A fortnightly column from the Wire’s Public Editor
As the extraordinary and extravagant demonstrations of grief by Amma’s bereft makkale over her demise recede from public memory, there’s a moment of pause to consider how the media responded to it.
Ironically, the control of information that had characterised J. Jayalalithaa’s tenures in power with over 200 cases of defamation being brought by her against journalists – two of them happened to be filed against one of The Wire’s founding editors himself (‘With Jayalalithaa’s Death, Politics in Tamil Nadu is Set to Turn Fluid, Unpredictable‘, December 6, 2016) – marked her last days as well. Disciplining the media on its coverage was achieved through a variety of ways. If the tap was turned on through formal bulletins, informal observations from doctors and the Apollo Hospital management as well as inspired leaks. It was also turned off by extreme crackdowns on those who speculated on the chief minister’s health and by controlling all access to the patient.
As my counterpart in The Hindu put it in an October column, ten days after her hospitalisation, “some bulletins were released by the hospital, which provided no clue about the nature of her illness. The party spokespersons tell us not to believe in rumours and that the chief minister is recuperating fast. Some readers asked whether The Hindu could explain why senior functionaries of the ruling party are busy invoking divine intervention if the chief minister is responding well to treatment.” He added, “While everyone agrees that there is an inalienable right to privacy concerning an individual’s health condition, there is also a public interest angle to the state of health of someone holding public office.”
The ‘hidden hand’ behind these manoeuvres evidently belongs to someone who has learnt well from Amma herself , but it bodes ill for any hope one may have had that the AIADMK and the Tamil Nadu state government are going to usher in a more transparent order in the post-Jaya phase.
But how was the death covered? There was, if anything, a glut of spectacle and in keeping with the subject’s celluloid legacy seemed to have become a film shot in 70mm with stereophonic sound. It was also rife with dramatic possibilities – from the mob coagulating into a single, moving mass that could at any point have broken into a stampede, to the much deconstructed prime ministerial pat on confidante Sasikala’s head.
This was a celebrity funeral all right. Those who made up media audiences constituted a much larger number than those who were actually present at the site, and they too “attended” the event by participating in it vicariously through the media. The challenge for editors of non-visual media platforms was to cut through the clutter and put out relevant content given that it was next to impossible to beat television and social media in terms of instant information generation and commentary.
This particular death, although widely anticipated, was made public at night (incidentally, another sign of information control). Although The Wire’s staff valiantly tried to keep up, the first report put out by the portal, ‘Jayalalithaa Passes Away, Panneerselvam Sworn in as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’ (December 5), was clearly beaten, not just by television but by the newspapers of the next day with their dramatic banner headlines. But there are ways in which black and white text and the still image can overtake the competition. I was particularly struck by some evocative reporting and photographing from the ground (‘Sobs, Cheers and Love at the Funeral of the Woman They Called Amma’, December 7; ‘Photo Essay: Scenes of Grief and Devotion From Jayalalithaa’s Public Viewing’, December 7, 2016) which, unlike the noisy mélange that constituted television coverage, could actually pluck out some lingering moments that went on to say a great deal.
Two other ways in which this was achieved could also be noted. The first, of course, was in-house commentary and video (‘Jayalalithaa’s Legacy and What to Expect in Tamil Nadu Politics Now’, December 6). The other was the timely republishing of earlier material. The excerpt from the 2013 book, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze (‘More than Amma: Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze on Tamil Nadu’s Social Development’, December 6), provided perspective on Tamil Nadu’s welfare activism, with the authors noting that the state’s capacity for innovation and creative thinking in matters of public administration is an important model for India as a whole.
Two pieces on Jayalalithaa that The Wire had carried earlier received a serendipitous second wind on her death: ‘Mapping Jayalalithaa’s Incredible Journey’ (June 21, 2016) and ‘In Sickness and in Health, a Parallel in the Journeys of MGR and Jayalalithaa’ (October 5, 2016), with responses to the latter piece that were carried in The Wire indicating that, even in October, there was disquiet about the lack of information about her health. As one response went: “People [have] the right to know the health condition of their chief minister. Hospital or Govt has to release medical bulletins everyday. What are they achieving by keeping us dark?” Another asked, “but what is the current status? why one non-governmental person been holding the show?”
Then there was that wonderful nugget of a reminiscence from Gopalkrishna Gandhi (‘Protector and Fighter, the Enigma of ‘Amma’ Will Live On,’ December 6). In 1984, when MGR was still battling his stroke, Jayalalithaa had came to call on then governor, S.L. Khurana, and as secretary to the governor, Gandhi was asked to receive her and spend a few moments with her while she waited for the governor in his study. “She was utterly lonely. And lost…‘I want nothing, Mr Gandhi,’ she said. ‘Nothing beyond the chance to fulfil my destiny.’”
My inbox, which was fairly empty for a long while, is now overflowing with mail. Most of them, I notice, are from potential contributors looking to place their pieces in The Wire. This is an indirect acknowledgement of the role the site has come to play in contemporary public discourse. It is also an indication of the groundswell of opinion and, indeed, of the gift of expression among a large number of readers. Social media may have given us the post-truth world but it has also, I believe, honed writing skills and allowed the shedding of inhibitions over going public with one’s thoughts and ideas. All of which is for the good and could make for a vibrant, if often polarised, public sphere.
There is, though, the feeling of frustration at the lack of response from the editorial desk to one’s contributions. Having been both a contributor and an editor, I am rather Janus-faced about this. As a contributor, I too have silently rued my contributions mouldering away in the desk tops of “uncaring” editors. But as an editor I have also realised that the finite nature of time makes editorial responses to unsolicited articles almost impossible. However, I would still say, given the very real constraints, that there is value in trying to do this, because readers after all constitute an essential part of any media platform. On this concern I received the following editorial response from The Wire: “We try but the volume of submissions is quite punishing and we have a very small team… But, yes, we will make every effort to speed up the decision-making process.”