Me Media-kar: Hysteria Over Thakrey’s Death

 Kalpana Sharma | The Hoot

The coverage given to Thackeray’s death by some television channels was overwhelmingly disproportionate to his contribution to people’s well-being. The comments made by the “experts” were toned by the fear of Sena reprisal.

Can Indian news television plumb greater depths? The blanket coverage of Bal Thackeray’s death and funeral on some channels would make any self-respecting journalist hang her head in shame. What were they thinking? Where were the editors of these channels? On what basis did they decide that the death of a man who has never held elected office, who is not a national-level leader, who has spread hate and venom and practised sectarian and divisive politics, deserves wall-to-wall coverage?

I watched three English channels–NDTV, Times Now, and CNN-IBN. Only NDTV treated the event as precisely that–one news event on a day when much else was happening. In Gaza, Israeli bombardment killed children and injured many journalists; in Kokrajhar the violence was subsiding; and in Delhi there was the bizarre case of the two businessmen brothers getting shot.

Not only was the coverage excessive, the non-stop chatter by studio “experts” was of a kind to numb the senses of any viewer. It is customary not to speak ill of the dead, but should we be calling a man who has spread so much hate a “phenomenon”, a “man of authority” while glossing over the predominant aspects of his political legacy? Does it matter that Thackeray drank alcohol and smoked a cigar when he also lashed out at other religions, other communities and exhorted his followers to teach all of them a lesson? Were his attacks on individuals, often in the crudest of phrases, something to be admired and lauded?

Once again, at times like these we have to be glad that the print media still survives in India. For, the balance was struck in editorials in several papers. The Hindu was by far the best with its clear and uncompromising edit and an excellent obituary by Meena Menon, “Leader who brought ethnic politics to Mumbai melting pot”. But even The Times of India wrote a balanced editorial, concluding, “While he swore allegiance to the Marathi people, his contribution to their economic and social progress–even when his party headed the government–was, as best, derisory. Add to this his strident Hindutva and anti-Bihari campaigns, both of which left a trail of death, destruction, and bitterness in their wake even as they all but snuffed out the cosmopolitan ethos of Mumbai. It is this disturbing legacy that threatens to unleash an unprecedented political churning process in Maharashtra in the weeks and months ahead.”

Careful remarks

If one heard a few critical voices on television, they were overwhelmed by the careful and polite remarks being made even by those who have been targeted by the Sena. Were they afraid that by speaking their minds, they were laying themselves open to another round of attacks by Sena activists as in the past? That could be the only reason why someone like Nikhil Wagle, who has suffered his offices at Mahanagar, the newspaper he ran at the Sena’s backyard, being vandalised more than once, chose to be so utterly polite in his remarks on television. Wagle now heads IBN7, the Marathi news channel.

In fact, through Sunday, when cable operators in Mumbai shut off entertainment channels, when cinemas were closed in the city, when the police were telling people to stay at home, the only critical voices that were heard were on social networking sites such as Facebook. Many people were incensed with the excessive coverage accorded to the funeral, many questioned the draping of the national flag on Thackeray, many asked why a public space, a playground such as ShivajiPark should be converted into a crematorium, and many objected to the virtual paralysis imposed on a bustling metropolis because of the death of one man.

Now we know that even social media cannot escape the Shiv Sena. For in another Orwellian turn of events, a 21-year-old woman from Palghar, Shaheen Dhada was arrested by the local police for posting the following comment on her Facebook page: “People like Bal Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a bandh for that”. For “liking” it, her friend Renu was also arrested. They were charged, amongst other things, for “inciting religious sentiments”. The two young women were let out on bail but the very fact that something like this should happen tells us of the kind of “rule of law” that prevails in our democracy. Incidentally, not satisfied with getting the girls arrested, local Shiv Sainiks went on to vandalise Shaheen’s uncle’s clinic and naturally, the local police could find no section in the law under which they could be arrested.

To come back to the coverage of the Thackeray funeral, the issue here is not whether one liked or disliked the man. Media has to have a sense of proportion. If the Prime Minister of a country or any other national leader dies, it would be natural for the media to give extensive coverage. If a well-known personality, even if he/she is not in politics, dies in tragic circumstances, once again the event would draw attention. But how much coverage is given to such events is left to the discretion of the editors. If a local channel had chosen to follow every step of Thackeray’s funeral procession, perhaps there would have been some justification if the editor of that channel concluded that its viewership would want such coverage. But can the same be said of national channels? Were people sitting in Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, even Delhi, or cities in Bihar, UP, the north-east, Kashmir, really interested in such wall-to-wall coverage?

News television’s excesses have been commented upon repeatedly, albeit by some of us in print. But even if we are accused of not entirely understanding the compulsions of 24-hour news television, there simply can be no justification for the kind of coverage we saw on November 18.