In an earlier column, I quoted a reader as saying: "When the media hypes an event, we bloat into a sentimental balloon. The moment the media moves to another `breaking story' this bubble subsides, and we inflate another bubble." (Col. R.D. Singh, Jammu, quoted in "Some questions on values, priorities," September 18, 2006).
The latest bubble, after pop superstar Madonna and the child, Abhishek-Aishwarya and so on, was Shilpa Shetty and her role in the Celebrity Big Brother TV reality show. For nearly two weeks the media spotlight was on her. The British tabloids had more than enough to gorge on; the serious newspapers too had big pictures and long stories. As for TV channels, there was drama for them, whether it was real or orchestrated. It could not be otherwise with everyone, top politicians included, getting into the act.
The Indian media did not lag behind. The print media suddenly rediscovered Shilpa Shetty, while the TV channels had a field day. Amidst all this hullabaloo, The Hindu, I thought, was restrained in its coverage, not missing any development but not going overboard. Hasan Suroor from London had the proper perspective. The Hindu's editorial on January 30, 2007 provided a reality check of the "lather worked up over a tasteless reality show." My initial reaction was, why bother about a fracas between two paid performers on a TV show, but it soon assumed bigger overtones with Ministers, governments, and politicians airing their views.
But readers differed, some sharply in their comments. Dushyant Kumar (Baraut Baghpat, U.P.) remarked that while the editorial rightly opposed the unnecessary attention given to the show, The Hindu "forgot to check its own house. You can't preach morality when you yourself are flouting it." Suresh Iyer (Mumbai), while praising The Hindu for its "balanced and fair reporting", felt the editorial was a waste of space, even while the views expressed in it were "excellent and laudable." Using strong epithets in his reference to Shilpa Shetty, he said she did not deserve space in an editorial. S.P. Sundaram (Alapakkam, Chennai) was disappointed that The Hindu "has also boarded the tabloid press bandwagon" with "a leading editorial on l'affaire Shilpa Shetty. As the editorial itself indicated, the whole thing was a manipulation". There was no need to join the chorus was his opinion.
On the news coverage, Jagadees Pillai (Pattolimarket, Kerala) felt there had been some change in The Hindu's practice of publishing news according to its importance. "Please don't publish this kind of celebrity news. There are lots of other lifestyle/gossip newspapers. We have serious news." But I would prefer to go with G. Swaminathan (Coimbatore): "There are many like me depending on The Hindu to serve as a window to what is happening - good, bad and ugly - in the world. So do not stop giving trivial gossip news in small doses as usual."
On an earlier occasion, I quoted the editorial team as saying The Hindu did not censor news. There was no overdose in the coverage of the Shilpa Shetty episode except perhaps in the "Letters to the Editor" column, where in 10 days 78 readers held forth! But the news coverage had some gaps. After reading all the reports in The Hindu I was still wondering about the show itself: how was it organised; how were the participants chosen, what was their compensation; how, why and when were participants "evicted" and so on.
Hasan Suroor said all participants "get a fee" and Shilpa Shetty was reported to have got anything between £200,000 and £300,000. There was no special prize for the winner but the editorial said Shilpa Shetty pocketed an additional £100,000. Following readers' doubts, we posed the question to Channel 4. We received a standard reply that our query would be responded to in three weeks. When we renewed our request, we get another long standard answer, about viewers' complaints on the programme and how these were being handled. We did not get the information on payment that we wanted.
There was also mention of 82 per cent voting to evict Jade Goody and 67 per cent for Shilpa Shetty as winner. What was the number of voters? Ofcom, the regulator, received 40,000 protests. We have experience of such campaigns. The BBC Asian Network called the Big Brother controversy its biggest story ever, with more reader response, than for serious issues.
For me, the most interesting reaction to the whole episode came from Firdaus H. Adenwalla, Consultant Physician, Cardiff, Wales, U.K. In his article "Playing to the gallery", published on Open Page on February 11, 2007, the doctor made the following points:
This most trivial of TV programmes was suddenly headline news. Senior politicians were falling over themselves to pass judgment. In March 2006, the U.K. Home Office announced new immigration rules for overseas doctors. The news media, including BBC, hardly gave any space or time for a ruling that has devastating consequences for thousands of doctors, especially from India. The silence by the media was because news of surplus doctors would hardly boost sales or viewing figures. The issue is in court. (The doctors have lost the case in the High Court and are likely to appeal.) A more practical and useful measure would have been for an overseas doctor to join Big Brother.
The doctor's diagnosis is correct, the prescription is perfect.