Friday, May 25, 2012

Notes on Media

The other day a friend retwitted an article on how the English television media have a fetish for English-speaking and suave-looking Indians and seek their views on issues affecting a much larger section of India than suave and English-speaking represent.
This blogger, who was herself a TV reporter with NDTV, detailed how, when she was out to get reactions of people on a petrol price rise and collected reactions and visuals of truck drivers on the issue (since they are most likely to be affected by it) and sent them to her editorial team, they rejected them and asked her to get reactions of English speaking people instead since they would make better TV, although they, generally coming from richer sections of society, are less likely to be affected by petrol price rise.
However, based on this it would be wrong to conclude that English TV media don’t give representation to, let’s say, un-TV-friendly people at all, but neither can it be completely denied that the English media have an up-market inclination. And they can’t be fully blamed for this as up-market types, without doubt, make better TV and therefore help the image of an English channel and its viewership by extension.
Some would say Hindi TV media are much more representative but I think they are equally lop-sided: if the English TV media ignore the non-English speaking types, Hindi channels generally overlook the English-speaking ones.
The problem lies in the fact that TV media have become more about showmanship and less about news, which is why preferring convenience to fairness as long as it’s in interest of viewership is the accepted mode of operation.  Many of the social movements of recent times would have hardly met with the kind of success thhey did had it not been for TV media – which gave them unbridled coverage not so much for their news value but because they had become spectacles.  If you follow questions asked during TV discussions, you will see the larger intent is not to do justice to the topic in discussion but to be sensational.
Vernacular channels, I think, are more representative because they don’t need to have English speakers but they are also sensational and more than their English counterparts. Honestly speaking, even after the profusion of so many channels, newspapers continue to be the best mode of journalism. They are generally less sensational (expect the naughty photos in page-three supplementaries) and are far more analysis-driven.  But this analytical approach towards news is a post-TV phenomenon for news papers.
There are many things you can blame on media, but there is no end to how self-righteous you can get on this. It’s difficult to survive in any show business given that the competition is immense and you constantly need to do new things to ensure viewership.  We may talk about media ethics but how many of us will watch channels or read newspapers that passionately uphold them, like the BBC and Hindu for example? You can’t demand infotainment and expect high standards of journalism – it will be just like watching general Bollywood movies and getting sanctimonious about their low standard of cinematic aesthetics. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Great Unknown by Shankar

Last week I was on vacation in Calcutta and I finished The Great Unknown by Shankar while on the vacation, an autobiographical account of the author’s days in the High Court of Calcutta where he worked as a clerk for the last British barrister in India.  The book is a novel with a series of short stories in it about the people the author met during his years in Calcutta High Court.
 The people who come to court for solution of their problems are as varied as the problems they seek solution for, so naturally the book is an interesting read always keeping the reader guessing what story will come next just as a book of short stories does.
 Shankar, whose real name is Mani Shankar Mukherjee,  is among the popular Bengali writers and his novels started coming in English translations a few years back. Shankar’s writing and observations are simple and they make him immensely readable, but they can sometimes read too Bengali middle class.
The book is breezy and once you start reading it you are left with the yearning to return to it. I found myself lost in the lives of its characters soon after I started reading it. Helen Grubert (an Anglo-Indian typist ), Nicholas Droulas (a Greek sailor) – characters just flit in and out of Calcutta High Court, some with tragic consequences and some happy. The book carries a plaintive character and the stories convey the flavour of 50s' and 60s' Calcutta.
Written in the early 50s and serialised in a Bengali magazine fisrt, it was the first book by the author. In a way, the book was a precursor to the nature of writing to come from the author: novels set in the heart of an industry, in this case High Court being that setting and men of law the main characters. Few years later Shankar wrote Chowringhee, which predated Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, which was later made into a popular Bengali movie.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Corruption, Betrayal and Murder in China - A Great Book in Making

Neil Heywood
Over the last three weeks or so, a new development is unfolding in China. I don’t know how many of you have been following this news but I have been and with considerable interest. It has all the ingredients of a gripping novel and an edge-of-the-seat spy movie.

A few weeks back, a high-ranking Chinese politician, Bo Xilai, was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party on charges of corruption. And later, Bo’s wife was accused of having ordered the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood.

The corruption scandal decidedly ended Bo’s political career…. And also opened a window into the lives of the leaders of Chinese Communist Party, most of whom are multimillionaire businessmen with business interests spanning across contents and wealth stashed abroad.

However, although the Bo bit of the controversy has been hogging the limelight, the Neil Heywood part of it is just as exciting. Who is this guy Heywood? Despite being from another country, how did he make his way into the heart of Chinese political elite (the Xilai family) and become such a threat to them that they had to get him killed? And why has the British government, which is otherwise pompously vocal in seeking explanations from foreign governments if their nationals meet with unnatural death on foreign soil, has been curiously quite over Heywood’s murder?

The Hindu, on 27th April, ran an oped-page article, sourced from Britain, which answered some of these questions, although speculatively. The article said the British government’s silence on Heywood could be because they knew Heywood was an intelligence freelancer. (Govts react in this way when their spies are arrested or murdered on foreign soil while on mission.) Albiet, when journalists tried to find out whether Heywood was really in employment of the British government, they found he wasn't. They concluded it could be that he was working as a freelancer for a private espionage agency – there are many of them in China run by former British intelligence officers – and the British government knew it.

However, what the article told with greater certainty is that Heywood came from British privilege. He had been to elite schools and colleges, and it’s possible that his British aristocratic background and a cultivated Britishness helped him to charm his way into the heart of Chinese elite, where there are many takers for them.

This background helped Heywood become a bridge between British privilege and Chinese elite. By using his British connections, Heywood provided an easy passage to the children of high-ranking Chinese politicians and businessmen to the heart of British privilege – Harrow, Oxford etc – and the Chinese in turn helped Heywood further his business interests in China. (The Hindu article is not clear about what businesses Heywood exactly did. I think he was just a gold digger who picked up anything his contacts could help him with.)

While working his way through this Chinese stratosphere, Heywood met Bo Xilai’s wife and did business with her. Some even link Heywood and Bo Xilai’s wife romantically. Alas, their relation soured when Bo’s wife refused to pay Heywood money the Xilais owed to him. The British businessman threatened to expose their seedy business interests and was found dead in a Chinese hotel room a few days later.

Initially, Heywood’s death was blamed on his heavy drinking, although there were speculations that he could have been murdered by Bo Xilai’s wife. But soon after, BoXilai’s political fortunes nosedived and the Xilais' foreign business interests and money trails came into light. The Chinese Communist Party , in a desperate rush to perform a clean-up act, launched an investigation into the Heywood murder and it revealed that the British spy-businessman-charmer’s drink had been laced with poison causing him death in the Chinese hotel he was in.

It’s not because of the Xilai family’s fall from grace and this Heywood angle that I think this controversy lends itself to a good book, but because it’s far more important in many ways than it superficially appears.

This has had a social and political impact in China. It went viral on Chinese social networking sites. A western journalist observed that it’s not every day that Chinese people come to know about their leaders’ lifestyle as they live under a shroud of secrecy.

It has also got a global angle. Although the British government’s reaction to Heywood’s murder has to do with Heywood’s dubious activities in China, China’s rising clout in international politics can’t be ruled out as one of the things that deterred the British government from acting tough with China.

And a little on the life of intelligence freelancers working for private spy agencies in China, like Heywood, is something none of us will complain about.

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