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The Supreme Court of press conferences

Smita PrakashIt is death by press conferences. There is one almost daily. Beamed live on TV where accusations are hurled against politicians, whether from the ruling party or the opposition, industrialists and random media houses. In trying to get across to saturated TV viewers, new depths are plummeted every evening. The ugliness is unbearable and yet like coke addicts, we consume the ‘stuff’ day in and day out.

The statements and counter-statements made in Delhi by Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan, Subramanian Swamy, Shahnawaz Hussain, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Rashid Alvi, Digvijay Singh, Beni Prasad Verma, are like non-stop bombardment on your senses. They often make you want to curl up and die. Seemingly respectable men — and sometimes women — have no qualms in assassinating each other’s character. It is a perverse stoking of the fear psychosis of the news-watcher, a conscientious tax-payer that she is being robbed blind by everyone else around her.

Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal
Mud slinging: Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal hold press conferences to make allegations against politicians

Cheat! Fornicator! Wife-lover (Yeah, that is an insult in our democracy), Wife-abandoner! Embezzler! Antique thief! History-sheeter! Murderer! The epithets are hurled fast and furious — to be beamed instantly into our living rooms, tweeted and retweeted frenetically, till everyone has been fish-slapped with the half-truths. A half-truth may be a whole lie but who cares when contemptuous phrases make for great sound-bites. Long sentences are not TV-friendly. They don’t even fit into 140 characters at Twitter. Pithy falsehoods rule the roost. Who has the time and patience for a 30-minute sit down interview where a politician explains his party’s policies and programmes?

How much does a girl friend cost? Why did you leave your child bride? Who stole money from the disabled? Who ate up funds from a mid-day meal scheme for the poor? Who stole land from farmers? More than the questions, it is anger, cynicism and malevolence that are directed at the opponents by our eyeball hogging leaders.

The net result is confusion. Is Gujarat one of the most developed states or not? Depending on the publication one reads or the website/twitter handle you click on, you get a radically different opinion. Supported by facts and figures to match. Which son-in-law made more money during which regime: again choose your TV network to get the most ‘accurate’ information? Because it will run the sound-bites of politicians who rattle off random figures along with names of companies who benefited from sweetheart deals.

Do news organisations fact check? How many have the resources to do it? Cash strapped as they are, news channels and publications have neither the resources nor trained staff to verify information thrown up at a frenetic pace by politicians and activists. The result is a compromise. Most editors presume that it is mildly unbiased reporting if they give almost equal airtime to both sides. So what actually happens is that we are given two sound-bites or two paragraphs for each side. It is then left to the news-consumer to comprehend the nuances of the accusations. By then, she is already saturated and tired of all the venom spewing to pay any attention.

Politicians now match sting operations by the media with their own counter-sting operations. ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ is the mantra. These stings show us for how compromised the media — it is easy to tar everyone in the media with the same dirty brush — has become. Instead of checking the establishment by keeping it on its toes, the media is in bed with them, perpetuating and parroting, yes you guessed it, their sound-bites. The damage caused is irreparable.

The bureaucrats around our leaders are equally to blame. They shield their bosses from the media, selectively picking only those reporters who won’t ask critical questions. Some of our elected and selected leaders have stopped meeting the press altogether. They brazenly boast about this to the media. See we can do even without you.

The credibility of the media and the political class has suffered massively in the last two years. It is not surprising that most people actually now believe in the self-defeating but fallacious aphorism: ‘sab chor hain’ (everybody is a thief). The prophets of doom of India Against Corruption are feeding off this fear-psychosis which has benumbed us. They hope to win votes where a cynical electorate rejects all tried options and chooses an untried person or party -- one which has not yet had the chance to make mistakes because it has not had the chance to rule.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

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