Telling truth to power
With each new episode of Satyamev Jayate - actor Aamir Khan's 13-part television show - comes a welter of debate. Every episode trends on the social networking site Twitter. There is even official action. In Rajasthan, the chief minister has promised fast track courts on female foeticide. A parliamentary committee has invited Aamir for his inputs on generic drugs. From journalists though, each episode of Satyamev Jayate evokes a rather different response. We shrug our shoulders and say, Aamir is only doing what we journalists have done for years.
Indeed many courageous journalists have campaigned long and hard against the same injustices that the show takes up, and Aamir is following in the footsteps of many idealistic scribes and broadcasters. But somewhere, as power, affluence (and perhaps too much Scotch whisky) has entered our bones, have we lost that fey quality of being the perpetual outsider, the agent provocateur, the challenger of convention? Can Aamir Khan now teach us journalists a lesson in perhaps shedding our ideological and politicised blinkers on every issue and simply report on human tragedies that are resulting from catastrophic systems failures? How many of us would any more lead our bulletins or newspapers with a headline on child abuse or female foeticide rather than on the latest fashionable reason on why the government must immediately resign? How many journalists today would say a one hour programme or magazine cover story on untouchability is still worth doing, and never mind the ratings or the sales?
Aamir Khan has resources journalists can only dream of. Title sponsors have reportedly invested Rs 17 to 20 crore on the show. Each episode of Satyamev Jayate reportedly cost more than Rs 4 crore to produce. The reach of the show, broadcasting simultaneously on Star and Doordarshan is another dream. Yet Satyamev Jayate has awakened journalists to their somewhat forgotten covenant with the public, and once again reminded us of the ideals of the fourth estate. Today, entrenched in incestuous debates with Powers That Be, clawing at each other in public, with journalistic camaraderie a long forgotten dream, the lure of Rajya Sabha seats and government largesse leading to partisanship of the worst kind, Satyamev Jayate has reminded us journalists about the huge and growing disconnect between us and the public.
Aamir Khan may forget about Satyamev Jayate once his 13 episodes are over. Satyamev Jayate may remain a successful brand building exercise for Khan as he becomes another Angelina Jolie-type socially committed superstar known for championship of public causes. Many ask why the advertising revenue from the show does not go directly to the victims. Many accuse Aamir of not putting his money where his mouth is and directly contributing to public education and health like Bill Gates, Azeem Premji, the Nilekanis and even Salman Khan. Aamir's open emoting on screen, shedding tears with victims, is not usually the brief of the professional journalist. And had it not been for the presence of the superstar himself, it is doubtful whether a full hour on female foeticide or alcohol abuse could have sustained its viewer interest and sponsor support.
Additionally, news is often not cast in simplistic terms of heroes and villains. So far Aamir has taken up issues where there is general consensus against a particular injustice. But when a television format tackles politically divisive subject like affirmative action and quotas, how state handles communal riots and exposes on corruption, a simple formula of truth telling and confessionals followed by a moral lecture at the end of the show, would be difficult to pull off.
Complicated subjects like generic drugs and medical malpractices do not always have Good Guys and Bad Guys and making them into a morality play on such a powerful public platform could whip up simplistic and dangerous public anger.
Yet we remain a country where 30 million girl children have been killed in the womb in the past 6 decades. Where alcoholism and drug abuse are growing exponentially. And where two thirds of married women face violent attack at home. The plight of Pinki Pramanik a star athlete, humiliated in public because of her ambiguous gender identity, shows how desperately our mindsets need change and reform. Despite his penchant for controversy, Justice Katju is not entirely wrong: the media does have a responsibility to be leaders of social change, to bring an enlightened progressive mentality not peddle prejudice, superstition and patriarchal values. What public good do the nightly slugfests on prime time television between BJP and Congress serve beyond creating masala in Delhi's Lutyensland?
In that sense Aamir Khan has reminded journalists of the tasks that lie before them. That the race for TRPs, sponsorships and celebrities may have become essential for our existence, but must not come in the way of fulfilling the journalistic equivalent of the Hippocratic oath that we all (or some of us anyway) took when we decided to join the press: to expose wrongdoing, bring social reform and become the vehicle by which new ideas are transmitted.
An aware and informed public now wants a media which will be a comrade-in-arms to make society better not worse. Instead of analysing every soundbite of every politician, we must let politicians know that a demanding electorate now wants delivery on health, education, jobs and justice and will not be seduced by television banter.
Of course much of this is already happening: already campaigns on rotting grain and malnutrition have roused the conscience of politicians. But the enormous response to Aamir's show reveals that the public is impatient and restless for change, shown how media can actually provide solutions, not just highlight problems. A colleague has written that Satyamev Jayate is an "exquisite piece of journalism", and a "refresher course for journalists".
The media's disconnect with reality was recently brought upglaringly: daily glamour-soaked features on Gen Next and youth parties and fashions were revealed as a media delusion, when Lancet showed that in India more youngsters in the 15 to 29 age group kill themselves than any other country. Let Satyamev Jayate become a moment when journalists look inwards and renew their vows with their vocation. Let the truth prevail on journalism.