation clearly said 8.30 pm. And that everyone finally realizes that it doesn’t take much effort to call people to say you’re running late. Only don’t text if you are in a business meeting (see above).
That ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ see a revival in their fortunes, and become a part of everyone’s vocabulary. A very well-mannered friend of mine, who always holds the door open for those coming through after him, has a nice passive-aggressive way of dealing with people who fail to say ‘thank you’. As they rush past him, heads bent over their smartphones, he says loudly, “You are very welcome!” Nine times out of then, the offenders are shamed into saying a belated ‘thank you’. The tenth person of course glides away, oblivious to the call for good manners. But, as a strategy, it is not a bad way to call people out for their bad manners and force them to do the right thing.

Will any of this work? Or am I just fighting a losing battle and setting myself up for disappointment yet again? Well, I’ll let you know how this little social experiment works out in a year’s time. Until then, be good, stay nice, and thank you so much for your time!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Happy New Year!

Here’s my wish list for what I would like in 2015

Yes, I know, it is customary to make Christmas wishes and New Year resolutions. But this year, I am going to go all contrary on you and compile a wish list for New Year rather than yet another dreary set of resolutions (that are broken within a month of being made, anyway). So, if you would indulge me just this once, here’s what I would like for 2015.

The certainty that every child who sets off to school in his or her freshly-laundered uniform, satchel carelessly slung on the shoulder, gets to come back home alive, disheveled and dirty, covered with the mud of the schoolyard – not doused in his or her own blood or indeed, the blood of classmates butchered before his or her shocked eyes.
The guarantee that every religion gets a place in the sun in our great country. That everyone – Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi – is allowed to celebrate their festivals without the government muscling in to hijack their day for its own agenda. And that, in keeping with our secular ethos, we take the same pleasure and joy in celebrating each other’s festivals that we do in celebrating our own.
That women finally get what has always been their right: safety in public places. That they can walk the streets without being jostled and jeered at. That they ride in buses, metros and trains without being groped. That they can drink in pubs without being leered at or propositioned. That they can take a taxi back home and fall asleep in the back seat, secure in the knowledge that they will not be molested, robbed or raped by the driver. (If you would like this too, then check out a movement called Why Loiter, and do your own bit to make our cities safer for women.)
That the assorted Sadhus and Sadhvis who litter our political landscape realize that they can only use these honorifics if they actually undertake ‘sadhana’. And that is only possible if they renounce the material world and retreat to the realm of spirituality instead. (If that’s asking for too much, I would quite happily settle for some of them just going on a ‘maun vrat’ for the next five years or so.)
That religious conversions – no matter which faith is being renounced or embraced – are recognized and respected for what they should be: a genuine change of heart that leads to a change of religion. And that assorted religious bodies – be they Hindu, Muslim or Christian – stop trying to shore up their numbers by resorting to bribes, inducements, money, special favours, or simply, brute force and blackmail.
That we finally call a spade a bloody shovel. Anyone who kills innocents for a political cause is a terrorist, no matter what religion he takes his inspiration from. So, the men who terrorized the city of Mumbai on 26/11 are not ‘gunmen’; they are terrorists. The men who massacred 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar are not ‘Taliban’ (which, rather ironically, translates as students); they are terrorists. The Bodo group which went on a rampage in Assam and killed 78 people are not ‘militants’; they are terrorists. Let’s not mince our words when it comes to violence on innocents.
The realization that we cannot achieve a clean India – a Swachch Bharat – by just posing with a broom in streets strewn with specially-procured dirt, while the TV cameras zoom in for a close-up. Sanitation and hygiene are incredibly complex issues. We need to discuss not just how to collect the dirt but also how to dispose of it in an environmentally-friendly manner. We need to focus on cleaning not just our cities but also our rivers. But most importantly, we need to work on changing the mindset of our people. Yes, those very people who think nothing of cleaning up their houses and throwing the rubbish on the street outside; those who spit whenever they feel like, wherever they feel like; or those who drive expensive cars but feel no embarrassment in throwing litter out of the window as they speed past.
But most of all, what I really want for 2015, is peace and harmony. Peace between nations. Harmony between religions. Camaraderie between people no matter what their faith or nationality. And an end to the cycle of senseless violence that we have seen in 2014.

I know. It is a very tall order, indeed. And I know at a subliminal level, that I am doomed to disappointment in 12 months time. But how else do you enter a new year, except with a hope and a prayer? And the fervent desire that this time round, things will be much better.