Sunday, February 1, 2009

The megalomania of Barkha Dutt

Ms. Barkha Dutt, the Managing Editor-English News of the ‘highly influential’ Indian news channel New Delhi Television (NDTV) is surely an honorable person. She is striking, concerned and caring, widely acclaimed as an impressive and intrepid journalist and certainly a celebrity. During the Mumbai terror attacks, she positioned herself with a broken voice on ground zero to dispatch continuous news bytes for her channel. It was the filmmaker Shyam Benegal who had to remind her about the class biases of her coverage that has surprisingly forgotten the ‘insignificant’ victims of CST railway station. To clear her conscience, she brought Shameem, a man who has lost six members of his family at the CST in her talk-show ‘We the People’ and with a teary eye and clogged voice sensationalized the viewers by interviewing this hapless man. On the same show her conspicuous guest Simi Garewal disgorged this irresponsible and stupid remark: “…look down from the top floor at the slums around you. Do you know what flags you will see? Not the Congress’, not the BJP’s, not the Shiv Sena’s. Pakistan! Pakistani flags fly high!” By turning emotional in her own show, Ms. Dutt in a melodramatic voice revealed that during the terrible three days she did not find anyone who was not acquainted with a victim of the terror strikes. The victims she had mentioned about were evidently not the massacred ones in the CST railway station but mostly high society elites from the Taj, Oberoi and Trident. She later tried to clarify that the hotels were focused as ‘sites of the live encounters’ and was not a ‘deliberate socio-economic prejudice’. Indeed, some of her prejudices are so deep-rooted that she fails to recognize them.

Soon, her coverage of the audacious attacks started to instigate extensive criticism in social networking sites like Facebook and Orkut for too much sensationalism. The criticism was mostly sappy reactions by Indian Internet users who were naturally outraged by the appalling atrocity. Barkha Dutt was accused for ‘broadcasting sensitive information about the position of hostages and security troops’ and for ‘sensationalizing the news coverage’. Newswatch, a media watchdog based in New Delhi had carried out a survey on the television news coverage of the incident and found that “Barkha Dutt of NDTV was thought to be the most theatrical/worst anchors/reporters”. Though Subir Ghosh, editor of Newswatch portal has clarified that “since this was an online survey the results would also mean the opinion gathered was that of India’s Internet users only, and not that of the people as a whole. The survey results, unfortunately, leave out rural India from its ambit. In that sense, this survey is as elitist as the coverage ….”

On 27 November 2008, Chyetanya Kunte, an Indian blogger living in the Netherlands wrote a post ‘Shoddy journalism’ in his blog and harshly accused Barkha Dutt for breaking ‘every rule of ethical journalism in reporting the Mumbai mayhem’. Though the post was perceived by Ms. Dutt as a ‘hate’ campaign against her, it was actually Kunte’s personal views which had erupted out of agony, frustration and anger while he was viewing the coverage of the on going mayhem on television. Kunte found the coverage careless and repugnant. He felt that it was actually helping the terrorists with vital information that might have jeopardized the lives of people trapped in the occupied buildings and remarked that, “You do not need to be a journalist to understand the basic premise of ethics, which starts with protecting victims first…” He had also cited a Wikipedia reference about allegation against Ms. Dutt’s channel for ‘giving away locations in her broadcasts, thus causing Indian casualties’ during the Kargil war. Kunte’s allegations are debatable but he was not the lone accuser in this occasion. Along with him, thousands of television viewers were similarly upset by the numb coverage of the Mumbai carnage by Indian news channels.

Shockingly, Kunte’s emotional fury was picked up by Barkha Dutt as comments by ‘a certain Mr. Kunte’ who has targeted the ‘character, morality and integrity’ of herself and her channel. NDTV promptly issued a legal notice against Kunte which was confirmed by Ms. Dutt in Facebook where she wrote that, “Mr. Kunte has been served a legal notice for libel by NDTV. That should give you some indication of where we and I stand. The freedom afforded by the Internet cannot be used to fling allegations at individuals or groups in the hope that they will then respond to things that aren't worthy of engagement.” Can we ask who is Barkha Dutt to decide how ‘freedom afforded by the Internet’ should be used? On 26 January 2009, Kunte was forced to publish a post captioned ‘Unconditional Withdrawal of my post “Shoddy Journalism” dated November 27th 2008’ in his blog where he has tendered ‘an unconditional apology to Ms. Barkha Dutt, Managing Editor, English News, NDTV Limited and to NDTV Limited, for the defamatory statements’ and stated that he has ‘agreed with Ms. Barkha Dutt and NDTV to publish this statement as a means of settlement’. Subsequently, the original post was deleted from the blog. Chyetanya Kunte became an unfortunate victim of the megalomania of Ms. Dutt and NDTV.

The incidence is startling. Not only because it has exposed the malevolent side of the imposing face of NDTV, India's largest private television production house but also because the incident has exposed how a prime television media house and its famed Managing Editor can easily become prickly about venial criticism. It is similarly startling to observe how arrogant a television news channel can be when confronted with uncomfortable questions from its very own audience. It looks more odd when the same NDTV adopts the role of conscience-keeper and become instrumental in arousing public anger against the government and politicians, invites stupid guests in serious looking talk-shows to deliver stupid lectures on matters of public concern, interviews hapless relatives of the victims to make ‘story’ out of their mental anguish. All of these were plainly, as Miss Dutt explains in the NDTV website, to ‘touch upon the human dimension’ to the story. As if the people of India needed to be spoon-fed by her channel about how callous their politicians are and how sad and hopeless one feels when a near and dear one is held hostage by brutal terrorists. In capital letters Miss Dutt has clarified that ‘they WANTED to talk’. How is she so sure about that? If it was important for her to cover the views of those who WANTED to talk rightly or wrongly, in a similar logic it must also be important for those who rightly or wrongly wanted to criticize her role. She had also tried to assure her viewers that “…it is important to understand that in the absence of any instructions on site and in the absence of any such framework we broke NO rules.” Here, she has assigned herself in a duel role – both as the law breaker and the law maker.

In recent times, the Internet has provided independent voice to individuals who in the past were rarely capable to express and exchange their views and opinions on issues of public concern. Accepting this wonderful opportunity, many laypeople have started expressing themselves through social networking sites and personal weblog. This development has made the large media houses like NDTV and their standard form of journalism increasingly nervous about the future of their absolute authority on public psyche and exposed the fragility of their empire.

By putting a gag on Chyetanya Kunte, what example does Ms. Barkha Dutt and NDTV wants to set? Is it in fact a warning for all bloggers to think twice before expressing their personal views? Do all bloggers now start gulping their emotions to avoid legal notices? The Mumbai incidence was definitely a serious matter of public concern. Every Indian has a right to express his/her views on this subject. If fingers can be raised against politicians, bureaucrats, judiciary and security forces, fingers can also be raised against the holy cow journalists and media houses.

Freedom of speech cannot be selective. As Noam Chomsky had said, “If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.”

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