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The Hindu on : Celebrities and the media

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Wednesday, August 25, 1999

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Celebrities and the media

By Kalpana Sharma

IN RECENT weeks, thanks to the celebrated writer, Ms. Arundhati Roy, taking up the cause of displacement in the Narmada Valley, there has been considerable media discussion on the value of celebrities associating with causes. Have Ms. Roy's essay on the Narmada dam and her subsequent ``Rally for the Valley'' helped or harmed the issue that the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has raised for over 15 years? Do such high-profile events make any difference to the lives of people whose villages are facing submergence?

There are two separate aspects to the debate that need to be addressed. First, does the participation of a celebrity in an issue help or harm the cause?

By and large, Ms. Roy has helped the cause of the NBA. Her intervention came when the NBA felt considerably discouraged by the Supreme Court ruling permitting the construction on the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) up to 85 metres. The stay on construction during the previous four years had reduced the visibility of the movement as there were few demonstrations or mass actions. A media not interested in quiet processes had failed to notice that instead NBA activists were working with the oustees of other dams scheduled to be built on the Narmada and in constructive work such as providing education to children living in villages within the submergence zone.

Ms. Roy's decision to travel to the submergence area, talk to the people and read the history of the controversy and then write on the issue have brought the problems into the public arena once again. She used her position as a well-known writer to extract from the press adequate space so that her long essay which addresses many different aspects of an issue that has been debated for a decade and a half could be published. People may quarrel with the style, or even the content, of her essay, ``The Greater Common Good'', but few will dispute the advantage of a piece of writing that puts together the main arguments on what is an extremely complex problem. Certainly, journalists who have followed the debate over the Narmada issue have never managed to put together in one piece all these arguments. Even if they could, few newspapers or periodicals would give them the space.

Furthermore, Ms. Roy's involvement has opened up the debate, once again, on dams, development and displacement. These are issues that need to be debated not just once but constantly in the media. They touch on the direction of the economy, on the lifestyles of the rich and the penury of the poor, on who will pay the real price for development which benefits a few and on whether it is possible to attempt to build a just and equitable society.

Apart from addressing the larger question of displacement, Ms. Roy's essays - on the Narmada as also the earlier ones on nuclear arms - have reached an audience which any number of well-argued, erudite pieces appearing on the editorial pages of mainstream newspapers would not have reached. Today, there is a visible interest in the younger generation on these issues which has not been seen for many years. Ever since Ms. Medha Patkar began her satyagraha at Domkhedi in Maharashtra on June 20, college students from many cities have been making their way, at their own expense, to the Narmada Valley to see for themselves what is going on there.

Ms. Roy has done what she is best at doing, writing. But she is not the first well-known person to have given her support to a cause. In Mumbai, Ms. Shabana Azmi has been known for years for her open support to the cause of slum-dwellers facing the municipal corporation's demolition squads. Like Ms. Roy, she too was accused on using the issue to project herself or of romanticising the problem. But Ms. Azmi's involvement did force the authorities to pay serious attention to the question of slums.

What is more important in both instances is that the movements they have backed are not dependent on whether Ms. Roy or Ms. Azmi continue to associate with them. These existed before they were involved and will continue even if they are not involved. That is the crucial difference between this kind of celebrity association and that which involves cutting ribbons or appearing at functions. The latter is no different from celebrity endorsement of products. Indeed, we have it on good authority that Ms. Roy was approached by more than one company to endorse their product after she won the Booker Prize, offers which she firmly refused. But even if she had accepted them, few would have criticised her. Also, if she had just lent her name to ``good causes'', she would not have drawn any flak. The fact that she chose to stick her neck out on two unpopular causes, the nuclear question and the Narmada, is what has made her the target of media criticism.

The second aspect is the fact that when celebrities take up causes, they tend to become the focus rather than the issue they are addressing. As a result, they are accused of using causes to project themselves. But who is really to blame, the celebrity or the media? In the case of Ms. Roy, the media is squarely to blame. Every move she makes is recorded. Even if she tries to draw attention repeatedly to the issue, her pleadings are brushed aside and she becomes the focus of the cameras and media attention.

In Varanasi, where Ms. Roy participated in the concluding-leg of the Global Peace March on August 6, Hiroshima Day, she had to hide from the press to ensure that the people who organised the march, and who valiantly travelled, mostly on foot, over 1500 km to register their protest against nuclear weapons, were heard by the media. At the concluding meeting, most reporters left as soon as Ms. Roy had spoken even though several important speakers followed. The next day's newspapers quoted the few words she had spoken and missed out completely on other relevant points made by many distinguished speakers. Was that Ms. Roy's fault or the media's?

It is the media's obsession with personalities that is harming not just causes but the public's understanding of any number of issues. The media continues to focus on personalities at the cost of processes and issues, because the definition of what is news remains limited to event. It is determined by immediacy, proximity, the size of the event. News is not about all people, but only ``important'' people.

This definition, however, must necessarily change as we enter the new millennium because processes, many of which go by us unnoticed, are far more significant than the pronouncements of a few ``important'' individuals. If the definition of what constitutes news does not change, then the channels of ``news'', electronic or print, could lose their audiences. Often, we hear the people say these days, ``I am sick of the news''. A survey of what interests consumers of ``news'' might well reveal that news about ordinary people doing extraordinary things is far more popular than the what the media considers ``news''.

Unfortunately, the media's focus on personalities has trivialised and obscured the real questions that ought to be discussed following the Rally for the Valley. It is extraordinary to hear people say that Ms. Roy should not be spending her time writing about social issues like the Narmada; that, instead, she should have taken up some other, more worthy, cause such as child labour, child abuse and domestic violence. If people of conscience and talent do not write about social issues, what should they be doing? Should they just make their millions and forget about the society in which they live?

The easiest thing in the world is for famous people to take up comfortable, non-controversial ``good'' causes. They will be lauded and feted for their social involvement. And no one will question their motives. But famous, or not-so-famous, if you dare to assert a view on unpopular issues, everything about you is questioned. We are already familiar with charges of being unpatriotic if you question India's nuclear programmes or raise questions about the conduct of the Kargil operations. The discomfiture caused by Ms. Roy's involvement in the Narmada issue is not very different from that. Everyone loves a ``good'' cause; it is the bad ones that should not be touched.

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