CONTROVERSIES are the staple of the media. The print media in Kerala was already well established as a purveyor of controversies when the electronic media arrived. As news channels proliferated and competition intensified, channels replaced newspapers as the main vehicles of controversy.
Since the attention span of the public is notoriously short, channels and newspapers do not dwell long on any issue. They keep moving from one controversy to another.
The hour-long night bulletin is where controversy rages most furiously. The channels compete with one another to get the newsmakers of the day and their detractors to make the discussion lively.
Recognising that channel debates can influence public opinion, the main political parties choose their spokesmen carefully. The CPI (M) official leadership regularly fields the three Jayarajans – EP, MV and P -- from Kannur and the Pradesh Congress deploys MI Shahnavas and MM Hassan. As rival spokesmen confront each other directly, viewers are treated to the verbal equivalent of a battle between gladiators.
It was MV Nikesh Kumar of Indiavision who first came up with a one-hour package of news and views. Some later entrants like Venu Balakrishnan of Asianet News and Shani Prabhakar of Manorama News have a well-deserved reputation for trenchant questioning of guests.
The news channels deserve credit for taking up several issues of vital interest to the people. For instance, the sad state of the roads was the subject of discussion on the all the channels. Unfortunately, Kerala is too small a place and politics in the State is too narrowly focused to generate sufficient material for debate on a daily basis. They, therefore, find it necessary to pick on lesser issues and blow them up.
Three issues which the media played up during the past few weeks illustrate how politicians keep the controversy-chasing media occupied. They are the alleged participation of late Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator Mathai Chacko in religious ceremonies, the selection of Mons Josesph as the Kerala Congress (Joseph)’s ministerial nominee by draw of lots and the circumstances surrounding eminent thinker MN Vijayan’s death.
The United Democratic Front had raised the issue of Mathai Chacko’s religious affiliation during the by-election to fill his Assembly seat. However, it did not come in the way of the LDF’s victory in Thiruvambadi and did not evoke any interest outside the constituency.
The Bishop of Thamarassery raised the issue again in a speech last month. He said a priest had held a service at the request of Mathai Chacko’s family as he lay dying at hospital. CPI (M) State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, speaking in Thiruvambadi a few weeks later, castigated the Bishop for defaming a Marxist.
The channels repeatedly played recordings of the speech in which Pinarayi Vijayan likened the bishop to a “hideous animal”. In the discussions that followed, both sides marshalled evidence in support of their claims.
Pinarayi Vijayan stood his ground in face of strident demands for retraction. The Church released some documents in support of the bishop’s claim but the other side was able to cast doubts on the reliability of at least some of them. Amid the verbal pyrotechnics that they generated, the vital fact that the Church and the Party are both political players and that both tend to demand total loyalty from their followers did no receive adequate attention. It is not uncommon for individuals to try and please both, giving unto the Party what is its and unto God what is His.
Kerala Congress (J) leader P. J. Joseph enjoys such clout in his party that it would have readily endorsed anyone whom he picked to occupy its berth in the State Cabinet, which fell vacant when TU Kuruvila resigned following a land scandal. Reluctant to choose between the two legislators, both of whom advanced claims, he allowed the party to settle the issue by drawing lots.
The loser’s disclosure that the winner was chosen by drawing lots embarrassed the party. In the channel discussions, many criticised the procedure as undemocratic. Joseph said lots were drawn as the two candidates were equally meritorious.
Pinarayi Vijayan’s obituary tribute to MN Vijayan as a “distinguished college teacher” and Sukumar Azhikode’s insinuation that MN Vijayan’s associates had hastened his end provided grist to the channels’ mill. Mercifully, the channels dropped the controversy quickly.
In dropping the MN Vijayan and Mathai Chacko controversies following appeals by their families, the media demonstrated that it retains the good sense to respond positively to public sentiments. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 22, 2007.