Backstory: Journalism and the Power of Laughter

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

The more you attempt to define laughter, the more it defies definition. But it is that ineffable “something” that has over the years leavened the daily ordinariness of journalism in innumerable ways – from the front page cartoon to the satirical op-ed – creating instant verbal and visual bridges between the writer/creator and the reader/viewer.

Laughter may seem as light as air but it is too precious a resource in the media space to be taken lightly. The instinct of those who rule is to swat it like a pesky fly, vaporise it, banish it, secure all the windows against its subversive buzz. Years ago, the front page cartoon was among the first to disappear once the Emergency was declared. A.S. Panneerselvan, the readers’ editor of The Hindu, recalled in one of his recent columns the famous repartee of cartoonist Abu Abraham after the then minister of Information and Broadcasting, V.C. Shukla, had argued that censorship was required to “stop the spread of rumour”. Abu had responded: “But why stop the spread of humour?” Exactly, why stop the all-too-brief reign of laughter?

The searing truth of the present times when anyone can be declared an urban naxal, anti-national, seditionist, and barred indefinitely from polite society, is that there are many today who are determined to stop the spread of humour. Meenakshi Lekhi’s parliamentarian’s hauteur was in full flow as she upbraided Twitter for failing to take down stand up comedian Kunal Kamra’s tweets which she termed as “obscene” (‘Parliamentary Panel Grills Twitter Over Kunal Kamra’s ‘Obscene’ Tweets on Supreme Court’, November 19).

We have to ask why tweets raising questions about Supreme Court’s selectivism when it came to hearing cases is something that violates public morality or indeed how tweets that pertain to an individual verdict of an individual judge should undermine the majesty of the Supreme Court. We need to entangle the institution of the Supreme Court from the decisions taken by the judges who comprise them. It is this conflation that often leads to these over-loud cries of “contempt!” every now and then. Not too long ago, Prashant Bhushan had argued that his criticism of the chief justice was his bonafide opinion and that “Such expression of opinion, however outspoken, disagreeable or however unpalatable against some, cannot constitute contempt of court” – as indeed several court verdicts across the world have held. The article, ‘Attorney General Venugopal Would Be Shocked at US Comedians Making Fun of Judges’ (November 17) cites a comment of UK-based satirical magazine, Private Eye, on a verdict involving itself which went, “If that’s justice, I am a banana.”

Nobody can deny the truth lying at the kernel of Kamra’s argument, wrapped though it came in satirical garb and in what would appear to many as outrageous attitude. But the facts speak for themselves: the hearing of Arnab Goswami’s case had indeed jumped the interminable queue of habeas corpus cases before the apex court and signalled his special status of being more equal than the others. If this does not deserve the attention of one of India’s leading stand up comedians, then I don’t know what does. You may love him or hate him, but as an ambient satirist Kamra constantly crosses the line to test the line.

The point is that when confronted by power structures that decide who should and should not share privilege, wealth and social and economic status, humour can bring a counter-power that destabilises these very structures, even if only momentarily. Our laughter for that brief moment brings about an equality with those in power that does not ordinarily exist in the everyday world. It also signals that we are not cut from their cloth, that we, the people, have the power to judge them even if we cannot check them. This is also why the laughter of the power-less is distinctly different from the often derisive, often majoritarian, laughter of the powerful.

Watch: ‘Facebook Curtailed My Reach’, Humans of Hindutva Page Admin Tells Kunal Kamra

It is on these seemingly insignificant speech acts that the edifice of media freedoms is built, case by case, quote by quote. The response of Lord Templeman to The Daily Mirror after the retrograde judgment that he and two others in the House of Lords had delivered on the ‘Spycatcher’ case, was one such. After The Daily Mirror had published a photograph of the three of them upside down, under the headline ‘You Old Fools’, Templeman is believed to have refused contempt action against the tabloid, saying that he was indeed old and whether he was a fool was a matter of perception, although he personally thought he was not one.

In India, too, there have been instances of the Supreme Court being spacious in their interpretation of freedom of expression, which is what this is ultimately about. The Wire analysis, ‘Moral Policing of OTT Platforms Is Only the Latest Episode in India’s Saga of Censorship’ (November 20) quotes the judgment of Chief Justice Mohammad Hidayatullah, in another context: “the standards that we set for our censors must make a substantial allowance in favour of freedom thus leaving a vast area for creative art to interpret life and society with some of its foibles along with what is good”. Surely the same should hold good for satirical tweets that appear way out of line.

Coming back to Lekhi’s observation on Kamra’s tweets, the government’s responses on media freedom have been consistently biased. When Amit Malviya of the BJP’s IT Cell (now pressed into service to help oversee the forthcoming Bengal election: ‘Amit Malviya’s Appointment in Bengal Shows How Heavily BJP Relies on Social Media’, November 17) tweeted an un-pixelated and deliberately cropped video of the Dalit woman in Hathras speaking on the incident after her gang rape (‘BJP IT Cell’s Amit Malviya Tweets Video of Hathras Victim to Claim She Was Not Raped’, October 4), Lekhi had nothing to say about Twitter’s “shamefulness” in allowing that tweet to appear.

Or note how the Modi government is willing to afford the leeway of “freedom of expression” to Sudarshan TV. It had earlier allowed four episodes of the channels ‘UPSC Jihad series’ to be telecast, and it was only after a case was filed against it in the Supreme Court did the government make the right noises about the programme. Then of course there is the implicit and steadfast support to Arnab Goswami demonstrated by senior BJP functionaries rushing to decry his arrest. UP chief minister Adityanath, who has even dispatched his police to arraign journalists located outside his state, described Goswami’s arrest as “an assault on the fourth pillar of democracy”.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that the present ruling dispensation welcomes freedom of expression, but only when it furthers its own ideological narrative.


Media’s major gaps in COVID-19 coverage

The report of the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network (MWSN), ‘Citizens and the Sovereign Stories from the largest human exodus in contemporary Indian history’ (November 2020), offers some valuable observations on the media coverage accorded to the lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic. It observes, for instance, that the government chose to frame it as a “war”, and the media played into this narrative.

A major miss in media coverage highlighted in this report was the lack of holistic reporting on protests of migrants in different parts of the country. The MWSN report carries a very comprehensive compilation of these protests. As the report puts it, “In our very limited capacity, we collated a map of 158 protests, involving over a lakh protesters, mobilised on several kinds of issues like wage, food, returning home, shelter facilities and others. Their stories of resistance saw a diffused reportage, reported either as ‘conflicts’, ‘disturbances’, ‘skirmishes’, ‘chaos’ or ‘outburst’ rather than being represented as a form of resistance.”

Also read: If We’re at ‘War’ With the New Coronavirus, We’re Doing It Wrong

It goes on to add, “The corporate-controlled media has never paid much heed to migrants as resisting subjects. Unsurprisingly, it did not hear the echo of thousands of such sporadic protests across the country during lockdown, the call for wider transformative movements or having the potential for such.” The media discourse, the report observes, was largely around ‘distress’ which supposedly needed ‘humanitarian’ responses from civil society. The possibility of a ‘rights-based framework for migrant workers emerging’ was thus foreclosed.


Digital sphere and “regulation”

What is conspicuous in the Digipub Foundation’s statement on the Modi’s government’s moves to “regulate” digital media is the intent it expresses to realise the best possibilities for journalism on the internet, which is also ultimately what the much bandied mantra of “digital India” is about (‘Centre’s Moves to Regulate Content Could ‘Inhibit’ Digital News Companies: Digipub’, November 17). Digipub asks for a “detailed consultation” with all stakeholders, especially digital-only entities; and wants a hearing from the authorities at I&B ministry. Digipub would like the government to desist from “hastily issued policies” that could destroy the country’s right to stay informed.

How will the government respond? Watch this space.


Drawing the line

Talking of regulation, blogger and media personality Sanjukta Basu, was livid enough over the Times Now’s cheap shots at her to take it to court for a programme it ran on April 6, 2018, on a show titled ‘Rahul’s Troll Army’. She was termed a “Hindu hater” and “vile troll” in the programme. The problem though was getting justice in the case. Although the complainant had filed a legal notice against the channel on April 24, 2018, there was no response from it.

A year later The Wire reported that the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) had written to Bennett Coleman and Company Limited, owner of the channel, that they had received a grievance against it for running a defamatory programme against the complainant which “violated the Guidelines on Broadcast of Potentially Defamatory Content – basic guidelines No. 5, No. 8 and others”. She had also demanded an apology from the channel. Again a long silence.

It took another one and a half years for the NBSA to be stirred into following up on this. Meanwhile, Basu went ahead and filed an intervention application (IA) in the Supreme Court in the matter related to Sudarshan TV, to raise “pertinent questions over the non-functioning of the NBSA as a grievance redressal body and shed additional light on their adjudication mechanisms which have inherent weaknesses.” This was done on October 23. On October 25, the NBSA finally directed Times Now to air a public apology. It even provided the necessary text: “We regret that in the programmes aired on 6.4.2018 – ‘India Upfront’@ 8 pm and ‘The NewsHour Debate’@ 9 pm on Times Now channel, we had not taken the version of the complainant Ms Sanjukta Basu, thereby violating the principles relating to impartiality and objectivity and ensuring neutrality and fairness in reporting. We clarify that there was no intention to bring disrepute to Ms Sanjukta Basu.” The channel, it seems, has finally issued that apology.

In her public statement on the matter, Basu observed wryly, “The NBSA has hurriedly released the long-delayed judgment on my complaint against Times Now channel deciding in my favour.” She had no intention though, she iterated, to withdraw her IA since “the regulator’s non-functioning and inherent weakness are still valid in larger public interest…The fight is not over yet. The fight for a better media and better self-regulatory body continues.”


Readers write in…

Prem Chand, Patna: “I have been reading The Wire’s articles and watching its videos for the last two years and have richly benefited from them. However, I also need to say that both the news as well as the headlines given has become quite predictable and obsessive. It’s true that we are living in deeply polarised times, but the sad part is you too are either coincidently or deliberately aiding the polarisation.  Just because you are on the other side of the spectrum doesn’t mean you are always on the right side. Recently in her video post Arfa Khanum Sherwani argued that Lalu raj was not a jungle raj. According to her, the concept of jungle raj is a creation of the upper castes. Irrespective of whether Bihar was a Jungle raj or Ram Rajya, isn’t  this a covert attempt to divide people and sow seeds of enmity among them?”

Vijay Modi: “I listened to ‘Arnab Goswami Arrest: Arfa Khanum-Siddharth Varadarajan Square Off’ (November 5), discussing Arnab Goswami. Both had good arguments. Perhaps Arnab should be supported in the name of ‘free journalism’, but why not let him suffer for his bigotry which should be a strict no-no in journalism?”

M.K. Shah: There was a great hue and cry in the media, with celebrities, scholars, writers, jurists, joining in, when an FIR against the editor of The Wire was filed. Yet the very same lot remained indifferent to the Arnab Goswami arrest, rejoicing in it and even endorsing it. Strangely, their concern about freedom of expression is only for those who pursue an anti-Hindutva, anti-India agenda.

Shashank Patwardhan: “I feel that you lean towards a leftist ideology and I don’t care what you have to say on nationalists like Arnab Goswami. But you should keep in mind that he is a journalist although he may have a different ideology to yours. If the government should ever choke your voice, I would stand in support of The Wire, and I am sure Arnab would too.”

Mohan Menon, Thrissur: “On November 5, while most newspapers reported a narrow upper hand to Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, the pro-BJP newspaper in Kerala, Janmabhoomi, while reporting his, added that “Trump will go to Court”. Victory is victory for each and every one – no matter whether it is a Trump or Biden. Where is the question of court in this? In nutshell, power mongers will always try to go against democratic norms if they perceive power slipping from their hands.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in