Case Study: Back To The 30s: Silent Media
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” — Hosea 4:6
Jeev Thimappa felt rewarded. By 5 a.m. he had knitted together the story on ‘pure’ juices, questioning Medit Juices’ ‘other natural flavours’ as taking away from the ‘pure’ claim. The cue had come from a health trainer who had challenged Medit with, “I have gluten intolerance. How do I know ‘other flavours’ does not contain gluten?”
But the rewards kept flowing in as Ram Sahukar was to give him a new story at 6 a.m. as he worked his shins at Joggers’ Park. “I say Jeev, I believe some obnoxious Japanese computer game has entered Indian markets! The success objective of this game is to rape a woman and her two daughters. I was shaken and shocked and demolished! How come your paper did not carry this news?”
Jeev: Problems must have solutions, kaka, if not they will cause more panic.
Sahukar: (Angry) Do you have a solution for swine flu? For AIDS? Aren’t you exerting to gather intelligence on hidden terrorists? H1N1, Headley, etc., are huge, but this game did not confront your sense of threat? What RDX are you guys slaving over? The one that will destroy humans and buildings and cities? That is okay! People will die and it will end there. But this Japanese game? That is the real RDX! The one that will destroy our minds and culture forever!”
Sahukar was an ardent writer of letters to the editor since 1992, when he was also the MD of an Indian bank. In the wake of liberalisation and the ensuing chaos in the business world, Sahukar fed NewsIndia with debates and doubts over the correctness of India succumbing to the IMF pressure. And Sahukar was a fiery man — then as MD and now as a consumer of everything, including NewsIndia.
“Times are changing, Jeev,” he said, “With television and internet getting active and aggressive, newspapers have to go beyond ordinary reporting. Even today, newspaper reading is a pleasant habit. Verandahs are built to enhance the joy of reading a newspaper. And, mind you, these are 100-year-old habits, not easily replaced. While advantage is yet on your side, you must redefine your profile. “
Next day, Jeev mentioned the Japanese game to Bhrigu Pant, deputy editor of NewsIndia.
Bhrigu: Yes, my son’s school principal too called, and made an interesting point. “That which is sensational sells… it is only a matter of finding the first toehold… a country where it is not illegal. Then you cannot stop it. Do you see that they have seen India as a sitting duck?”
Jeev: Absolutely! In India many things are not illegal, or regulated by the law — but the fact that something which is not illegal but can be wrong, is exactly what we are stubbornly resisting, Bhrigu. That is why when the Yamuna waters are reclaimed to build a games village, the debate hinged on ‘is not illegal, so can build’. That is why companies use big print to sell and small print to save their posteriors, because ‘making claims’ is not illegal in India.
News has to add value too. There is a difference between data and information. When data is processed and value is added to it, it becomes information. A mere communication that says ‘Japanese Rape game in India’ is like saying ‘Mary had a little lamb’. It does not tell you how to deal with it. Then why bother? The Internet is there, who needs newspapers?
Bhrigu: How do you mean?
Jeev: Read this mail from Advait Khemka, a principal — “Anything that is known to have entered a country illegally needs to be immediately addressed and systems built around it. Is that not what we did for AIDS? But entertainment in the form of sexual assault on women? How come newspapers are not moved? Having read about this ‘game’, what should I do with the news? You tell me…”
Khemka had more angst. He had just read about the amendment to the Delhi Excise Bill that allowed 21-year-olds to serve liquor, even though the legal drinking age remains 25. What stunned him was the corollary to the news from the media: “Bartending then may just become a cool new career opportunity for those fresh out of campus.” Khemka had written again two days ago: “Just look at what you guys publish. It seems to reflect unformed minds. The other day I was at a five-star hotel with my wife. A young comely girl came up to our table — dressed in all black, a very tiny skirt, fishnet stockings and a starkly made up face. She was no more than 18 or 19. She was promoting a foreign brand of liquor that promised us an elegant nail cutter if we bought a drink from her! How dare we do this to our children! Who is auditing this?”
Jeev said, “He has a point, Bhrigu. Do you just give data but not the means to deal with it?”
Bhrigu: A newspaper’s core task is to report events, not run campaigns against bin Laden and other perceived demons like computer viruses, money laundering, match fixing, etc. Reporting on them is adequate. Reporting on the Japanese game is adequate without doing reader surveys, clinical studies on how the game has affected society, etc.
Jeev: The point here is the potent risk of communication through silence, Bhrigu. When the media publishes a news item about a Japanese game that aids and abets perversion and undesirable attitudes among the people — especially when recent research points to the idea of the adolescent brain and how it is still growing until age 23 — and does n-o-t-h-i-n-g about it, it is according the news the same tone and tenor that it did to ‘two people found dead’, ‘Parliamentarians throw chairs at each other’. I thought newspaper was about being the collective voice of a people and compelling the government to pay attention. I believe journalism is about intelligence, not data entry!”
Bhrigu called in Antara Bakshi, another senior correspondent. “Did you hear about the Japanese game thing?”
Antara: I have! Where no one takes responsibility because responsibility cannot be assigned, the ones to be hit badly are the young who are wading in the murk. Somewhere we need to see this as market dynamics too. Don’t think publisher-reader, think marketer-consumer. Today reading has rivals in television, podcasts and mobile radio. Your consumer today is way ahead of what he was in 1940. The only thing we have to show for 70 years is colour printing. I believe our product is communication, not news, and this is how I want to redefine our role. When a newspaper reports in a deadpan way, and does not follow up, it is not communicating.
Parenting and teaching is about communication! And that is what the consumers are asking for: a new product that will communicate. They are saying, come out in the open and discuss. Talk to our children. Make them a part of the newspaper. They want a product that becomes a part of their lives, which places things on the table, and carries all families together towards a brave new world, a safe new world.
Bhrigu: These games are just products of the times. They will rise and fall. Fleeting fantasies.
Jeev: I am also a product of today’s desperate times, Bhrigu, with a mission to create order for those who seek it.
Bhrigu: And how, just how does underground gaming become media’s responsibility?
Jeev: Not responsibility; it is opportunity. Autism has always been there in India; yet it took an Aamir Khan to make Taare Zameen Par to place it in the open and invite people to look at it and deal with it. And then suddenly there is a spate of movies and tele-serials on autism —there is Antara, Paa, My Name is Khan. The movie industry has helped people become comfortable with what they did not want to face. But I am sure now when they face it, they are dealing with it better. That is the role of media. The opportunity to communicate and draw people to yourself, tell them this ‘happens’ but ‘this’ can be dealt with… and this is how… then it ceases to be a bogey man. Aamir need not have made that movie. He could have made a ha-ha-hee-hee one, like our news.
That evening Antara stopped at Jeev’s cubicle and said, “I do feel our life should be applied to improving, bettering, enabling. That I am able bodied, and have the right opportunities, yet I apply these for self glory has begun to rankle. To be known as a writer is only an ability to flash a premium Press card. All I am doing is earning money, not applying life!”
Jeev: Bhrigu is not wrong, but he’s not right either. Convince him why NewsIndia must have a different vision.
At the school carnival at 8 p.m., Antara hobnobbed with some parents of her children’s friends. As she paid for her coupons and bought her first coffee, Atul Divakar, a senior manager father was telling a bunch of parents: “Is the media ruled by people who worship power, wealth and fame? Of course! It is primarily money that motivates. Coverage can be paid for and had. Content is driven by advertiser agendas, and I know because I myself have engineered this at times…”
Antara winced and squirmed unhappily. Stepping into the fray as if propelled by some force, she said, “A bit unfair to use the same brush to tar the entire media, Atul. Writing about NASA does not get every journalist a free ride on the next shuttle, now does it? The paper’s target audience determines the advertising. Yes, editorial coverage can and does affect the decision on where advertising rupees are parked, but you have to be within the right target group anyway. So, some degree of natural selection is involved — a filter of sorts — before the nexus between ads and editorial can be established. Give the editor the benefit of doubt, please!”
Atul: Fair, then explain some of the classified ads; offers for ‘escorts’ by men and women. How how does an editor allow those? Or are you now going to say that he does not know about these?
So I called the head of my media agency who said: ‘To the best of my knowledge, they (newspapers) are not concerned. Classified ads are booked through depots which are franchise operations. The franchisee or booking agent is not concerned about what is being advertised. The only time they insist on verification is when you book an obit. Then they insist on seeing the death certificate. Rest, anything goes.’
Let me give you a parallel. I work in a company that also makes hair care products. We use an ingredient called sodium laureth sulphate or SLS in every shampoo. It is toxic and carcinogenic. Yet we continue to use it. Why? The same reason that some newspapers carry ads for ‘escorts’ but look the other way. In our case, we know but we are busy shrugging our shoulders.
The worst is this, Antara. No manufacturer is willing to invest in a decent R&D lab. No one wants to spend on researching a consumer-friendly alternative to SLS. You talk to shampoo makers and they are wont to tell you it is pretty harmless, at least less harmful than 1,000 other things you expose yourself to daily. But is that the point? Drinking tap water is far less harmful than drinking ditchwater. So is relativity the logic? It is this senseless logic called ‘statistical significance’ that justifies profiteering. There is a verse in the Bible — “my people die because of ignorance” — that sums it up, period!
Principal Dave: I tend to agree. It’s the very same relativity logic that also says ‘rape as a game is better than…’ If adults contemplated on what goes into building a human child into an adult, they will watch out. Our nutritionist has now come up with a warning on instant noodles. The kids are angry we don’t serve those anymore. Dr Karnik says the packaging material and glues used for these are suspected to contain dioxin and other hormone-like substances that mix with the food when hot water is added to the noodles. Also, there is talk that these noodles are coated with wax to make them non-stick. This wax does not get ejected from the system for 48 hours, and if you continue eating without giving your body time to eject that wax — which is what many students do — then you end up with cancer! These young are born into new cultures — instant noodles and Japanese games, whose sales we allow blindly. Who will research their risks? Should not our media spend time on such information services? These are the doubts that we want addressed. If not, why buy newspapers? I think they are stuck with their definition.
Gaurav Misra (CEO of business consultancy 2020 Social and Dave’s guest): My opinion is that print is the medium that is most threatened by the Internet. Television and radio are real time, and can, therefore, co-opt the Internet to become more interactive. Newspapers and magazines have to try harder to overcome their “published yesterday” nature.
In India, however, there are still 600-700 million people who don’t read newspapers, so there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit. Still, if newspapers have to hold on to the young, urban, upwardly mobile readers, they will have to become more interactive and innovative.
Manas Tripathi (parent and accountant): So true! Today’s young are natural non-readers of newspapers. So, you, in fact, have a good reason for making your newspapers far more stimulating! And if newspapers track dealers that sell these kinds of games, point them out to the public so they know where the danger zones are, talk to the young directly and not as if they are kids, they will have a far better readership!
Principal Dave: I believe that is most important. When one of my students commits a wrong, we don’t shovel it under the carpet. We don’t pretend it did not happen; we place it on the table in the assembly and we talk to our students. We allow them to express all kinds of views on it. We can also take the stance that the role of schools is to teach as NCERT dictates and let parents worry about all else. But we have come to realise that education, like news, has to be complete and well-rounded to be meaningful, if it has to serve its purpose.
The next day, Antara was called to Bhrigu’s room for an edit meeting. On his table she saw a McKinsey report on why/how American consumer behaviour has changed during the recession. Bhrigu smiled as he caught her staring at it. Antara matched his smile and said, “You are paying to read something that will at best enhance some editorial you will write about ‘US: receding or recovering’. Why isn’t a study of the Indian consumer’s doubts and ignorance not relevant? That Palika Bazaar dealer, or Burmah Bazaar dealer in the rape game in all probability wears devotional marks on his face and flings flowers on a gold Laxmi idol. I would love to expose such a dealer. But you wouldn’t, Bhrigu!”
Bhrigu: Did you know that the only reason why he could go behind bars is because he has acquired the stocks through illegal means, and not because the product itself is harmful?
Antara: Yet our newspaper reports about where RDX was found, what RDX can do, where terrorist training schools were found, what colour shirt Headley was wearing… why, we even report and dissect the personal lives of people because somehow we imagine that we are adding value to readers. Media vie with each other to be the first to write about marital discords and sibling rivalries, yet, when an RDX like this game is found to have entered the country nobody raises an eyebrow!
Bhrigu: It is time for people to take responsibility for their own actions. The only solution is to shut down the Internet.
Jeev: Wow! After Headley, did you shut down the airports or just strengthen the visa barriers? When cholera hit the country, did we stop eating food? What did we do instead? Think… that is what we are asking to be exercised. Where illegal works, illegal will sell. Where corruption is the currency of transacting, people are known to buy innocence and acquittal with a few lakhs. We have shown the way that authority is flexible. But I do believe that today too the public continues to love and respect the printed word, and we must employ this faith to save the country. Instead, have we, as a people, as a country, communicated to the world outside that we have no filters? That anything can come in and the law cannot stop it?
Antara: But the problem is that media does not want to antagonise any of their golden geese. That is why news is so inane these days — some teacher’s face blackened, some actor caught in a rape case. Are we enabling our readers to wake up to real truths besieging our country? Then why admonish the Indian for intellectual lethargy when we don’t care to inform him? Is this because the real issues that need to be covered are backed by powerful lobbies, the ones which pay for the media’s existence?
Bhrigu: What does that mean?
Antara: Patancheru is a place in Andhra Pradesh, Bhrigu. Many large companies have their plants there. The people there are suffering from diseases wrought by the effluents dumped into their rivers and that have seeped into their groundwater. The Patancheru committee of villagers is fighting to get back their basic need. Their protests have been covered by bloggers, social agencies and international publications. But what is the Indian media doing about it? Ditto for the mining community in Bihar. No whiff of this topic. They have driven viewers to a level of dumbness by feeding them social gossip and extramarital catastrophes. Are those life or death questions? No. Patancheru is.
Media today is not what media was. If the Indian media content is defined by advertisers’ agendas, then what is happening at a global level? Are there greater compromises at play?”
Analysis: Engaging Minds
With rights, we have lost sensibility. With laws, we have forgotten to be alert
This case highlights several layers of questions and conflicts (see flowchart in ‘Back To The 30s: Silent Media’). For a long time, the market has ruled the openness to new ideas, and products have become symbols of modernity and civilisation. Spices, carpets, machines started unifying the world on ships, camel backs, trains and airplanes. With the death knell of colonialism came the ascendancy of the marketplace — the right to trade.
This has been brought to the forefront through the World Trade Organization, or WTO. But much was lost in the headlong rush for more things, ideas and gloss.
Who was to decide if something was good to sell? Who could challenge the pollution, the poisons? Who could temper the right to trade and sell with the vigilance of history? And who will protect the rights of our unborn children?
This case shows the impotence of humankind in dealing with tough questions. With rights, we have lost sensibility. With laws, we have lost alertness. With markets, we have discovered that everything has a price, even our children’s lives and their future. Isn’t the Japanese rape game just a small extension of the ‘Game of Life-2009 India Edition’? (See flowchart in ‘Back To The 30s: Silent Media’).
I am reminded, anachronistically, of the molestation on Ruchika Girhotra by S.P.S. Rathore, one of the senior-most police officials of Haryana. With increasing chagrin, I see the reports dragging in chief ministers, four of them, and listening to their impotent denials of ‘I can’t help’. I wonder how they would have acted if it had been one of their daughters who suffered this unhappy fate.
My mind rushes back to the story of the cow, the lame bull and Parikshit, Abhimanyu’s son. After the Mahabharata war was over and Parikshit was the king of the Pandava kingdom, he once saw a fearsome man brutally hitting a lame white bull on its only unbroken leg while a miserable cow sat next to it. He learnt that the cow represented mother Earth while the white bull signified Dharma, which stood on penance, cleanliness, compassion and truth. Pride had destroyed penance; indulgence destroyed cleanliness and arrogance strangled compassion. The person hitting the bull, Kali yuga, was trying to kill truth, and replace it with his weapon, untruth. And the cow was crying over the golden days that had gone by and the dark ones that were to come in the future.
Today, if the highest elected and appointed officials of the land, not marauders from another part of the planet but people we know and recognise, behave like thieves, murders and rapists, who can we turn to? Draupadi, abandoned by her protectors, who were the high and mighty of the land, turned to Krishna. Is that the only recourse left today for the weak and poor? As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, is it too early to speak about egality, respect for all and one law for all citizens? Has enough historical time gone by for human beings to have learnt that as we sow, so we reap?
At present, we seem to be saying what the worst despots have always said — “I have power, and so I can do anything” or “if you have power, you can do anything”.
I use newspapers a lot for my general studies classes with senior students. I try to teach them to read critically and look at the overall picture on any given day. Unfortunately, most students do not read the newspaper well. One may ask if this is so because the newspaper is only reporting but not engaging them?
Most youngsters dip into the sports pages, or metro plus and the odd two or three may read an editorial. But almost all watch the news on television and catch the broad headlines. However, here too, the garbling is immense. News channels mix what I would call ‘understanding the nuances’ kind of news with just ‘gossip’ news. If my paper spoke to me, I would speak to it and ask questions, and even learn.
The difference is between ‘engaging’ and ‘catering’. The world is full of caterers. First, you soften the person with advertisements and brain-numbing images and find out what makes him or her tick. Then you give them what they ask for. But who wants a discerning public, one whose brain and heart are engaged in enquiring into goodness, truth and egality?
To draw in students for a higher level of enquiry and learning requires some depth of conviction and a more clearly established sense of purpose. Are there any channels and newspapers that take the responsibility of speaking to the discerning individuals and adding to the shaping of an intelligent community of people? Or has the challenge of survival and viability driven everyone into ‘catering’? Is the mandate about exposing facts and their nuances? Or is it about covering up and moving quickly to the superficial, becoming a tool in the hands of the seductive marketplace?
Case Study: An Educational Chernobyl
“Each word has an echo. So does each silence.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
Bhrigu Pant entered Principal Achint Dhawal’s office where another parent was also seated. The GM School, where Bhrigu’s sons studied, was one of the first to call Bhrigu in November 2009 when Dhawal had sighted news reports about a nefarious Japanese computer game that had entered India.
“It’s an underground game, sir,” Bhrigu had said then attempting to minimise Dhawal’s indignation. But Dhawal had pointed out, “The papers covering it are all ‘above the ground’, no Mr Pant? If you publish it, then an explanation must follow; a condemnation. The game’s entry into India is a cognisable act. Its condemnation and eradication must likewise be cognisable for it to not accumulate interest value.” While Bhrigu’s senior staff at NewsIndia had argued variously for the print medium to gain expression, Bhrigu wanted to verify what it was that bothered the schools.
Meanwhile, Ms Raman in the primary school was teaching the idea of ‘headlines’ to class 1 students. Little Kartikey had looked at the newspaper she had, and said, “That is a big word ma’am, speak it ma’am… what is that big word?” Succumbing, she said, “Molestation.”
Little Ranveer said, “My father told me it was about grown up people.” Kartikey’s face grew intense as he asked, “What does it mean ma’am? I am grown up…”
Raman told her class, “There is a bigger word. Let me see if you can write it.” She wrote ‘Constantinople’ on the board and asked the students to write it in cursive. “Tell me if it fits in one line!” And she went to meet the principal.
As Dhawal dealt with Bhrigu and parent Arjun Honaver, in walked Ms Raman. Honaver stood up and greeted her awkwardly saying, “Sorry for calling on you without notice… I need to talk to you. It’s about Ranveer.”
Bhrigu watched the goings on of a school, an organisation like any other, but whose daily story was refreshingly different from the rest, at least for Bhrigu, whose day began with deadlines and delays and cast-in-stone adult behaviours. He enjoyed watching Dhawal tend to different problems, including student Ronit Singh’s excuse for not wearing his school colour patka.
Honaver: See, daily when we drive to school, we play a ‘Point-the-word’ game with the newspaper. This morning Ranveer pointed towards ‘molestation’ and asked me for the meaning; I didn’t know what to say!
Raman: Your company’s recent advertisements for water purifier Swach talks about H1N1 and amphoteric surfactants. How did you explain that to consumers?
Honaver: Of course, we do communicate, but there is no risk of embarrassment there! I guess that is the fundamental difference. Besides, the consumer is not my child, you see… if my consumer is misinformed, it does not hurt me or give me sleepless nights.
Raman then narrated to Dhawal the chaos in her class over her unwitting choice of headlines, Dhawal advised her to approach it like she would any word.
Raman: One can go with the dictionary meaning which is “pester or harass (someone), typically in an aggressive or persistent manner. The crowd was shouting abuses and molesting the two police officers”. The other meaning is “assault or abuse (a person, esp. a woman or child) sexually”. I feel unsure about the latter meaning; do we need to address that at all?
Dhawal: Don’t we teach our children the rules of safe and unsafe touch? We do teach them that if there is an unsafe touch they experience, they must say ‘No’ and go tell an adult. Therefore, we have a responsibility to speak to children frankly. They trust us to give them answers, and that the answers will be correct.
Bhrigu: (Alarmed) Are you prepared for this? Won’t some kids react with fear or anger or helplessness or anxiety?
Dhawal: The solution then is silence. Unfortunately, that is not even an option! Here we are, grown up adults, unable to keep this country and world safe and clean, and in order to protect our own sense of comfort or discomfort, will we choose to keep information away? Information that is critical for the safety of our young? I am aghast that we can even think like this!
Raman: What should I do if the children say “the police officer was a bad man”? Should I endorse their feelings or deflect the question?
Dhawal: How would you answer that to your own child? What do you really feel and think: what the senior police officer and his office did, is it right? Stand by what you consider right. It may not be easy. But go ahead.
Arjun: How can you say ‘yes’ to that? It will break their faith in the law!
Dhawal: Once your little boy steps out of school, these are the people he will be dealing with. Can you afford to disguise meanings and call them ‘for grown ups’? Is it that you don’t know how to answer, or are you saying that the child should not be asking such questions?
Bhrigu watched them and thought, what a lot of song and dance over a news item that has probably died by now. To Dhawal he said, “I am amazed! Since when did schools begin to pay such attention to life outside the text books?”
Dhawal: Since the time life could not be contained just in books. And since a lot that is learnt is from society, from the system. Since the time news reporting exploded, grew variegated, insensitive and undependable. Since the time the world grew unhappier and parents adopted dynamic methods to make their kids smart but not wise. Tending to their EQ (emotional quotient) is our business, our calling, our responsibility.
We don’t just teach text books, we also teach our students ‘right attitude’. For this, we depend a lot on the external environment to be supportive (read, honest). Incidentally, sir, the girl whose experience has brought this ugly word into the front pages, was a child, a school student. It angers me that this country does not have respect for our young!
Realising how angry he had become, Dhawal paused and said, “For you, Mr Honaver, it is one child asking for one meaning. For me it is 1,100 students. My responsibility is to ensure that they get honest answers because we as teachers know that eight out of 10 kids do not get responses at home. Why? Because they are not taken seriously!
“Are you aware that about 50 per cent of the children in our country experience sexual abuse? In most cases, the abuser is somebody the family knows well. There is one more very troubling fact: on an average, a child needs to complain seven times before he or she is taken seriously, and one reason is that most of us seem to think that our children are safe. A young mind that grows with fear and anxiety, cannot grow into a healthy adult. Don’t your companies need healthy adults? Doesn’t our government need healthy adults to run it?
“How safe are our children? You tell me Mr Pant… you are a newspaper-wallah! Do newspapers know about children-youth-safety or only liquor, fashion, politics, crime, business and stockmarkets? Where is life in all this? When sexual imagery is the language of advertisement, when family magazines carry sexual surveys, when contraceptives are freely advertised with copy lines that are unnecessary, do you think the children are being ‘educated’ rightly by the media? Safely? Do you consider children and youth for other than selling things to and through? What are they? Little people who don’t matter?
“This is why I asked you, Mr Pant last month, what has NewsIndia done to exonerate the Japanese rape game. No one chose to condemn it. Why? This is a part of rightly informing our children. You need to partner parents and teachers. It is thanks to education, my good men, that newspapers have editors and soap companies CEOs! And just as parents are often ill-prepared for such conversations, so are school teachers!”
Bhrigu was strangely reassured. He had been unprepared too. And Dhawal was saying just that now. “Nobody is prepared for this! Which teacher is prepared for an answer to ‘Ma’am, what is a rape game?’ or ‘If he is a policeman, why did he trouble that girl?’ Mr Honaver, you tell me, how do you feel when a consumer calls to say that your soap brand did not deliver its promise? We feel sick when the students come back and tell us they are unable to deal with the world outside. Hear what my ex-student, Ishayu Sen, who is studying to be an accountant, writes: ‘sir, this profession is veiled in curtains of lies and deceit. It hurts me to know what I will have to participate in. I know that I do not want to become like my bosses or colleagues. They may be very professional, but they are not good people; and I frankly do not care to be associated with them.’ In Ishayu’s words I read a certain sadness and I feel responsible. Do you feel responsible, Mr Pant?
“Education is about an ongoing process of developing a big picture of life and its challenges, Mr Pant. There was a time when I used the newspaper a lot to teach. Instead, I am turning to new media, Internet blogs of George Monbiot or John Pilger or commentaries in the Guardian Weekly for depth and story telling. Yes! That is what is missing, story telling. Mr Pant, reporting is for trainees. Grown men write stories and challenge the edifice on which lies are hoisted! Instead, what do we have? News that crafts untruths to save some pompous agendas.
“I bookmarked this sentence from an old post from John Pilger for my class 12 debate on ‘the metaphysics of lying’. Here, let me read it out to you: ‘… the BBC’s director of news was asked (by Media Lens) why the BBC had remained silent on known atrocities committed by the Americans in Fallujah. She replied, “Our correspondent in Fallujah at the time [of the US attack], Paul Wood, did not report any of these things because he did not see any of these things.”’ Pilger adds wryly, ‘It’s a statement to savour’.”
Raman: Silence speaks louder. That is why I wanted to give Kartikey and Ranveer the right answer. Tell me Mr Honaver, how do we shepherd our students? Can we afford to be coy too? How do I enable them to discern aberration from rule?
Yes, thought Dhawal, how do you say, “Son, this is molestation, but you may not do it”. If an act should not be done, how did it get a name, then? This is why working in schools is only for the bravest! You cannot tell lies and spin fairy tales, but have to meet the frank questions of the young and search inside for any wisdom.
Dhawal left Bhrigu to continue his chat with other teachers, and walked towards class 11G for the English class. He saw the boys reading the news on the Yahoo homepage. “What’s news?” he called out, and the four sheepishly shut the laptop saying, “Nothing serious, sir.” Dhawal smiled, “Okay, rapid fire round: what were you reading about?” The four laughed knowing Dhawal’s ploys, and said, “Okay, there was some news about Rakhi Sawant…”
“Tell me,” said Dhawal. Jimmy Walia, a prefect, said, “It was less about Rakhi Sawant. It seems the chap who forcibly kissed her is so angry that she had lodged a complaint, that he has said he will never work with her in a film.”
“Okay, back to class now. We are reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Quick, on the double guys,” said Dhawal. But as he set up the podium for the lecture, his mind was droning with what he had heard and seen. Class 11 students were reading gossip when the country was torn by the debate over a police officer’s dishonesty. Turning to the class his thoughts leaked out. “What is today’s burning issue: a) The complicity in corruption and criminality by cabinet rank ministers, cops and courts of your country, or, b) Is Mika using offensive to look holy?”
Param (student): Mika-talk is the world we occupy, sir. We youngsters cannot choose or discard our ministers or the law, for we are young and certainly not ‘relevant’ for the country’s agenda as we are not adding to GDP. But we can choose or discard the actors and singers who inhabit our iPods and Facebook.
Vyas (student): How does it matter if Mika is right or not? Where is the truth in the news, sir? You tell us, how come newspapers are selective about what stories they give attention to and what not? How come some past sins are dug out but others not? Some of us here read Badri Raina on ZNet… they give us thoughts to think. Whereas newspapers only give us events.
Back in his office after the class, Dhawal said to the teachers conferring with Bhrigu Pant, “What paradox! Class 12 students do not seem to be attracted to mainstream news! They read the business papers and The Economist, but that is all business and commerce. What about the world they live in? Today, Sridhar Vyas has hit the nail on the head. He says newspapers are just event reporters. And I now understand what he means; the newspapers are not challenging them! News channels, too, have become like theatre performances with high-pitch voices, dramatic arguments and a generous garnish of Bollywood debates. Tiger Woods or Rakhi Sawant become far more worthy of conversation than starvation deaths in Orissa or BT brinjal or the judge in Karnataka! Their interaction with news is fleeting and flippant.
Mallika Sinha (music teacher): That is because the newspapers do not tell the story. They only report cold facts and walk away, much like ‘Kya aap ke toothpaste mein salt hai?’ Today, can the papers say they are tracking the West Asia wars? Or the emancipation of Iraq as a story like: ‘This is how it began…’? No!
Dhawal: Why invest in the intelligence of human beings, Mr Pant, when all you need is their ‘eyeballs’, isn’t it? Ethics of the market place is removed from the larger responsibility of ‘rightness’ and ‘goodness’. Markets thrive on the grey, undefined, and badly defined. In fact, they thrive on poor definitions, confusion and stirring the unresolved areas of human consciousness.
Here comes the media’s role. Is it their role to cater or to involve and engage? And how much are they willing to think about their mission and how much of themselves as a business, a corporation? I think those days are gone when newspaper barons passionately believed in engaging. Today, this has translated into a corporate empire which is supported by advertisements and sponsorships. And, therefore, media increasingly has taken on the colour of the marketplace. Much the same way that schools and colleges take their colour from the corporations and lose their purpose in their catering.
Mallika: The editorials and comments require one to search and only the clearly oriented reader has a chance of getting something halfway significant out of the paper…
Biren Chogyal (sports teacher): Absolutely. Presenting facts versus shaping an opinion! Dulling the sensibilities of the readers and in fact like the Mobius strip the reader finds himself supporting something that is terrible. Such an insult to individual intelligence. The tragedy at a deeper level is that our education drives out what residual sensibility we carry from the older generations!
Madhav Lal (history): Worse, Mr Pant. We even come to disregard that residual sensibility. I really wonder how we are going to step up the schooling experience. Newspapers offer a platter of ‘news’ but steer clear of tricky stories. Take the Maoist uprising in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, etc. The students have been unable to delve deep and examine the situation. While many newspapers have written about the raids, deaths, counter attacks, there seem to be few pieces that tell the story of poverty, starvation, exploitation and neglect. Few raise historical questions — are these people criminals or freedom fighters? Or examine the reasons for their uprising.
Some students have been sharp and reached columns written by Harsh Mander, P. Sainath etc., which dare to unfold a carefully worked story. Unfortunately, students ‘encounter’ them rarely, as the paper speaks alongside, a language of disjointed and sensational news, while burying significant news between gossip and advertisements.
Dhawal: Exactly my point too. Take any country, Mr Pant, it has a story laden with confusion: West Asia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and then the bigger chapters are about the involvement of the G8 in their histories and futures.
You must write history as it happens, and unearth the details wherein lies the denudation of a country’s values. Only then can you say you gave your children the truth. Today, lies are written in the language of truth. My student Vyas asks me, “How come some testimonies are admitted and some not?” Do you see, Mr Reporter, to answer Vyas honestly, I will be saying things about the law and order, about newspaper ideologies and revenues and, of course, political optimisation.
Or, are newspapers afraid to speak plainly? Are we unable to take a clear position resting on truth and a sense of rightness? Where is the question of taking on the system and breathing new life, if people who are in positions of influence don’t speak their minds? Can you imagine where India would have been if Mahatma Gandhi had not resisted at Natal? Suppose he had apologised and disembarked from the train? So, conviction Mr Pant, conviction!
Analysis: The Wonder of Why
The media needs to take responsibility for its choice of content, slant and tone
Make what you may of my silence, my child.
At least I did not feed you lies!
‘Why’ is a difficult question, child…
The first ‘Why’ usually takes us to the surface,
The second — how much we take for granted,
The third ‘Why’ brings us face to face with the depth of our ignorance,
a la C.V. Raman in ‘Why The Sky Is Blue’
By then the whys multiply, leading to wonder,
To unknown facts, exciting questions,
uncomfortable unanswered answers.
Why did the police officer hurt the girl?
What happened to her hurt?
Why did no one listen?
The papers, why were they quiet for 19 years?
The quiet cops, were they terrified, embarrassed?
Or did they protect the wrong doer?
When I am older, and commit a wrong,
will the cops and court protect me too?
Will I too be able to get away with just a tap?
Aha! That’s how it works!
If you have profit, you have power!
You don’t go to jail or pay for your crime,
protected by money, protected by power!
So teacher, please, don’t teach me useless stuff.
Teach me the real world!
Teach me how to fulfill my heart’s desires; ads do.
Teach me to get all I crave; the market does!
I want to look good, like in the magazines,
the stars and the beautiful people.
Did they get there playing by the rulebook?
Or did they duck when inner questions
flew fast and thick?
No one got anything by answering questions.
‘Just do it’ is the only mantra! Don’t ask how!
If you see walls, break them.
If rivers block your path, suck them dry!
Life is an opportunity, and I have just this one.
Teacher oh teacher, don’t waste my time.
Fill my mind with dreams of power.
I hear it so loud that I can’t hear your song
of respect and dignity, of right and wrong.
I learnt it all very early, so did my friends.
You are tall and grownup, did they somehow leave you out?
Teacher, is that why you are still at school?
Teach me that nothing matters beyond power.
Show me how to bury questions and confusions.
Surely you know that this is just a game,
this talk of morals and values, goodness and decency.
Or, did they forget to tell you?
Surely you know I need the prize,
to stand tall a victor.
But I need to quell the little voice within,
the one that asks questions…
Teach me to smile, when I have done wrong,
To forgive myself and deny all wrongs.
Teacher oh teacher, I have nothing against you!
You may not know, but you are in a tight spot.
For you can neither speak the truth nor endorse power.
But know, I was here when yet young, unformed, often I spoke the honest truth;
I was licked into shape with jeers and taunts.
I have learnt my lessons, I learnt what pays.
So Teacher, will you still stand alone?
Or soon sell your soul to the spell of the market?
Why is the school, the last of institutions standing, to be left with this hopeless mandate? Why is there such little support for the emergence of intelligence in the young and old? Could it be that we actually don’t love our children? If we did, would we not find a way out?
Have we, the society, chosen power over care, efficiency over effectiveness, the cat that runs away with the pie over the larger good? And, therefore, have we chosen lament over hope? And if this is what we wish to burn into the consciousness of our children, there is no better broth we can offer. An anachronistic school system and powerful surround messages reinforcing the opposite.