With the MMRDA grounds in Bombay not quite turning out to be the Ram Lila grounds of Delhi, and with the Lok Pal bill floundering in Parliament, it is time for introspection in the media of the media’s role in the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement.
“At the 2011 CNN IBN Indian of the Year awards, Anna Hazare candidly admitted that it was the media which was responsible for his rise from a regional figure in Maharashtra to a national icon. ‘If your cameras ‘had not followed me everywhere, who would know me?’ was the activist’s honest response.
“There is little doubt that over the last nine months, Hazare’s advisers used the media quite brilliantly. Prime-time press conferences, made-for-TV spectacles, social networking campaigns: Anna Hazare did benefit from saturation media coverage.
“Yes, some of it was high-pitched, and, yes, some journalists did become Anna cheerleaders. But to see Anna as purely a media phenomenon would be a misreading of the mood on the street. Crowds were attracted to Anna not because the TV cameras were there, but because he appeared the antithesis of a morally bankrupt political leadership beset with a series of scams….
“In the end, both the state and Team Anna mistook the medium for the message. Team Anna saw the frenzied coverage as its main weapon, forgetting that democratic politics is not a repetitive television serial, but a tortuous process of negotiation and conciliation. The state, on the other hand, failed to recognise that cacophony will be part of a media environment in which there are more than 350 news channels and several hundred OB vans across India.
“The media will be a loudspeaker of grievances, not just of Team Anna, but of many other protest movements in the future. Strong leaders will not be swayed by the noise, a wise civil society will seek legitimacy beyond the camera lens.”
“The Indian news media generate public interest through two distinct kinds of stories — the reporter’s story and the editor’s story. In 2005, when Parliament passed the Right to Information Act, it was the result of a long and difficult process of influencing public opinion by reformers and persistent reporters.
“The anti-corruption movement, on the other hand, was an editor’s story from the very beginning, from the moment Anna Hazare arrived in New Delhi in April, sat on a wayside with his supporters and threatened to starve to death if the government did not create the Lokpal.
“Television news quickly converted Hazare into a saint who had arrived from his village to fight the corrupt authorities in New Delhi. On the first day of his fast, there were no more than 300 people around him, but the cameras framed the fast in such a way that it gave the impression that something big was going on.
“The television news media, which are largely headquartered in New Delhi, had very little understanding of Hazare, who is from Maharashtra. Until last April, his influence was confined to rural parts of Maharashtra. By the time the anchors asked the important question — “Who exactly is Anna Hazare?” — it was too late. They had already proclaimed him a modern saint, and he had amassed millions of supporters in a matter of days. As it turned out, Hazare is not a man the urban middle class would normally call a saint.”
Also read: Anna Hazare: 17 interviews in 11 hours