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Media for TRPs and Prasar Bharati for Murdoch?

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One may have to turn to major advertisers to find out what slots are being booked beyond September 16 when the India – England ODI series ends. Because that is when the political season will open up for the UP assembly elections, and for which the channels are already smacking their lips.

It is at that stage that the marketing whiz-kids have to take a call whether to invite Anna Hazare for a sojourn at Delhi’s Ramlila Ground or, for variety, transport fifty or more cameras to Ralegaon Siddhi itself. Crowd mobilization in a remote area may not be insurmountable because crowd amplification is an elementary media trick.

It was by this trick that the Dick Cheney pulled wool over the world’s eyes by putting out a complete fabrication that Saddam Hussain’s statue had been pulled down on April 9, 2003 by Iraqi crowds celebrating victory. Nothing of the sort happened. Some workers from Baghdad’s Palestine hotel and a handful of bystanders saw US marines place a hook around the neck of the statue and an armoured personal carrier pull the rope to leave Saddam hanging at an awkward tilt, gifting the world with an iconic image of American triumph.

Poor Rageh Omaar, the BBC’s correspondent, received instructions from headquarters to provide commentary suitable for a great victory. So, he went on and on: O’ my god, this is unbelievable, the crowds are coming from this side and that. The fact of the matter was that the crowds did not come, only Omaar did.

In between the contrived frames of the statue falling, were snatches from Dick Cheney’s “victory” speech in which he thanked “religious” leaders for having made the occasion possible. Who were the “religious leaders” being thanked and why? Shia clerics Baqar al Hakim and Muqtada Sar had been contacted to send out Shia crowds to celebrate. Yes, that is when Tom Friedman, who thought Iraq was the greatest liberalizing project ever undertaken, recommended a Noble Prize for Ayatullah Sistani. The story bears repetition because it is on mass amnesia that the contemporary global media feeds as I know too well from recent travels through most of the Arab world in the grip of violent change. It quite beats me how the western media has heaped so much shame on itself by telling lies that would make ones hair stand – in Libya and Syria. Joseph Stiglitz, the American Nobel laureate is right. Bin Laden wished to hurt America, but the manner in which the US has proceeded to hurt itself by dismantling its institutions, of which a credible media is part, is quite dismaying. And we, in India, give currency to columnists who, at their lowest, spew racism. “The West must at times be prepared to fight for its values against barbarism.” Really? When did Martin Luther King lead the Civil Rights movement? Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, a million civilians killed in Iraq. And our obsequious media publishes columnists justifying military action on Arab people to end “barbarism?”

But let me not mix up print with electronic media. These have been good days for TRPs ever since the Cricket World Cup began earlier in the year, leading upto a dream climax in the semi-final in Mohali, garnished with an Indo-Pak summit, and then the final of finals when India became the world’s number one team.

It was not that the marketing managers had taken their eyes off life after the world cup. Here was the worlds number one team (it had just won in the West Indies too) headed for England. It was mind boggling the bonanza that loomed on the horizon. Unfortunately, team India flopped in England.

But by the time the last test match ended at the Oval on August 22, channels were busy reheating the Anna project.

In a fast paced novel or movie P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Swami Ramdev, Anna Hazare and the media, would all be found to be batting on the same side, heightening dramatic effect from their own vantage points in geometrical progression, filling the media’s coffers with mysterious altruism.

Barely two days before a dismal test series ended, Anna was reinstated at Ramlila ground. The 24X7 media had never had it so good. Anchors mobilized superior pundits to analyze every inflection of Anna and his cohorts. For ten days, without a break, morning, evening, afternoon, all other news disappeared from the media.

And now as the country prepares for the UP and national election, the channels must keep their gaze on the main chance, the TRPs. In wars the western media becomes part of the war effort, batting for the country as it were. But whose purpose does the Indian media serve when it becomes part of the Anna campaign? We shall never know the answer to this question unless we know who owns the media and what are the foreign linkages.

When Rupert Murdoch was on the mat in Britain and the US his representative in India was doubling up as member of the Prasar Bharati Board! Really, what salvation when neither the state nor Anna know a jot about the media which ties them up in knots?

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)