Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Sarabjit and his DVD

Let’s thank Sarabjit. And why only thank, let’s hail him. He crossed the border, he got caught in an ‘Intelligence conspiracy’ (Indian or Pakistani, just don’t ask!), he was sentenced to death, he arose once again and with him arose Indian authorities, he is being discussed at bureaucratic level, and he got me my first DVD player. A latest SONY model, market price - Rupees 4000 plus taxes. Thank you Sarabjit. And while we are at it, Thank you Star News/ Zee News/ Aaj Tak/ Sahara Samay/ et al.

Two trends disturb me. One – the desperate (moral or immoral, you decide) limits to which the TV news channels are going to attract the eyeballs and two – the ‘success’ of such formulas. Case in point is Sarabjit Singh, who has been languishing in a Pakistani Jail for years on the charges of spying and now his family’s cry for help has been resonating across the Indian media. In an effort to make interactivity a tool for longer durations of viewership, the channels had started flashing SMSes of ‘concerned’ citizens over matters of ‘National interest’ (Sunjay-Karisma feud being one!). But then, that formula just gave them a first hand idea of viewership rather than increasing it. So the ‘logical’ next step was – offer them prizes for SMSing long and hard, and frequently. Your message will be flashed along with your name is just an added incentive, a byproduct. And that’s when many people across the country got their first DVD player (“A latest SONY Model, Market Price Rupees 4000”, Zee News-waali reiterated) for SMSing to save Sarabjit.

What’s wrong in that, many would say. It’s a business, and they are not distorting or influencing opinions, they are just asking for them. People have opinions and the channels are just giving them another reason to voice it out loud. But the bigger question is, and it must be asked, at whose cost? Isn’t it an infringement of emotions of all the people who really care for Sarabjit? Isn’t it a mockery of all the Indians who really want to SMS their support on TV but fear being bracketed with DVD-hungry percentage? And I am sure, this percentage is very less, maybe 2 percent. But for News Channel Statistics, this 2 percent is the vital increase in viewership.

And my reservations are not purely about moralistic issues involved. They are as much about the rights of a citizen in a democracy. When news Channels use this basic ‘loop-hole’ called ‘freedom of expression’ to make anybody (known or unknown personality) a subject of their daily poll, they forget that the same rule applies to the concerned person also. He might not want to become a media football without any referees. And it is worse when the subject is somebody as helpless as Sarabjit is right now.

The second disturbing trend, as I said earlier, is the ‘success’ of such formulas. I say success, because the trend has been catching up and now you get a prize on every News Channel for SMSing your views on the story of the day. You can win a TV for predicting the result of India’s next match, a refrigerator for taking sides with Left on petrol prices, a 100 CC bike for naming the father of Amir’s alleged son, and (what else) a DVD player for telling the Indian Government to get Sarabjit back. What next? A home theatre for predicting whether Sarabjit will be returned or die in Pakistan! A luxury car for predicting his last words!

There was a time when ‘Bollywood’ was considered a place for stupid, where any hit film would kick-off a trend but seeing the presumably well-educated (dare I say intellectuals) Electronic Journos behaving like red-bottom apes, I guess the ‘chakra’ has shifted. And now, it’s not about saving our ‘4th Estate’ from the clutches of commercialization, it’s simply about saving ourselves from the Estate’s multitudinous sins.