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Media as ‘moral entrepreneurs’

Media as ‘moral  entrepreneurs’
Highlights

Even as the country was struggling to understand the extreme physical violence inflicted on a photojournalist in Mumbai, there was a media lynch mob...

Instead of the moral breast beating, if one pauses to think, it is obvious that each instance will have a specific cause behind it and not all of them are a result of excessive freedom the students exercise

Even as the country was struggling to understand the extreme physical violence inflicted on a photojournalist in Mumbai, there was a media lynch mob doing metaphorically the same thing to university students in Hyderabad. One of the channels in Hyderabad, which pioneered the awkward Anglicization of Telugu news television, found much to ventilate about when a University of Hyderabad student accidentally fell from the fourth floor of a building, and unfortunately died.

They telecast a special show, “Crime Campus?” with random footage and a lot of ‘moral panic’. The burden of the show was that the students of this highly ranked university were binge drinking, doing drugs and indulging in promiscuity. The terminology used in the anchor’s outraged rant leaves nothing to the discretion of the viewer.

In her reconstruction of the events leading to the death of the young girl, the anchor in dire tones tells us that “Samayam, ardharathri ontiganta. Campus loni nirmanamlo unnnabhavanam. Nalugurabbayilu, muggurammayilu jollyga party chesukuntunnaru. … vaarilonalugurabbayiluokaammayimadyammatthulothooluthunnaru.Samayamardharathri 1.10 nimishalu, eegrouploMohniMishraaneammayiki phone occhindi… Phone ravadamtho friends ninchikonchamdoorangavellimatladuthondiMohini. Inthalokaalujaaribhavanamnaluguanthastununchikindakupadipoyindi.” (Time one in the middle of the night. An under-construction building on campus. Four boys and three girls were partying ‘jollyga’. Among them, four boys and one girl were sozzled and unsteady. Time middle of the night ten minutes past one. Mohini Mishra in the group got a phone call. She stepped away from her friends to speak over the phone. She slipped and fell from the fourth floor).

The lead up to the facts is built up as if we were going to see a murder conspiracy. At the end of the segment with ‘facts’, the anchor asks: Who called her last? The entire clip was presented in crime register with graphics and sensational music. When the bit about ‘four boys and three girls’ is mentioned in the story, a silhouette graphic of a girl and a boy swigging is superimposed to leave nothing to chance. The description and the specific timeline of the reconstruction give the impression that the anchor was an eyewitness to the entire episode. The anchor does not feel the necessity to qualify her text with ‘it is reported’, ‘according to so and so’ at any point. There are no versions to the story. Only the anchor’s unambiguous story as the ‘truth’.

The sub-text of the story implies that boys and girls have no business to be friends. The over-emphasis on time of day also is to make us believe that being out at night is immoral and can lead to death. Even though the story has the sound bite of the policeman saying that the girl appears to have accidentally slipped and fallen, the channel chose to generalise and imply widespread immorality as the cause.

The anchor also goes on to lament that the campuses are becoming “clubbulu, pubbulu” (clubs and pubs). That there is “vicchalavidi” (unbridled) behaviour of girls and boys on campus. That discipline is lacking. In a sweeping generalization, she links the earlier instances of an attempt by some boys with the help of outside elements to kidnap a girl with all the other cases of suicides on campus. She exhorts the university to discipline the students (Ukkupadam – iron boot).

Instead of the moral breast beating, if one pauses to think, it is obvious that each instance will have a specific cause behind it and not all of them are a result of excessive freedom the students exercise.

The University of Hyderabad, like all major universities, gives its students a collegial and free atmosphere to interact with their peers and seniors. Libraries and facilities are open long into the night. Students also get opportunity to have parties and fun on campus. A great deal of learning and maturity comes from such an environment. There is idealism and shared dreams for a great future ahead. Such campus life is a cherished memory for a lifetime for many.

It is also a place for the youngsters to learn to interact with the opposite sex and make lasting friendships, not all of them sexual in nature. It is an insult to assume that all girls and boys who spend time with each other necessarily have only physical relationships in mind.

This story comes barely a few months after the Telugu news channels waylaid girls of NALSAR University coming out of a pub after a farewell party. The channels went to town about the clothes the girl students were wearing, that they were punch drunk and promiscuous. The channels behaved like a lynch mob with the girls even though there were several boys also partying with them.

The unfortunate part of the coverage of the channels is the role of women reporters and anchors. They themselves have been forcibly transformed into mannequins sporting Western clothes by the bosses because they felt that only such appearance could grab the channel-surfing, educated urban youth. But the message they are allowed to parrot is not modern but a retrogressive one, which believes that women must be measured by different standards of morality. They want to impose this even on Central university campuses that have been relatively free of such moral panics.

All Central university campuses are melting pots of cultures and classes. Students have the unique opportunity to learn to tolerate, negotiate differences and to become more human in their world-view. But the conservative opinion on campuses, some from faculty and some from student groups, are unable to see any value in this and would like to flatten the differences into prescribed norms of handed-down behaviour. This inevitably will result in taking away all personal autonomy from young people, take away avenues to experience life and to make intelligent decisions based on one’s own understanding.

Media have become ‘moral entrepreneurs’ marketing women’s tragedies as sleaze for their own profit. This invariably plays into the hands of conservative opinion that concentrates far too much on fixing women and forgets that it is this mindset that has made Indian society a veritable hell for women.

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