There’s something rotten in the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. And it seems the Kannada and Telugu news channels have identified the problem — girls gone wild, fuelled by alcohol. On 14 May, Karnataka’s leading regional news channel, TV9 Kannada, ran a programme, Olage Serideru Gundu (literally, ‘once alcohol is inside’), a fine assortment of video nasties from across the country, showing the great evils of girls drinking — the ruckus on the street, clothes askew, clashes with cops.
For some years now, the disapproving cultural policing of a class of girls — ones who can afford to go out to drink — has become a staple on regional news in both states. There is massive viewership, particularly of sleazy ‘true crime’ reports, and so editors and programming heads encourage reporters to follow women and young couples, to stake out pubs, nightclubs and make-out spots. A cursory search on YouTube reveals the many news reports with such eye-catching titles as ‘Drunk women causing hulchul’, ‘Drunk women causing hungama’, or ‘How to ban rave parties to save the youth’.
“We show boys too, but a girl being daring on screen instantly catches the viewers’ attention,” says Shreeti Chakraborty, senior producer with a leading Kannada channel. One clip was of an altercation between four female students of NALSAR University of Law and reporters from the Telugu news channel ABN Andhra Jyothy, outside Rain pub in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills on the night of 11 April. Shruthi, Megha, Prachi and Adwitiya angrily confronted a drunk man filming them on his phone. The confrontation attracted a mob and reporters from ABN. Apparently, the drunk man was a reporter who had telephoned his colleagues. The footage was picked up by other news channels. Several of them branded the girls immoral, drunk and half-naked and even questioned the pub’s licence.
Watching the ABN footage is instructive. The camera pans up and down the women’s bodies. It is exploitative; consent is not an option, probably not even worth a thought. The viewer is implicated by the camera’s roving eye, a fellow voyeur leering at barefoot girls in short dresses. The cameraman follows the girls to their taxi, thrusting his camera through the door, his taunts provoking the girls to shout insults. Their expressions of fury at being cornered were circulated on primetime news as the faces of unacceptable modernity, of aggressive young women out at night, women who must be checked.
One irate senior journalist with a leading Telugu news channel described the girls as “public nuisance”, and launched into a tirade about “minors” getting drunk, abusing reporters and partying late into the night. He blames this “anti-social behaviour” on both NALSAR and the students themselves: “They even shot a promotional video for the ‘daaru party’ on campus. Look at the things they say in that.”
Confronted by this (self ) righteous indignation, the students launched an online campaign on change.org to prove that they had been harassed by the media. They compiled evidence to show that they were neither minors, nor drinking after legal hours (11 pm), and the leaked video that the news channels broadcast was not a promo for the party. Raj Singh, the owner of Rain, has stated that the ages of everyone at the party were checked and the girls left around 11 pm, not past midnight as the reporters alleged.
“The police raided us at 11.45 pm after the incident was over,” says Singh. “At 12.45 am the reporters barged into my club, beat up my security guard and placed bottles on the bars to suggest that the pub was still open.” His decision to stand up for the girls has meant that his pub “has been raided almost nightly by every department imaginable looking for some illegal activity”.
In response, Andhra Pradesh’s Electronic Media Association of Journalists put up a counter petition on change.org, asking for the girls who “assaulted reporters” to be condemned. It garnered over 5,000 signatures. But during routine checks, change.org traced the bulk of these signatures to one IP address, proving that most were fake. After they removed those signatures, only 132 were left.
The girls’ determination to stand up for themselves sets them apart in a state where reporters looking to manufacture lurid stories appear to operate without any kind of sanction. “We had to fight back,” says Shruthi Chandrasekaran, one of the girls involved in that now infamous April incident. “What’s happening is just wrong and too many people seem resigned to it. We don’t even know what motivates the media’s malice towards us.”
Andhra Pradesh has some 16 regional news channels. Sevanti Ninan, editor of The Hoot, an online media watchdog, has written about how corporate ownership sets the terms and how the need to be profitable means a redrawing of the lines between public and private. In a market exploding with money and fierce competition, no channel can afford for viewers to switch off. Thus, there’s little distinction between what channels define as eyeball-grabbing reportage and salacious entertainment. News seems to essentially mean reality TV served with an indigestible side dish of hypocritical, moralistic commentary.
GS Rammohan, associate editor with ABN Andhra Jyothy, accepts that TV news has gone insane, driven by ratings and profit. According to the TRPs, what sells is sex and crime. “People enjoy watching other people’s private lives on TV,” he says. As long, apparently, as the “other people” are comely young women. The same senior journalist who denounced the NALSAR students stated matter-of-factly that channels look to show beautiful women onscreen as de facto policy. Local media in Hyderabad and Bengaluru, Rammohan says, are similar in this regard. Though Karnataka has six regional news channels as opposed to 16, its crime news coverage is famous for stings, both successful and attempted, on bars in Bengaluru, Mangalore and Manipal. Many of these stings are the work of reporters employed by Suvarna News 24×7 and TV9 Kannada, the two most popular regional news channels in Karnataka. Both blame the other for lowering the tone of the public conversation with leering, tabloid journalism.
Raoof Kadavanad, a crime reporter with a leading English daily in Hyderabad, watches the tactics of TV reporters with some bemusement. He describes how crime reporters seek out couples in public spaces and film them with hidden cameras. The footage is then screened to bolster the argument that the behaviour of young women in the city is deplorable. After the NALSAR incident, TV5 aired a segment about Hyderabad’s nightlife that deplored what was “happening to our sisters and daughters”
In July 2012, Tonic, another pub in Banjara Hills, was raided for having a party long after legal hours. The media filmed the raid, focussing largely on the women in that familiar, creepy style. Depressingly, this behaviour is typical. In January 2012, Suvarna broadcast a ‘sting’ on illegal bars in Bengaluru. The ‘illegality’ of said establishments was, of course, of less concern than filming the girls on their cameras. In 2011, a medical student was photographed at a party in Le Rock Cafe in Bengaluru. Her picture was published in a Kannada newspaper belonging to the Telugu channel Sakshi TV as an example of the malign influence of western culture on the present generation.
The combination of sanctimoniousness and aggression is visible. Girls are hunched over, hiding their faces, surrounded by baying men. The footage is edited insidiously, with strategic blurring implying nudity when a girl is wearing a dress deemed insufficiently modest. Shame is thrust on the girls. “It was terrifying,” remembers Shruthi, “to be chased by this man with a camera, who won’t even let you shut the car door.” Her fear has been felt before by innumerable women running away from cameras, desperately covering their faces with dupattas, scarves or their own hands.
Another popular tactic used by reporters is to wait around with traffic police conducting its weekly drunk-driving tests at various checkpoints around Hyderabad. Every Friday and Saturday night, a small group of reporters armed with lights and cameras film these checks, waiting for women who might be stopped. “Channels use that footage in different packages to say different things for months. People enjoy it,” says ABN Andhra Jyothy’s Rammohan.
In Bengaluru, Ajit Hanamakkanavar, the Crime Bureau Chief of Suvarna, acknowledges that “news has crossed over the line to moral policing and reality TV”. “In the TV business, the remote control is your biggest enemy. No one watches serious, investigative stories,” he adds. The channel has a “legal team at the ready” to deal with accusations of slander and defamation. The reporters are often tipped off about the bar raids by the police. “A commissioner will not be my source,” says Hanamakkanavar, “but a constable will be.” A senior police officer confirmed that the constabulary and reporters often share information.
Both Rammohan and Hanamakkanavar put the blame squarely on upper management. The top brass have cynically turned moral policing into a lucrative business. Many of the reporters, who often come with their own cultural baggage, actually believe they are making a valuable difference, providing a much-needed check to out-of-control youth. It is not enough for them to observe society; they feel the need to become enforcers of a particular, usually imaginary, cultural code. Sampath Kumar, a crime reporter for ABN, earnestly tries to explain how “these people” can be kept in check “through fear of the media and by being made to understand that their behaviour is wrong”. He claims the reporters have the public on their side and that tip-offs come just as often from their audience as from the police.
In Karnataka, there is also a penchant for blaming the outsider, or the ‘foreign hand’ — students and professionals, who flock to cities from other states and countries, and bring money, decadence and loose morals. The pressure to make the money to lead extravagant lifestyles also results in crime, say reporters. Rajesh Rao, the Mangalore crime reporter for TV9 Kannada, says that he’s “seen what goes on in these pubs, what drugs are exchanged. These petticoat parties where girls wear short clothes”. Suresh Kumar Shetty, the Mangalore crime reporter for Suvarna, worries about the effects the “lavish lifestyle” of rich students from outside the state have on locals.
Like Rao, Shetty admits that his channel has attempted to smuggle cameras into popular bars. He once asked two friends of his, who were not reporters, to enter a bar as a couple and film the goings-on. To validate the rightness of the cause, he refers to the tragic suicide of Sneha, an 18-year-old Mangalore girl, in February this year. A drug addict, she reportedly killed herself because she couldn’t afford the next fix. Her parents spoke about a girl who used to top her class at school until she started going to parties in hotels and pubs and was introduced to drugs.
This story fits conveniently into Rao and Shetty’s argument that local youths are tempted into vices they cannot afford and that the media must protect them. Naveen Soorinje, the Mangalore reporter for Kasthuri TV, disagrees. With vehemence. He made national headlines last year after the 23 July 2012 homestay incident in which activists from the Hindu Jagarana Vedike attacked boys and girls at a birthday party. Soorinje’s coverage shed light on what had happened, yet he was named as an accused in the case by the police. Released on bail in March this year, all charges against Soorinje were dropped by the Karnataka government on 14 June. Having consistently reported on cultural policing, he points out when right wing groups such as the Sri Ram Sene go on one of their periodic moral policing jaunts in Mangalore, the media, tipped off by these groups, is close behind. It’s a cosy relationship. The media gets political backing for its own occasional hand-waving about decadent modern culture and the right wing groups get the soapbox and spotlight they so desire. “When the right wing groups are not around,” says Soorinje, “TV channels film young people in pubs and ask ‘what is the Hindu sangathan doing now?’ When TV9 does something, Suvarna tries to catch up by doing something more sensational.”
This role of social responsibility is championed by TV9 Telugu’s executive editor Dinesh Akkula and Input Editor Arvind Yadav. According to them, the story of Telugu media is one of transformation — from a cutthroat business to responsible journalism that is the hallmark of the likes of TV9. “Maturity is coming in slowly,” says Akkula, “we stick to the guidelines recommended by the News Broadcasters Association (NBA). We don’t target specific people or groups, but we show what’s in the public interest.”
In TV9 Telugu’s infamous Planet Romeo sting (February 2011), a reporter posed as a gay man on the site Planet Romeo and befriended other members, eliciting intimate details while recording his conversations. The ‘report’ was broadcast with lots of hand-wringing about how Hyderabad was falling prey to the fashionable gay culture. The conversations were played on TV, revealing identities, personal sexual preferences and histories. Prominent gay rights lawyer Aditya Bandopadhyay filed a complaint and the NBA fined the channel 1 lakh, a piffling sum for a network of TV9’s size.
That appalling piece of reporting shows that it’s not just middle and upper-middle class girls in the firing line, but all manner of easy targets. The Telugu news channel NTV 24×7 once filmed transgenders at an LGBT awareness event held by the NGO Suraksha and then aired that footage in a completely different context, when a man was murdered at a popular cruising spot. TV9 Kannada did a major expose in 2009 on the “Devdasi tradition” among sex workers of Kudligi in Bellary district. The story’s fallout, as documented in a fact-finding report by Vimochana, a women’s organisation, and Nava Jeevana Mahila Okkuta, a Dalit Women’s Collective, was that these sex workers, previously accepted by a wider community, were now ostracised. They had lost their only source of livelihood, couldn’t send their children to school and were shunned by the neighbours. The TV9 journalist, Prakash Noolvi, went on to win the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award in January 2012. “The reporter didn’t hide the faces of these women,” says Akkai Padmashali, the media coordinator of Sangama, an LGBT organisation. “They cheated these women by posing as clients. One had even been visiting them for sex.” She angrily recounts the many times reporters secretly film sex workers to extort money from them.
Activists and intellectuals point to how a large section of society gives legitimacy to the media and other self-appointed moral police. People will be outraged by a girl being beaten up, but will also say that she should not have been out drinking in the first place. Conservatives who might be of completely different backgrounds find common ground when setting limits on women’s behaviour. Shaming is a cultural reality. Madhavi Lata, a scriptwriter and former reporter for NTV, is honest about the fact that truth is often warped to fit viewers’ preconceptions. But even she asks why “these girls give people the chance to say something about them. They could go out for a drink in more decent clothes”.
Hyderabad-based activist Tejaswini Madabhushi recalls media reaction to the 5 January ‘Midnight March’ in the city, an attempt to take back the night from sexual predators and the moral police. “Vernacular news reporters,” says Madabhushi, “kept asking us why we wanted to go out in the night and provoke men like them.”
Pop culture too reflects this attitude. Audiences cheer when Telugu heroes verbally and physically abuse heroines. It’s part of a nationwide acceptance of misogyny. Sandhya, a leading gender rights activist in Hyderabad, says people “want to see women as sex objects. Studios call us for panel discussions and pit us against someone from the right wing. We tell them to leave the girls alone and start telling the boys how to behave.” R Akhileshwari, a senior print journalist, points out that it’s “always the woman’s body” that is the locus of censure or dispute. “Why do these channels not look at the liquor shops on the road, where men buy drinks, enjoying a session right there by the roadside?”
Perhaps legal challenges will force TV channels to modify their intrusive behaviour. “It is a violation of privacy,” says Bengaluru-based lawyer Akmal Rizvi. “It can be interpreted as stalking, which comes under Section 354D of the IPC.” One of Hyderabad’s eminent lawyers says, on the condition of anonymity, that some reporters “blackmail people for money by threatening to show their faces on TV”. The NALSAR students cited the reporters’ violations of the NBA’s regulations concerning stings and media ethics. The reporters argue that roads are public areas.
“Moral policing on TV goes back to the ’90s when crime shows started,” says Deepu, a Bengaluru- based documentary filmmaker with Pedestrian Pictures. He reiterates the point that journalists are part of the social fabric that consumes these shows. But the very morality these channels pretend to is hypocritical. “Why would you want to see that picture of the skimpily dressed girl if you are so moral?” asks Nisha Susan, freelance journalist and writer, who began the ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign in 2009 in response to Sri Ram Sene goons beating up women in a Mangalore pub. Thousands of people around the country responded to her call to send the thugs the aforementioned items of women’s underwear. She adds that each generation must push the boundaries for acceptable female behaviour and be prepared for the inevitable friction.
As of now, vernacular media is working hard to play to its audience’s prejudices. An audience that tunes in repeatedly to be scandalised. Perhaps one day, these channels will be overtaken by their viewers as they’re forced to adapt to changing times. One day, the audience will note the rage on a young girl’s face as she is backed into a corner by a reporter wielding a camera. And then they’ll no longer listen to the reporter’s claims that it is the young girl whose behaviour is immoral.