Media and misogyny. By Aditya Sinha, The New Indian Express
The other night, on a programme meant to clarify to viewers that her recorded conversations with corporate public relations manager Niira Radia were merely news-gathering, NDTV group editor Barkha Dutt faced questions by four male journalists, three of them veterans. Towards the end of the show, Barkha commented to her channel colleague and show moderator: “Anyway, there’s been a lot of misogyny here today”. Given that Barkha is the first woman editor of a major media organisation, and given that she has for long served as a major inspiration for youngsters, especially women (before television, the media was a career fit only for men who were perhaps good at nothing else), the impact of her words should not be underestimated. Whatever else may have transpired during that show, the mention of misogyny has resonance for any woman who lives and works in India.
The fact that Barkha is the first, and still the only Editor of a mainstream media outfit in India itself speaks volumes. Till now, women journalists in major newspapers or magazines have become resident editors, but no higher. The majority of women find they reach the ceiling when they become features editor or magazine editor, which in a sense is their being told that they are capable of nothing more than commissioning or reporting on ‘soft stories’. This is of course a crock of crap. Some women do become Editor of a publication, but that is usually at a niche magazine like such pertaining to glamour or health, etc.
If women aren’t given the ultimate responsibility in editorial management, then the blame is not only that of senior journalists who have overlooked or not groomed their women colleagues for the top job, but also the media barons who perhaps are not comfortable with the idea. It surprises me, for instance, that the proprietor of my former newspaper, the Hindustan Times, despite being a woman who herself had to overcome the prejudice and misgivings of an entrenched union and old-style management when her father passed control to her, never thought of hiring a woman for the top job. It may simply be a matter of her not yet finding the right person; but it hasn’t happened yet.
This is not to say that the Times of India, despite having had a woman as resident editor in its flagship edition, is any better. Sure, it hires a lot of women and journalists, but that’s true everywhere nowadays because women appear to be better-qualified and better-driven than the boys wandering into the profession. The paper also appears to be women-friendly in its content, but again that’s another illusion; it’s merely the outcome of a cynical marketing strategy resting on the premise that women are either the biggest consumers or influence “big purchase” decisions. The newspaper shrewdly disguises commodification as empowerment.
And then there’s the sneering attitude to women in stories by even the most liberal publications, and by even women writers. Take the incident of Sunanda Pushkar’s involvement in the bid for an IPL team in Kochi. It was a simple case of nepotism involving the then minister of state for external affairs, Shashi Tharoor. (In hindsight, what they were alleged to have done pales in comparison with the scams that have surfaced since, and they weren’t even fingering public money). Yet it turned into a barely-veiled personal attack on Ms Pushkar; the tone of most articles was salacious. It was shameful.
Thus it is true that there is a pervasive misogyny in the big media. It is so deeply entrenched that most top male editors usually have a core team which is akin to a boys club. It reflects the attitudes in our working life throughout India; while women may feel physically safer on the streets of some cities, they perhaps find the workplace even more stifling in those same cities. Every woman knows this. Which is why Barkha Dutt’s comment about misogyny, made by a woman who’s risen to the top through visible labour and good work (such as in Kargil and Kashmir), is one that ought not to be taken lightly, even if other journalists or even men in general are dismissive of it. As the Radia tapes show, a good chunk of journalists are increasingly out of touch with what their readers think or feel.
In the leaked portions of her conversations with Radia, Barkha Dutt is heard discussing the back-and-forth of the UPA-II ministry formation. In hindsight, one of Radia’s aims was to ensure A Raja’s return to the telecom ministry, despite his having caused a loss of `1.76 lakh crore to the nation during the allotment of 2G Spectrum. Barkha did not appear to know this aspect, and so there is actually nothing wrong, illegal or corrupt that she did. Wittingly or unwittingly, however, she became a party, however tangentially, to the immense pressure that was brought upon the Congress and upon Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (who, it now transpires, had an inkling that Raja was up to no good) to retain Raja in the same ministry. To the common viewer/reader, Barkha Dutt now exemplifies the cozy relationship between business, politics and the media: of networking, privilege and power. It is likely that she was too dazzled by all this to see the murkiness of what was unfolding before her very eyes, and so you can believe she did not see a story in the fact of a corporate fixer acting as a mediator between two political parties over ministry allocation.
The four men chosen for the panel (Outlook’s Vinod Mehta wisely declined) tried to question her about it but the fact is that Barkha Dutt did not give satisfactory answers. (The Hindu’s N Ram was categorical in his assessment of the show). If anything, the men genuinely tried to be accommodating or avuncular; only Open’s Manu Joseph refused to offer no resistance to Barkha’s steady descent into attacks of a personal and pulmonary nature. Yet at no point did any of them allude to her gender; and at no point did they gang up against her (asking a follow-up to another person’s questions is a standard practice). She, on the other hand, questioned Manu’s understanding of political journalism; she evaded answers by alleging that the questioners had changed goalposts (an allegation that politicians perhaps want to make of journalists but wisely refrain from doing); and she made the reference to misogyny. In short, she lost her composure.
You may wonder that if misogyny was going to be an issue, then NDTV should have just called four women to the panel. Perhaps Barkha sensed that the grilling would have been far worse. And then she would have had nothing to blame for her unconvincing defence of why she figured in the Radia tapes.
About The Author
Aditya Sinha is the Editor-in-Chief of The New Indian Express and is based in Chennai.