Collateral damage of breaking news: discussion part 1
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Summary: Lawrence Liang, Arundhati Roy and Shuddhabrata Sengupta participate in a panel discussion about the 'Collateral damage of breaking news', based on the title of an article written by Roy.
Liang introduces the speakers and the topic.
..ood evening and welcome to the last session of the two day conference we've had as a part of the World Information City event. I'm Lawrence Liang and I'm a part of the Alternative Law Forum, and it's my privilege to introduce the two speakers. One of the speakers clearly needs no introduction, so I won't introduce Shuddha. The other speaker however may need some introduction. Arundhati Roy is a writer based in New Delhi. Having done with the introductions I think we can now proceed.
The discussion that we're going to have today is based on the title of an essay that Arundhati had written for SARAI Reader for crisis media called 'The Collateral Damage of Breaking News', and I'd like to invite Shuddha to initiate the discussion.
Collateral Damage of Breaking News
World Information City
Shuddha starts about the different landscape that entails the war in newsprint.
Well, this is, you know, perhaps this is cheating because we've already had this discussion a few days ago at Koshy's, and so in essence, like in an exam where you've.. you already know the questions before. So we're all, you know, what in my school used to be called 'cheater-cocks'.
But, this essay is only the starting point of what I hope is going to spin off into all sorts of unpredictable directions. But first of all, the title itself. When one thinks of collateral damage, one usually imagines, you know, planes in the air bombing cities with names that cannot be pronounced by the newscasters who refer to them. And collateral damage happens incidentally to some of the people who live in those cities. But when you talk about the collateral damage of breaking news, it seems to be a skirmish or a war that seems to happen between the lines of newsprint or between, you know, as you switch channels on a television set, so clearly there is a different kind of landscape that you're actually imagining in this essay, and perhaps we could begin by kicking off on that.
Shuddha has a great voice, amazing diction and he has intelligent things to say with it.
Yes, no, maybe. Is this on? I think really what I was.. I was trying to get at was is there.. you know, have we passed from the age of manufacture of consent to the manufacture of news itself? And what.. what are the pressures that this kind of enormous appetite that's been created for breaking news, what pressures does it create in itself? Because there is this sense in which you know, obviously all of us know that we don't exist unless we're on TV, I mean, we don't exist unless we're on the news, so.. so.. so the reality that is reported in the media is.. is more real than what we have traditionally thought of as.. as real. But with that comes this.. the manufacture of crises, not just by the media, but by people who need to be in the media, for all sorts of good reasons, and then the strategies that, that's it, the government uses to deal with that crisis. They have developed, all states all over the world have developed the technique of waiting out a crisis, knowing that people can't, you know, that there's nothing sadder than a spent crisis, so you don't hang around once the crisis is over. And then you have experts who are sort of crisis.. you know the crisis experts.. cri.. crisis doctors. And you have, in.. you know, what I think is very disturbing, which is you have the whole notion of resistance movements needing to create a spectacle in order to be noticed by the media, and.. and in that case the spectacle somehow sort of disconnects itself from real resistance and becomes spectacular resistance that needs to keep reinventing itself. And then when it's run out of, you know, when it's run out of scripts and run out of tricks and run out of issues that the media is interested in, then it's dropped and you move on, whereas the real reasons for the resistance remain. So these are the issues that I was sort of beginning to discuss.
Roy starts about the manufacture of news, spectacular resistance, trend of crisis doctors, and reality in the media.
But then, does it make sense to speak of a crisis at all when.. if breaking news breaks 24 by 7, what is a crisis?
Roy talks of continual crises, the imagination of the mainstream media, and use of technology to move in a particular direction.
Well, the thing is that it's not 24/7 the same crisis. It's crisis to crisis to crisis to crisis. So crisis is spectacle. And once you've consumed it, it's over, and you move on to the next one. And so then obviously now I'm talking about the mainstream.. mainstream.. the imagination of the mainstream media and the imagination of the consumer of the mainstream media. And so you know how.. how does one then subvert that, take it apart, understand it, learn to deal with it and then come down to.. to talking about what are the strategies of real resistance that because one of the I think one of the problems with you know sort of talking a lot about technology and what technology means is that you give it an importance in a way you bleed politicians (?), and we forget that you know technology has been spoken of I mean nuclear bombs are spoken of in the same way as information technology. That is a new true thing that is used in any way you want it to be used, either to repress or to subvert or to create evolution. But the fact is that eventually there is a political machine at work that is causing things to move in a particular direction.
Buffalo and bees metaphor, and the two edges of the metaphor.
You used what I think is a very telling metaphor. The metaphor of the buffalo and the bees. The buffalo being, to summarise very quickly, the behemoth of the mainstream media, large newspaper corporations, the television channels, the photo companies, the music business. The bees mean the kind of the.. there the mobile array of independent media practitioners who constantly pick on the buffalo to create a sort of to bleed it, to.. to make it stumble as it walks along. So in essence while the behemoth is constantly taken apart by the swarm of bees around it, there is a kind of double-edged-ness to this metaphor, and perhaps you would like to talk a little bit about the second edge of this.. of this metaphor.
I think I used this metaphor of the buffalo and the bees to try and look at what was happening in sort of classical mainstream old media and new media and look at it as if it's a seedy romp where the buffalo is the main dish on the menu, the buffalo sets the agenda, and then the bees sort of (indistinct) so they're the hyperlinks that tend to give the story behind the story, but as they stumble across the plain, it's still the buffalo that is setting the agenda, and it's still the.. the sort of nice, lefty bees that are kind of exposing that. But they're not actually being able to turn it around or to dictate what path that buffalo should take as it thunders down, you know. And so, I think, you know, these are issues that.. what.. you know, who owns the buffalo? How.. Is.. is the buffalo accou.. I mean, we talk about accountability of the state, but I think sometimes we forget that there are various instruments of the state I mean now we have the corporate state. We have.. we have a kind of corporate nation or corporate nationalism, and we have corporate media, we have a corporate media who's structured in a particular way. Structured to not be able to come in the way of.. of.. of what is happening in the world. Because it can't. Because the people who own it, the people who advertise in it are interested in a particular kind of world. So how do we I mean I think I keep coming back again and again to this issue of strategies of resistance, and one of the things that.. I.. I've been particularly interested in is what you've been talking about, I mean talking about in the sense of copyright and things, of porous legality. But I think porous legality is a subject that.. that.. that comes very close to these issues of resistance, and I think we should.. we should discuss that because then we can get into you know the connection between this effort to create a kind of monolithic, concrete legality. How is that sort of welded onto the notions of morality? Why is the citizen or the human being expected to be moral while.. whereas the state is lauded for being immoral? And what is legality stroke morality? I mean, I have a very.. I'm.. I'm very jumpy about the notion of morality. But maybe Lawrence you should you know talk about..
Roy talks of porous legality.
This is where Dr. Liang gives us a class on porous legality.
I think.. I want to you know, pick up from the metaphor of the buffaloes and the bees and to look at it from another angle. In relation to mainstream media and the indie media, and the fact that indie media in some senses relies on and is shaped by the buffalo, there is however another set of bees that is.. you know who are constantly buzzing around this obstinate, monolithic buffalo. But in this case I think the.. it does act as an impediment to the buffalo. And here I'm really speaking for example about.. and here is where again technology comes into play, because given the change in.. changes brought about in technology, the cost of reproduction of information has become so low that really, everyone should be you know an information producer. And that everyone can actually be in some senses, the bee, right?. And there really isn't in that sense the necessity of the buffalo any longer. But in this context for example if you were to look at the realm of non-legal circulation of media or what is popularly called piracy, there are certain things that are happening where the buffalo is not able to hold any longer, and I want to give you an example of this. One cannot speak about media except as global media any longer, one cannot speak about global media except in terms of the convergence of interests. The convergence of interests for example between the owners of content and the owners of carriage. In the morning for example we heard a very interesting story of a person running a small Urdu channel, and his absolute inability to do so because he's stopped at every level. First by the large content owners like you know your Star Pluses and your Zees, and it's a.. no coincidence that your Star Pluses and your Zees which are owned by the Rupert Mur.. someone like Rupert Murdoch also control distribution.
Liang continues about the indie media and pirates, the counter-culture tradition, copyright, picture of irreparable damage painted by big business.
So, for me, the realm of this global buffalo we're talking about, the global media, it has the ability to control you know the free.. the.. the flow of information commodities in the temporal and the spacial sense, so the world is its market on the one hand, and also to control the ability at what points of time commodities are released out into this market and they become endless commodities. So in the morning we heard for example that it doesn't make sense to talk about a film as a cinematic experience any longer. Because you have a movie like the Matrix which then becomes the video game 'Enter the Matrix' which then becomes the, you know, the Neo caps and your Neo tee shirts which then becomes your.. your.. Matrix 2 and it's.. you know the.. the filmmakers have said that it doesn't make sense to watch Matrix 2 unless you've played the video game Enter the Matrix. You know, a range of bizarre things that are happening, and all of these are critically controlled by the regime that we call copyright. And I think the buzz that is happening with the bees this time around, and this might be something which is interesting, because this is a genuine crisis.. a 500 billion dollar industry, and I have a fascinating case which is going on in Delhi called the Landhi Music Store case, which has Time Warner, Columbia, Tri.. Disney, Paramount, Sony, the top eight, 535 billion dollars versus Arun Kumar Gupta, proprietor, the Landhi Music Store, east of Kailash. Now this is the stake of the global information battle. And yet the account that they provide is of irreparable loss and injury, irreparable damage that will happen, right? There seems to be happening here. A person with a CD writer is suddenly a competitor to this large buffalo. But I think the crucial difference between the bees and the pirates is that the pirates don't have the ability to claim for themselves the representational terms that the bees do. The tradition for example of indie media that emerges from a counter culture tradition, it emerges from an.. a kind of a.. the language of resistance is not available to the pirate because the pirate is commercially tainted. So how do we resolve this?
I think.. you know I'm very interested in this you know, forgetting about locating it in.. in the media or music, just let's talk about why.. why we need identity cards. Why suddenly this government needs the names and background stories of one billion people. Because you know, up to now, it's not new, it's not new in urban areas that seventy percent of those who dwell in our cities are in some way or the other illegal. They are.. they live in illegal homes, they are hawkers, they earn their living in illegal ways. And, you know, it's not that they go to jail for it, but that they're constantly predated upon by the municipality. This is something that has been an urban syndrome. But now, there's a new move afoot, and that is, 'how do you de-legitimize the countryside?', you know, and here comes issues of copyright and patent where you're trying to corporatise agriculture. This whole debate about Genetically Modified seeds. Of course, on.. on the one hand the debate itself about what Genetically Modified seeds mean and do not mean to health and to the environment is a very crucial debate. But actually the other issue is that whether it is good for you or bad for you. What they're trying to do is corporatise the whole thing, and soon the government is trying to pass something called the Seeds Act which makes it illegal for any farmer to produce his or her own seeds, to trade and exchange seeds; it makes it lawful for the government to invade the house of any farmer, raid it to see if they have any seeds that cannot be accounted for ' seed pirates ' or.. but actually they're just creating their own.. they're not copying Hollywood films. But.. So in one fell swoop you make eighty percent of a nation illegal, ok, and then you need.. once you've made them illegal, you need surveillance, you need to know how to catch the thief. And.. even when you're taking about like.. I was listening to the debate about borders just now, about.. and.. and obviously in Europe the debate is about keeping some people out and bringing some people in. But what's happening in India, very interesting, on this.. you know the same week, I don't know if you remember, I think it was two years ago, there was this big meeting of what they call PIOs, right? Persons of Indian origin where the Indian government was giving dual passports to people of Indian origin. Obviously those were available only to Naipaul and to, you know, big businessmen in.. in South Africa or America or wherever, they were not going to be available to those who were still, you know, the equivalent of indentured labour in South Africa. But that same week, a friend of mine for example who is sort of British, of Dutch descent has a PIO card ' a person of Indian origin card. But that same week, the government had arrested 14,000 people who they said were Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who were going to be deported. Now, until 1947 it was the same country, so some English person is a person of Indian origin, but Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are not, and then amongst those 14,000, they found that I think three or four thousand were Hindus, so now how to keep the Hindus and chuck out the Muslims? And this whole law we have, the IMDT Act, you know, where a person now can, has to prove that they are Indian, ok? So if you talk to say rickshaw pullers in.. in old Delhi who are Bengali Muslim, now whether they are West.. Muslims from West Bengal or Muslims from Bangladesh, who can tell? Guess what the litmus test. If you can.. every week a policeman will land up at their, you know, and say 'if you can give me 5000 rupees, you're an Indian. Otherwise you're a Bangladeshi.' And you're out, you know, so, also a question of pushing people out, not just about who you let in. It's all.. giving these cards is not just also about surveillance, it's also about now who will get it and who won't. So there are those of us who may not want a card, but there are plenty of people who actually want it because it's their security, you know, so in the same way surveillance to those of us who live in the cities, who want to be anonymous, and tha.. I feel that that is being taken away from us, whereas there are people in the countryside who want some light to be shone on them, who want to have some card or some number, or something that's a.. some kind of entitlement to something, you know, so everything just gets turned on its head depending on where you're located.
Roy speaks about government unneeded interest in lives of citizens.
A Lokayan study edited by Rajendra Ravi estimates that only one out of four rickshaws in Delhi operates with a license. Harassment is common; rickshaws can be impounded and destroyed to be sold as scrap on the slightest pretext. As of 2006, it was estimated that the Delhi police had destroyed 60,000 rickshaws, though only 23,000 of these were listed in their records.
Shuddha speaks about creating an agile ethical sensibility
Yeah, I think that, I mean, taking from David Lyon's presentation in the morning where perhaps we need to rethink our.. our.. response to surveillance, not especially and only in terms of privacy, but in terms of accountability. If there is information that is being harvested from people, with or without their consent, what are the people who are harvesting that information doing it.. doing with it, what use are they putting, you know, that information to, that I think is really a crucial question. I mean, I don't think that anyone is saying, you know, there shouldn't be people looking around, people who might be, you know, willing to damage any of us, but in the process of being made categorical suspects, there's something that's happening to us, to our own understanding of ourselves, and we're all then becoming a part of this network of what Lawrence has called porous legality. Which brings me back to the earlier question of.. that.. perhaps, in many ways, the question of porous legalities or ambiguous moralities is not necessarily any abdication of ethics, in fact I think that it actually forces us to consider ethical questions with much greater force and precision than before, where one would automatically assume that the oppressed are innocent. I think it's interesting to begin to think that no one is innocent, and that sometimes State action may be benign, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you endorse the State. Sometimes responses to the State can be vicious, that doesn't necessarily mean that you do not take the responsibility to understand what happens when someone responds with violence to the State. And that.. that's the ground where in fact you ask yourself very hard questions, that you have to actually take stands along with people whom you may not necessarily like, whom you may not necess..who may.. who may be.. who may then turn against you. And the question is then not of finding good people and bad people or nice victims and bad you know, policemen, but of creating an agile ethical sensibility. What would you have to say to that?
I.. I.. I don't know what.. see I don't believe that.. that one can ever enforce an ethical code, because I think ethics is a kind of luxury that is available to those of us that can afford them. Afford it.. because if you look at what's happening in terms of the levels at which policy is being decided in India, you see.. you see on the one hand obviously you know I mean I don't want to get into the details but we all know the levels of dispossession, dislocation that is going on in the countryside, driven by policy, it's not by accident. It's not because population is growing, you know? It's driven by policy. And the same people who support those policies, the big corporates, the information regimes in say a city.. like take the example of a city like Bangalore. This whole project of neo-liberalism is.. is supported to the hilt by say, the IT industry. But in an.. and the whole process of corporatisation is dispossessing people and pushing them into cities, because, you know.. the.. the logic is you cannot have a.. a viable economically viable agricultural sector if you have 700 million people in it. So we need to urbanise the population. It's been said in so many words. Yet the people who are driving that, when it comes to urbanizing it, we saw Solly's presentation the other day where they are using the state to grab vast sections of urban land and push the poor out. So then you have a collision of (indistinct).. you know, you have a situation where whether you like it or not, there is going to be a kind of spreading unrest. And unfortunately that's not always going to be wonderful and revolutionary and progressive. It can be regressive, it can be criminal, it can be amoral, it can be religious, it can be anything. I mean what happened last week in Jehanabad you know is.. is.. is.. we know now that vast swathes of this country are beyond the reach of the administration. And people.. I mean people like us are uneasy about getting photographed when we go to malls or when we go to, I don't know, you know, a football match or a cricket match or whatever it is. But I mean I've been traveling quite a lot in you know areas like Orissa or Kashmir where you know for them it's not a question of a camera taking a picture of you, it's a question of you can't move five feet without an AK-47 pointed at your head with a safety catch on. You know, you lose your identity card and you're a Kashmiri, you might as well be dead. You might as well be dead, you know? And, the kinds of levels of violence that are being perpetrated both ways, you know? So in villages.. in little adivasi villages in Orissa, they're like police camps. There's police all around, they can't move from here to there, they can't move from there to here. So, the whole process of what, you know, Solly was talking about yesterday, the digitization of let's say, land deeds, you know that sort of disregards all kinds of different tenure in the city, this is.. as a means of dispossessing people, it's been going on, I mean the whole battle in rural areas, of adivasis who've lived in a forest for centuries, but they don't have a piece of paper, they don't even have a non-digitised you know title. So I just think these battles are just becoming more.. you know, we're in a situation where there's bound to be conflict. Can we direct that conflict? Can we control it? Can we design it? I don't know, you know? The.. the government has.. the Indian state and I think states all over the world have mocked and discarded and disregarded non-violent resistance movements and are in the process of obviously discrediting now any kind of violence as terrorism. So what are the strategies that are available then? Subversion is certainly one, you know, subversion is certainly one, but is it enough? Is it enough to hope that the systems will crash, or are we just you know are we just.. are.. are I mean are the 80,000 who have been killed in Kashmir now an old story, are the thousands of people who being. . who are being killed in the North East just collateral damage, and do we not have a vision that is a political one that will take as through to another plane? I don't know, I mean these are questions that I.. I have to say, keep me awake at night.
Roy speaks. The ethical code is a luxury. Urbanization doesn't favour the poor, and it leads to unrest that can be regressive, and the administration isn't effectual in large regions of the country. Urbanisation and digitization leads to unavoidable conflict, and the government seeks to suppress this conflict. Subversion may be a strategy to counter it.
This brings me to the other question that you're often asked as an intellectual, or anyone raising critical questions. You raise critical questions about intellectual property, you're asked for a better option. You raise critical questions about neo liberal capitalism, you're asked for what your alternative is: communism or socialism. You know, this other world which is possible, and you're pro.. you're asked literally to provide your blueprint for this other world. You know, do you find yourself faced with this scenario of people forcing you for your blueprint, even though we know that you didn't actually practice as an architect after you finished from SBA?
criticism seems to make people ask for alternative blueprint, even if that's skirting the issue.
I think even that is a kind of politics, you know.. it's like.. I think.. in.. a lot of.. a lot of.. I mean.. if you go to.. if an Indian goes to Kashmir they ask you if you've come from India. So a lot of Indians in Kashmir try to tell people in Kashmir that 'but you don't understand, Pakistan is a much worse state than India'. So you know you haven't experienced Pakistan, but you want to be kind of free from India, but do you have an alternative, and is your alternative Pakistan? And often their answer is 'yeh shaadi hame marf kar do', you know, like.. you know, I want to get out of this marriage now, the next one we'll see when it happens. Don't already ask me because.. because sometimes something needs to break down before something new can be imagined, you know? You can't tell a person whose house is being submerged in the Narmada.. in the Sardar Sarovar Dam, but do you have a new water policy? If you.. if you tell somebody that 'oh, but you must pay the'.. you know some people have to pay the price of progress, for development and so on, and you turn around and say, ok, why don't we freeze the bank accounts of anyone who has more than fifteen lakhs in their bank and redistribute that money you know because then that would also be a form of redistribution of resources, you'll be told it's the death of democracy, but you know the fact is that sometimes preventing destruction is an alternative. You know, you're never allowed to question that side. What do we do with the electricity? What do we do with the water? Before we need more, we need to generate more. How do you.. how.. I mean.. How much waste.. How much electricity is wasted? How much water is wasted? How many resources are wasted? Is there any way in which we can contain our.. our.. our endless needs? But that's.. that's heresy, you know? You can't question that. But you've got to come up with an alternative to provide for the endless greed of the rich of the human race, and it's not possible.
Talks of lack of an alternative blueprint but the want to break away from the current situation, that the poor always bear the brunt of development and questioning the endless of the rich is developmental heresy.