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Citizen power or media power?

By Maya Indira Ganesh & Gayatri Ganesh

TV news media campaigns such as those for Jessica Lall and Priyadarshini Mattoo appear to be shaping and giving voice to public opinion. But is this democracy in action or a sensationalist, manipulative drama to raise ratings? Is it more about media power than citizen power?

Jessica Lall, Priyadarshini Mattoo and Nitish Katara were young people allegedly murdered by the rich and powerful sons of politicians. In 2006, the accused in the Jessica Lall case were acquitted by the courts because 99 out of 100 witnesses turned hostile. A strong public outcry against the decision, relayed by electronic news media, rang out against the judiciary which had appeared to buckle (yet again) under the influence that the rich and powerful wield in India. Two electronic news channels -- CNN-IBN Live and New Delhi Television (NDTV) -- began a concerted campaign to seek 'Justice for Jessica'. Using text messages, blogs and offline protests, CNN-IBN and NDTV generated a strong public response. Individuals unconnected to any of the families of the victims started their own campaigns on their behalf. It is believed that this was the rebirth of citizen power. From SMS and online campaigns and televised debates to memorials, public vigils and protests, these two channels were intimately involved in shaping and giving voice to public opinion. Shortly after the launch of these campaigns, the case was re-opened with fresh investigations and new witnesses.

On the surface it appears that this was a case of democracy in action: the political participation of citizens empowered by an activist media protecting their interests by bringing the powerful to book. But a closer look reveals how TV news can be a sensationalist, manipulative drama to raise ratings and selectively shape public opinion under the guise of viewer participation. The phenomenon of 'SMS justice' is often spoken of as the rebirth of citizen power. This article suggests that such public dialogue and action, believed to be a sign of citizen power, follows a discursive agenda set by the two channels and is about media power instead. The 'Justice for Jessica' campaign has been studied because it was the first such media-driven campaign (1). Since 2006, while both channels have had more audience-participation-based programmes we argue that at its core, the news media industry still drives the agenda, selecting causes that would most appeal to its target audience.

Trial by media

The cases

In 1999, Jessica Lall, a 29-year-old model, was shot in the head in a room full of people by Manu Sharma, the son of Venod Sharma, a serving Member of Parliament. In 2002, Nitish Katara, a 22-year-old student, was allegedly murdered by Vikas Yadav, son of MP D P Yadav, for his alleged affair with Vikas Yadav's sister. In 1996, Priyadarshini Mattoo, a 22-year-old law student was raped and strangled in her home by Santosh Singh, the son of the former joint commissioner of police. The accused in each case was acquitted by the lower courts. The grounds for acquittal of the alleged murderers appeared flimsy: there was a lack of forensic evidence, and key witnesses turned hostile. That they escaped convictions in the lower courts was not surprising to the jaded public but still upsetting because it was another sign of corruption in the system. It seemed all too coincidental that, yet again, sons of the high and mighty had gotten away.

Trial by media
Jessica Lall (above) and the ‘vigils for justice’ spawned by the NDTV and CNN-IBN campaigns

In the tradition of investigative journalists uncovering corruption, New Delhi Television (NDTV) and CNN-IBN began justice campaigns on their websites, through talk shows and offline 'vigils for justice' to protest the verdict in the Jessica Lall case. The campaign quickly encompassed the Mattoo and Katara cases as well. Viewers were encouraged to share their responses online and demand a fair trial to bring justice to the victims and their families. By the channels' reports the response was positive: NDTV submitted a petition to the President of India pressing for a re-trial in the Lall case when they received 200,000 text messages of support from viewers (NDTV 2006a). The Mattoo and Lall cases were re-opened through appeals in the Delhi High Court, and in October and December 2006 the lower courts' verdicts were overturned and both defendants found guilty of the murders. The media coverage of public opinion had been so persuasive that the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Y K Sabharwal had instructed judges to "go by the evidence before (them)," rather than pay heed to the media reports (NDTV 2006b).

The campaigns

The role of television in shaping, and being shaped by, a middle class audience is particularly relevant here. The English-speaking audiences accessing NDTV and CNN-IBN are a very small slice of the population, restricted to upper and middle class households (http://www.indiantelevision.com). This population includes college and school students, working professionals, homemakers and retired professionals (IAMAI 2006). Considering that the audiences of these two channels are English-speaking and therefore upper/middle class, their politics are likely to be extremely specific and hardly generalisable in a country as heterogeneous as India. This is reflected in and reinforced by the justice campaigns as will be described below.

Securing audience appeal

The three victims appeal squarely to a middle class TV-viewing, mobile-phone-toting audience. Jessica Lall was a middle class girl who became a model. Priyadarshini Mattoo was a student of law at Delhi University and lived in a middle class Delhi suburb. Nitish Katara was allegedly murdered because he refused to stop seeing his girlfriend, whose family believed that it wasn't appropriate for someone of her class/caste to associate with Katara.

Interestingly, Jessica was the only one whose photographs were routinely displayed on TV: soft focus, air-brushed and well-lit photographs from her days as a model. Priyadarshini's photograph, if shown, was a grainy black-and-white one; the other is one of the first police photographs of her car where she was attacked. Nitish Katara was rarely shown, but a framed photograph of him was always seen behind his mother Neelam when she appeared in TV interviews talking about her struggle for justice.

All three were also murdered in 'ordinary' contexts: in the course of work, at home or in a familiar, known setting. The everyday-ness of their lives punctured by horrific acts of rape and murder drew the audience into a closer subjective identification with the victims and interest in the progression of the news stories. Each of the deceased had a family member who became a well-known face on TV because of coverage of their fight for justice. After the campaigns began, each of these three people -- Sabrina (Jessica Lall's sister), C L Mattoo (Priyadarshini's father) and Neelam Katara (Nitish's mother) -- became 'regulars' on TV news. Audiences were privy to interviews conducted in their homes and in the context of their everyday lives, family photo albums with pictures of the deceased as children and teenagers and descriptions of their personalities, traits, habits. Jasleen, a student who attended a rally in New Delhi in July 2006 to support an appeal in the Mattoo case said: "I am being selfish. I am doing it for myself. If it happened to her, it can happen to anyone in my family" (Roy 2006).

In contrast to their victims, the alleged perpetrators of the crimes were rich sons of politicians, whose evasion of punishment came as no surprise to the TV-viewing public. By selecting the issue of systemic corruption, TV news struck a resonant chord with its largely middle class audience, another source of appeal in this case. Corruption and systemic breakdowns affect the everyday lives of the middle classes. It is often the rich and powerful, who by their social location, enjoy privilege and access to power and never really have to 'queue up'. Taking a swipe at politicians is thus extremely appealing to the middle classes. The following blog comment captures this sentiment.

In all these cases one thing has been common and that is the culprit has been a son or relative of a powerful leader or a businessman and the deceased has been a common man, who was at a wrong position at the wrong time. It's mainly because of media and common man, that the Jessica Lall case has been re-opened. (Posted by Vivek Rawat on www.ndtv.com 1/4/2006)

The media shaping public opinion

In contrast to the 'Justice for Jessica' campaign, the tragedy of farmer suicides across the country in 2005-2006 or the murder of a dalit family in Khairlanji were not the sites of concerted campaigns by TV news channels or the public. The urban-rural, upper caste-lower caste, Hindu-Muslim divisions frame the everyday social experiences of middle class Indians. Reinforcing the black-and-white binaries that cleave our world -- the selection of these urban stories, the representations of the victims as 'normal' and unsuspecting, their families as average and middle class, politicians as 'greedy' and the common man 'suffering' under them -- allowed the two channels to marshal their power in constructing a specific representation of social reality. Of all the tragedies that afflict rural Indians every day, none of them (yet) has been the subject of such a concerted TV campaign as 'Justice for Jessica'. These two channels consciously chose to reflect a very specific social geography because of the greater appeal it would have to their audience.

Those opposed to the media campaigns, like Ram Jethmalani (lawyer for defendant Manu Sharma), say that the media overstepped its role as impartial reporter by prejudicing the viewer, declaring people guilty before they were fairly tried in court. But many viewer posts on the channels' websites position the media and judiciary as the last bastion of hope for this country.

I believe that the only two systems that can bring about change in the country are judiciary and media. I think both judiciary and media have only taken first baby steps towards a flawless society. I am sure both will learn from each other and lead our society to safety. (Posted by Harish Arora on www.ibnlive.com 20/11/2006)

CNN-IBN editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai defended TV news overstepping its line in shaping public opinion:

If in the 'public interest' -- and that must be the defining badge for all journalism -- a hidden camera is able to expose the rich and powerful, should they not be held accountable for their actions? Is that not, after all, the ultimate goal of the media? Or are we to see ourselves only as stenographers who simply reproduce banal soundbites? Moreover, who really is in the dock here: the journalist who is attempting to uncover a dark reality or the 'stung' individual who has something to hide? (Sardesai 2006)

By juxtaposing the lofty ideals of journalism with the ordinariness of stenographers, and the idea of the intrepid journalist uncovering 'dark realities', Sardesai highlights the power of the media again. On NDTV's 9 pm news broadcast on the day Manu Sharma was convicted by the Delhi High Court of Jessica Lall's murder, the extensive news coverage included segments titled: 'The voice of the common man', and 'The people have spoken'. By 'speaking up for the common man', the two channels reinforced the hierarchical division between the media and the public while mouthing a rhetoric of inclusiveness, one that was perhaps driven by a need to maintain audiences and the markets they represent. The campaigns, while positioned as an expression of public opinion and demands, in fact reinforced the media's power to control which issues are highlighted and to what extent they choose to involve and stir up the public.

Twenty-four-hour news programming supported by the Internet allows channels to position themselves as interactive and engaging in a way that draws in viewers-as-citizens, giving them a space to express their opinions on topical issues. With increasing access to technology, citizen-journalism and user-driven content is leading TV news in India into a different phase of its evolution. Being on TV in India today, or having some form of presence in or contact with the 'media world' might have the status that owning a TV set had 20 years ago. Elation comes from the simultaneity of people across the country sending in their text messages and watching them scroll across the TV screen on the 9 pm news. Thus, in these rituals of communication, ordinary people have access to the specialised and rarefied world of 'the media'. But not all are easily swayed; this viewer's biting reaction also reflects the specialised knowledge and access that TV news journalists have, which further emphasises the separation between the two worlds.

Today's journalists in the electronic media think that they can bully their way into anybody's life. First of all they should do their homework. Just because you can speak some good English, have a degree in journalism, have a camera and mic in your hand, you don't become an expert on everything. (Posted by Langda Tyagi on www.ibnlive.com 15/10/2006)

Conclusions

While there are welcome changes in how TV journalism engages its viewers and solicits their voices, there are questions as to who is dictating the agenda -- the citizen or the media news industry. As viewers, we are so entrenched in our position that we are susceptible to the unspoken power of the media, allowing ourselves to be herded along the path of engagement set by it. Media power then is that much more subtle when the causes appear noble.

When democracy does fail, the media's role in engaging the citizen needs to be carefully considered. Media power, though abstract and complex, underlies much of the channels' promises of justice and empowerment.

Responding to the criticism in the print media about TV news being selective in issues they give voice to, Ghose (2006b) amends her channel's view saying that citizen power now needs to be available in rural India. However, it is never as simple as capturing a new set of causes in the same programmed format. Peepli Live, a Hindi movie released in 2010, takes a scathing look at the machinations of television news in the present moment. Capturing a growing awareness of the farcical nature of the mediation of news, the 'justice campaigns' portrayed in this film focus on rural India and the tragic phenomenon of farmer suicides. The film reiterates the idea that the narrow discursive engagement set by electronic news media has become a mutant force, barely about anything except television itself.

Additionally, the political and economic interests of TV news channels cannot be ignored. In saying that India's 'notoriously opaque society' forces journalists to use a range of methods to create transparency, Sardesai (2006) sounds philosophically naïve as he does not say out loud that journalistic practice itself is embedded within power structures, ideologies, and the consumerist demands of running a TV news channel. In this highly charged media world it is unlikely that the citizen's voice is in command.

Finally, the idea that it is only the media that can 'save' Indian democracy is echoed through viewer responses online and reflects its special, specific authority. It is as if there is no possibility for any other form of civic action to 'liberate' the country, only the penetrating eye of the camera. If the efficiency of the legislative and executive arms of this democracy is questionable, the alternative strategy of media action as the best way to redress the situation is hardly a wiser choice.

In order to challenge discriminatory and unfair practices endemic in any society there is a need for strong, creative and independent citizen voices. However, the mediations of citizenship by TV news are bound to be co-opted and appropriated as this case study has shown. Citizen power is not impossible. Citizen power needs to be grounded in its integrity and independent, subtle, subversive methods. The debates on the role of TV news journalism in this democracy are far from over. There are wars of competing truths (and ratings) to be fought yet. The magical whirligig that is Indian TV reveals as much as it hides; it enchants as much as it distorts. Like children on a funfair carousel, it is easy to lose sight of who controls the music.

(Maya Indira Ganesh is Programme Director of the Evidence & Action Programme at Tactical Technology Collective in Bangalore, India)

(Gayatri Ganesh is a qualitative researcher trained in the UK, now freelancing in India. She specialises in discourse analysis and semiotics in areas related to communications, education, youth and marginalised groups)

Endnotes
1 This paper has looked at the events and ideologies of the campaigns, the blogs of two CNN-IBN journalists, news broadcasts and news stories on CNN and NDTV's websites, and 300 viewer responses to the two news channels' websites between February 22 and November 22, 2006. This paper was originally written in January 2007

References

indiantelevision.com (2006). 'CNN-IBN Asserts Leadership in English News Space' 04/12/06 (online). Available at http://www.indiantelevision.com/headlines/headlines_frame.htm?itvid=/headlines/y2k6/dec/dec28.htm (accessed December 4, 2006)

Internet and Mobile Association of India (2006). 'India Internet Usage Report 2006' (online). Available at www.indiantelevision.com (accessed November 27, 2006)

Kaushik, N (2003). 'The News Makes News'. The Hindu Business Line (online). Available at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/catalyst/2003/01/23/stories/2003012300180100.htm (accessed January 5, 2007)

NDTV (2006a) 'Kalam Promises Action in Jessica Case'. 07/03/06. NDTV (online). Available at
http://www.ndtv.com/template/template.asp?template=jessicalall&id=85485&callid=1 (accessed November 21, 2006)

NDTV (2006b). 'CJI Expresses Concern over Trial by Media'. 04/11/06. NDTV (online). Available at http://www.ndtv.com/morenews/showmorestory.asp?id=95837&frmsrch=1&txtsrch=Jessica%2CLall%2Ccase (accessed November 28, 2006)

Roy, A (2006). 'Mattoo Murder: Students to Hold Protest March' 04/07/06. NDTV (online).] Available at http://www.ndtv.com/template/template.asp?template=mattoo&id=89799&callid=1 (accessed November 16, 2006)

Sardesai, R (2006). 'In the Name of Ram'. CNN-IBN (online). Available at http://www.ibnlive.com/blogs/rajdeepsardesai/1/25867/in-the-name-of-ram.html (accessed November 14, 2006)

Infochange News & Features, March 2013