Why the sudden uproar over Bhopal in the media after years of silence? Why do some issues become live when they do while others don't?
Why does a fourth estate which let Bhopal lie all these years despite petitions, pleas and dharnas in the capital city, suddenly get galvanised by a lower court judgement? Why does it zero in on Warren Anderson when he was not a subject of this particular judgement? And why does a government which all these years found many reasons to convince itself that it could not get either Anderson extradited or make Dow Chemicals responsible for removing pollutants still there in Bhopal, suddenly constitute a Group of Ministers?
Formulating a theory of media behaviour and consequent effect is something that needs to be undertaken. It may lead to constructive and effective handling of this beast. Factor in class, location, anchor personality, type of medium. Develop an index of what kind of media pressure or expose works, for which kind of issue in which medium. And a theory of when and why some issues become live. We need to figure out what triggers the dog chasing a bone reaction that finally forces somebody in a remarkably insensitive government to sit up. And we also need to deduce, from class and location analysis, why some extreme situations in some parts of country fall by the wayside in terms of media attention, allowing the government to do little or nothing despite continuing public suffering.
What accounts for the sudden outrage over Bhopal, the raking up the names of a succession of politicians who were involved at different points? The enormity of the injustice? Maybe, but without the ‘evil corporation' angle would it have played successfully on TV? Court judgements, the theory formulators will have to note, are a consistent trigger in media activism. In 1989 after the Supreme Court decision, there was outrage too but then the media was not so in your face. Or shall we say, in the lawmakers' face. The reach needed today for activism concerning the central government and courts to create pressure? Not beyond a couple of square kilometres in Lutyens' Delhi.
The flip side of that of course is that it needs no more than counter pressure from the occupants of the same charmed enclave to call off the baying, or deflect it. Through it all last fortnight, you had a fascinating demonstration of how Congress party spin, once deployed with all those chummy TV anchors, worked to move the focus away from the prime minister of the day to the chief minister of the day. Suddenly, the Warren Anderson principle of responsibility of the man at the top applies to the guilty corporation, but not to this country's government.
Alongside the Bhopal issue, there has been a parallel media success, catalysed through the print media, and this paper in particular. The highlighting of the fact that a certain clause of the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill was being scuttled, and consequently a promise of non-dilution by an embarrassed government. If prime time shrieking helps TV achieve effect, first lead display helps in a newspaper, coupled doubtless, with support among lawmakers. Media succeeds in legislative matters when Parliamentarians pick up the ball from it, as the Standing Committee did in this case.
Not enough returns?
The same paper's constant highlighting of the situation resulting from the Manipur-Nagaland stand off however did not get the Central Government to intervene purposefully in an economic blockade that was allowed to cross two months. The Lutyens circle did not care enough, the Northeast simply does not have enough seats in Parliament to matter. Nor does it have enough marketing clout. Why did TV channels not make the blockade a daily campaign? That is why.
The other galvanising factor in media activism is simply competition. If A is shrieking about the death or suicide of a school child, B and C cannot afford to be left behind. Their concern is competitive. There is a whole SEC AB (advertiser parlance for upper middle class consumers) constituency out there which will be glued to this particular story. Class and location? Vasant Vihar in Delhi, or a school like La Martiniere in Calcutta. Does the hectoring yield results? Of a kind. What changes in the long term? We don't know, the Vasant Vihar story was not revisited, at least on television.
But what about the many instances in the life of 24x7 television when a story gets continuing coverage without class and location mattering? All those child-fallen-down-a-tubewell-shaft stories in rural Haryana and elsewhere? Coverage is not the same as a campaign for justice: they are life and death soap operas for the moment. The campaigns for justice have to be urban and middle class oriented, or better still, cutting across class and community. And they need to have a crime or judgement angle.
In the beginning of June, farmers in Maharashtra's Yavatmal district went on hunger strike. They wanted a probe into the failure of the Rs. 370 crore special relief package from the PMO. In the same month 213 people died of heat stroke in the course of 10 days in Vidarbha, partly because of an acute water crisis. The local media may have reacted to both, but their coverage had no impact in Delhi. What would it take for the watchdogs in our TV channels to chase issues like this till the government sits up? What would it take for the system to respond? We need to formulate that theory to find out.