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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 46, November 5, 2011

Role of Media in Crises Situations

Tuesday 8 November 2011, by P.B. Sawant


The role the media plays in crises situations depends upon the role it assigns to itself even in the normal situation. Does it look upon itself as a leader of the society? As a reformer? As a catalyst of change? Or as a mere messenger of news and views? Even as an informer, does it act as an independent communicator or is it influenced by some internal and external pressures and forces?

Media’s role in any country depends largely upon the social, political, economic and legal conditions prevalent in it, as also upon its historical and cultural background and traditions. Further, the media—whether print or electronic —is not a homogeneous institution. In our own country, there are numerous operators right from the national level downwards, in different regions, in different languages and dialects, belonging to different classes, castes, communities and ethnic groups. They operate with different objects, for promoting different causes and with different motivations. It is, therefore, difficult to expect that the entire media in any country will play a uniform role whether in a normal or a crisis situation. Moreover, the role a media-outlet may play in a crisis situation depends upon the nature of the crisis and the media’s perspective of the same which may be coloured by various factors including its own interests and concerns, its policy and philosophy, and the internal and external restrictions upon it. This may be so not only with regard to the news-media but also with regard to the media devoted to special subjects having a bearing on the crisis.

It will, therefore, be more to our purpose to discuss what role the media should play rather than to only examine the role it plays in a crisis situation.

THE media, whether it is looked upon as a business, profession or employment, has distinct dimensions which no other occupation shares. It operates on society as a whole and is not confined in its influence to its readers or viewers alone. What appears or is presented in it spreads like wild fire, particularly when it is negative, adverse, alarming or sensational. It operates intimately, constantly and regularly to mould the minds and the views of the people as well as the policy-makers. It can set and push its own social, political, economic, educational and cultural agenda. It can make and unmake individuals and institutions. It can unify as well as divide the country, forge a spirit of amity or spread violence, help solve a problem or create panic, build or destroy a nation. Being a mass communicator with a direct approach, it has the potentiality of constructive as well as destructive work. It thus enjoys an enviable position of being an educator, guide and leader of the society. This advantage itself casts upon it a unique responsibility of seeing the society through any crisis situation with the minimum of damage, and in some cases even to help it emerge stronger than before.

This role it can play only if first, it cares to study the crisis in-depth, detect the root cause of the problem and suggest constructive measures to deal with it. If, on the other hand, it deals with the problem casually and superficially, and is content with describing and dealing only with its consequence, it will do less than service to the society. Not only will the society be misguided by wrong diagnosis, but may be induced to adopt remedial measures which may be worse than the disease. In some cases, the damage may be irreparable.

Secondly, and this is equally important, the analysis of the situation as well as the remedies suggested to meet it, must be uninfluenced by any consideration other than the long-term interests of the nation as a whole. Very often than not, the projection is motivated and deliberately slanted. The ecological tilts apart—which may be identified by the leanings of the author—the presentation of the so-called independent views which are in fact promoted by certain interests, with their subtle underpinnings and attempts to divert attention from the real issues, are not unknown. It is such discussions and suggestions which present a real danger to the society. Scribes, lobbyists and propagandists are sometimes hired to advocate certain views and to counter and denigrate other views. The orchestration of a particular line, and a constant dinning of a set of views to suit it to the exclusion of and by blacking out of the inconvenient views, has almost become an art. The practitioners of this art are well-rewarded and may be found on the bandwagon of many string-pullers. It becomes difficult not only for the people but also for the policy-makers to sift the truth from the half-truth and the untruth, from amidst the cacophony of the well-oiled machinery commanded by those who call the tune. The pressures brought to bear on the decision-makers by the pied pipers many times assume intolerable proportions. The media which must have the interests of the nation at heart has, therefore, to be extra cautious in presenting the views; and when it funds that the views expressed are only one-sided, to take deliberate pains to present the other side of the views as well, so that a well-considered approach is made to the problem and a solution truly beneficial to the nation is found out.

The third requisite is to view each crisis from the angle of the masses and to help evolve a solution which will be in their interests. This country since long has been suffering from “elititis” to use Justice Iyer’s one of the original and apt contributions to our vocabulary. Many of our persistent ills can be traced to this paralysing ailment afflicting our vision, our attitude and our approach to the problems confronting us in every field whether economic, political, social, educational, cultural or environ-mental. This unidimensional approach owes itself to the undeniable fact of our social life that all our institutions are predominantly manned both at the decision-making and operational levels by those drawn from the elite section. Whether it is political or administrative executive, judiciary, educational campus or media world, cultural institutions or social service organisations, trade, industry or business, private or public sector, police or army, medical, legal or engineering profession, science and technology, or health and environment, they have a pronouncedly elite outfit and an elite approach in their respective spheres. A major portion of our resources are being spent to pamper the tastes and the greed of this small section of the society, and what little is made available to the rest, is not even properly expended on them, since the implementing machinery is also manned by the personnel not always sympathetic to them.

This also accounts for our superficial and casual approach to the problems of the over-whelming majority of our countrymen and our inability to solve even the basic problems of poverty, ignorance and disease afflicting them even after fifty years of political independence. Whenever there is a crisis, whether political, economic or social, the elite try to find solutions in the alternative forms of government or electoral procedures forgetting the base of our polity which is the teeming millions. Some suggest presidential form of government. Others advocate some kind of dictatorship or authoritarianism. Some find solution in complete liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. Others see heaven in opening the doors freely to the foreign capital. Some are enamoured by high technology while others see solutions to all our ills in tying our economy to the apron of the super economies and taking the dictates from the international finance and trade institu-tions. Nobody even pauses to reflect that the real potentiality for sustaining our polity and economy lies in the empowerment of our masses to develop themselves and thereby the nation. That empowerment can come only through eradication of illiteracy and ignorance, ensuring adequate and nutritional food, pure drinking water, health care and hygienic and sanitary conditions of living and working, providing basic infrastructure of roads, energy, transpor-tation, schools and health centres.

Let us take care of the masses and the masses will take care of our democracy and also ensure our prosperity. We have become politically independent but have increasingly become economically dependent on others. We are not prepared to learn lessons not only from our past history but also from the contemporary history of others. In spite of the failures of those who tried to ape the economic models of the so-called advanced economies where the social and economic conditions are vastly different, our elite and the elite-dominated media continues to sing the paeans of praise for the same models. Is it ignorance, mental and intellectual inertia and slavery or deliberately inspired orchestration?

We have always prided ourselves on our ancient, original intellectual contribution to various spheres of life. We are also proud of our countrymen’s valuable contribution to different disciplines in the modern times. Granting that there is reason to be proud of it, shall we not ask ourselves a simple question: where does that originality disappear when it comes to finding our own solutions to our basic ills? Shall we ape and continue to ape others in all respects? Do we practice intellectualism or regale in pseudo-intellectualism? Has our creative genius become sterile?

MEDIA as a mass messenger, communicator and educator has a particular responsibility in promoting, searching and seeking out original ideas, talent, skills; measures, schemes and projects and in focusing attention on them where they help solve our problems in whatever field we face them. This it has to do dispassio-nately, objectively and with commitment to the cause. The media’s commitment to our constitutional goals, values and policies and programmes is of utmost importance if it is to play its desired role in dealing with and solving the problems and crises that we face and may face from time to time.

The country today faces crises on various fronts. These have not cropped up overnight. Some of them are handed down to us by the past while others are the culminating conse-quences of past inactions and wrong actions. With the passage of time these have been growing in proportion and gravity. The moral and the value crises both in private and public life, the corruption and criminalistion of public life, the sharpening of caste and communal differences, the politicisation of all institutions of civil life and the growth of selfishness, sectarianism and anti-nationalism in all walks of life, are the overt manifestations of deep-rooted social and cultural ills. Consumerism, philistinism, commercialism and unscrupu-lousness are at the root of these evils. That explains the growth of mafia in all spheres of public life and at all levels from the village to the national. The country today finds itself in the grip of the national and international mafia of all kinds from coal to drug, and from land to arms and ammunition.

Money and muscle power rule the roost in elections. The manipulation of voters’ lists and poll-rigging has become the order of the day. Caste, community and criminality determine the ability to win the elections. Sectarian and regional political parties have become the norm, and individuals rather than issues count. Violence is no longer an exception and has become part of the political game. Opportunistic alliances, unstable governments and immoral unethical and illegal bargainings have become honourable. All compunctions have disappeared from the political dictionary.

The ‘white collar’ crime is escalating at a frightening pace. Scams, scandals and frauds in financial institutions, corruption and criminal practices in bureaucracy, business and industry, anti-social and anti-national economic activities and open defence of illegalities are emerging as the religion of the day. The nationalised banks recently wrote off Rs 45,000 crores as bad debts. A World Bank Report states that at the beginning of the 1990s our countrymen had stacked in foreign banks no less than 100 billion dollars. It is thereafter that liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation—the economic LPG—started apace. One can estimate how much amount must be standing to the credit of the Indians abroad today. And they are all honourable men belonging to the high strata of our society.

In the meanwhile, the population is growing and along with it poverty, unemployment, the number of illiterate, the landless, and also the street-crime and violence. The social and economic inequalities are widening and with it the social conflicts and tensions. Armed Senas, atrocities on the weaker sections and armed conflicts with opponents have become a routine affair in some parts of the country. The economic deprivations are forcing the deprived to resort to violent methods.

Can media as the mass communicator play the role of a catalyst of change? What applies to an individual, applies to the institution as well. To play the role of the Saviour, the media must have the requisite moral authority. If the media is itself afflicted by immoral and unethical conduct the ailments it is called upon to check, and loses credibility and responsibility rendering itself incapable of wielding a moral stick, it is obvious that it cannot perform this role however suitable it may be otherwise as an instrument for bringing about the change. The media, as stated earlier, is composed of heterogeneous elements operating with different motivations and for different considerations. There are no qualifications required for practising journalism or running a media establishment. Even convicts and criminals can, and at some places do, run media outlets. This brand of mediapersons cannot be expected to play any role save the role of aggrandising themselves even in crises situations.

Fortunately there are many honourable media-persons and operators to whom the society can look, for giving the necessary lead. It is imperative that this section in the media rises to the occasion to take up the challenges offered by the times.

Justice Sawant is the former Chairman of the Press Council of India.

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