Media brouhaha: What do you believe?

Believe only your eyes and ears, they say. But you don’t listen to them, do you? You believe what you read.

Free press is the foundation of a true democracy. An American president once said that given a choice between a free government and captive press, and a captive government and free press, he’d choose the latter. While the freedom of the worlds governments is the stuff that sustains conspiracy theorists, does free press really exist?

Are concepts such as fact and truth for real, given the human tendency to believe what they read? Newspaper reports and columns, and of late, words spoken to the insatiable television media are what is quoted in debates, in flight, on trains, over lunch, in the office, in bed (yes); quote, quote, quote, because what is reported is the truth: the undeniable fact. And what is important, is winning the argument, just as winning a battle is another step towards winning the war.

To the irrepressible George Orwell, a deliberate distortion of facts during the Spanish Civil War was even more terrible than the roar of bombs. He wrote extensively on the need for objective presentation of the truth, and frequently questioned the accuracy of reports. Would history be any different had it been written by the vanquished, or if the other side had won? Should facts be reported selectively, should incriminating reports be buried by saleable publications? What would really have Orwell spinning in the casket is the fact that is his startling freedom-of-press introduction to the political, anti-totalitarian Animal Farm is no longer published.

Wake up, ladies and gentlemen. It’s all a show. As a frequent member-of-the-audience at an award-winning, verbal duel on a very popular Indian television channel, I was shocked to find members of opposing political parties, representing completely different ideologies, exchanging pleasantries during advertising breaks, right after they’d ripped each other apart when being filmed. It’s all a show. 3,2,1, and they’re at each others’ throats again.

What’s more, it’s all for sale. It is not unknown that a certain Indian media behemoth chooses not to publish content that criticises those whom its pages promote. A positive image means a longer, stronger business relationship and a larger set of clients. Rates that it supposedly charges for edvertorials were published by a competing publication, and this went uncontested.

Given the constraints of sustenance and greed that bind mainstream media, the online space was thought to be the little Gaulish village still holding out against the all-conquering Romans, a final frontier often protected by anonymity and relative insignificance. But the evil eye scours all terrain, and the unabashed targeting by Mediaah! was not taken lightly. A legal notice may have forced Mediaah! shut shop, but Indian bloggers online are now speaking out against this attack on “free speech”, signing a petition in hope that something will give. Will the publication concede before the negative publicity erodes what little is left of its brand equity, online? Orwell might have advised that the quickest way to end a war is to lose it, but one does not give an inch when a mile is at risk.

A line divides criticism and slander. Mediaah!, perhaps, crossed this line. Content on the site was often far from objective, often saucy and gossipy. There were speculations and at some point, it seemed to be a personal diatribe against the big guys. There were others, but they weren’t targeted as consistently and unabashedly as the newsworthier biggies, often in bad taste. How would people who support Mediaah! react if they’d been targeted similarly. While I certainly don’t defend the plaintiff, I don’t think Mediaah! my saviour to support.

There is another, often ignored, perhaps Gandhian, side of Objectivism: don’t attack anyone, because that would endanger your own existence, hence freedom. John Galt had walked away: withdrawn support, not burnt the factories.

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