A harsh spotlight hath no soft focus

On the Barkha Dutt issue, it is for NDTV to decide now.

All men may err; but he that keepeth not his folly, but repenteth, doeth well; but stubbornness cometh to great trouble. ~ Sophocles, Antigone

Enough ether has been consumed by the social media since the disclosure of recordings between a lobbyist and some senior journalists, editors and television news-anchors. This has primarily happened because most of the mainstream media outlets have chosen to impose a blackout over this news-story. A lot of that attention on the web has been focused on Ms. Barkha Dutt, anchor-journalist at NDTV. My fellow blogger Retributions has done a great job of explaining why Ms Dutt happens to be the lightening rod of all the attention over what ostensibly should be a much larger issue.

As most readers of this blog are aware, Ms Dutt agreed to be a part of a show on her channel where she was questioned by four other editors about her role in the controversy. It was riveting television — in the sense of a television reality show: lots of soft lighting, nice bassy sound and a very friendly set. But in the end, it did not leave the viewers any wiser. The show was pre-recorded but it was broadcast unedited. Open magazine claimed the credit for that by proclaiming that it was their editor’s condition to be a part of the show.

No one can deny, as Rupa Subramanya writes, that it was a brave move by Ms Dutt to be ready for an inquisition on television. She needs to be commended for her courageous attempt to come out of this mess. But after that, it all seemed to go downhill. Some people on my twitter timeline found her performance on the show feisty, others found it cantankerous and petulant. However, Tripti Lahiri at WSJ India Real Time captured the majority view: A Too-Argumentative Barkha Dutt Squanders Chance.

Perhaps the wisest thing for Ms Dutt to do, as suggested by Shobha Narayan, was to just say two words: Mea Culpa. That would have been a great way to make a fresh start. However it was a personal choice that Ms Dutt had to make and she seems to have made that choice on the show yesterday.

But this raises a couple of other issues here. A lot of people have suggested that to single out Ms Dutt and put her under the spotlight is unfair, when so many other journalists are also involved. Unfair it may be, but such is life. These are the trappings of celebrityhood and the price of being at the top of your profession. If Mr Amitabh Bachchan makes even a small error of judgement, to use the phrase in vogue, he is liable to be hauled over the coals far more aggressively than an Aditya Panscholi would be, for even bigger misdemeanours. The adulation, and the criticism, is directly a function of your popularity, status, credibility and reputation in the public domain, which is reflected in the influence that you wield over a larger number of people. A Ms Dutt can get easy access to heads of state, corporate honchos, film-stars, random celebrities and other newsmakers — partly because of her journalistic credentials and partly because she is a big name — which other lesser journalists can never ever dream of. No one grudges Ms Dutt that privilege but the current harsh spotlight on her is also the other side of the same coin — of being a celebrity. It comes with the territory.

More importantly, even in Ms Dutt’s case, is Ms Dutt really the one to take the call on the issue? She, at an individual level, has all the right to be angry, outraged, furious, emotional and agitated about what is happening to her now. She can probably feel that she is being victimised and being singled out by a lynch-mob. But being sympathetic to her situation is not the issue here. It is about the real decision which has to be taken by the media house that employs her, the NDTV network: Is an individual anchor bigger than the channel itself?

While NDTV must provide Ms Dutt all the opportunity to make her case — as they did with the special show last evening — they would be erring in making the channel identify too closely with her. Her reputation stands tarnished in the eyes of many, and that doesn’t only include some Right-wing Hindutva supporters as B Raman tends to suggest. Many others have been equally disappointed and disillusioned by the recordings of the conversations, but more so by the way NDTV has chosen to react to it — by blacking out the story completely. The story has been kept alive by the social media, which one can safely presume, is populated precisely by the same upper middle-class audience that NDTV targets for its viewership. A Mayawati or an A. Raja can afford to brazen it out while the social media goes on and on about their infractions because their voter-base doesn’t comprise those who frequent the social media.

Can NDTV actually afford to adopt the same “I don’t care” attitude? Yes they can. But it will be sad to see India’s oldest private TV newschannel, that so many of India’s post-90s generation grew up with, go down that slippery slope. NDTV ought to remember that an error is not a mistake until you refuse to correct it.

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6 Responses to A harsh spotlight hath no soft focus

  1. C December 1, 2010 at 7:47 pm #

    Why do you consider Dutt’s wanting to face questions on the issue is particularly brave? frankly there is nothing brave about it. We do see people facing bigger and more serious allegations and scams come on TV and face questions from the not so friendly anchors etc.

    I would have, though, sung about her bravery had she not turned down karan thapar’s request to appear on his show ‘the last word’..

  2. Pithy December 1, 2010 at 11:51 pm #

    Storm in a tea cup, let Ms Dutt be prags, she’s doing her job.

  3. .. December 4, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

    Ladies, which newsmaker, Ist: Barka D. or Sabina S.S ? Die easy.

  4. voyager December 5, 2010 at 2:06 am #

    Well done Pragmatic! You are amongst the few rare people who actually stood up for the cause of transperancy and objective reporting of facts.

    Your comments may hurt various sections of people at some point of time or another (me included!) – but none can blame you for being partisan or biased.

  5. Kendrick January 19, 2014 at 5:05 am #

    That is a really good tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere.
    Short but very accurate info… Appreciate your sharing this one.
    A must read post!

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