Kalpana SharmaIf you wanted an illustration of how private capital and media come together to sing the same tune, you only had to watch the IPL auction in Bangalore telecast live over two days, January 8 and 9. For two days, non-stop, the auction was covered by the main news channels. Nothing else mattered. Only the money.
Once again, news television went overboard. We are a cricket-mad country. No one can deny that although many still question whether the IPL is really cricket. Still, the nature and the amount of coverage raise several questions.
First, was this kind of election-style coverage necessary? How many people were really interested or even cared about the money being thrown about?
Second, how did the channels decide to set aside regular news and spend a good part of the day giving a ball-by-ball account of the sale of cricketers? Did they conduct some kind of survey to assess viewer interest or did they just make a calculated guess?
Third, did the certainty of a good part of the millions being talked about coming their way during the IPL fuel the decision? Were they ‘prompted’ to do this with actual financial support, another form of cheque-book journalism?
Why do we ask these questions? Because the IPL is about big money as was evident from the size of the purses displayed during the auction. This is not small change; it is serious money. The team owners and the BCCI will only recover these sums if the IPL draws viewers and advertising support. How will this happen if the hype and excitement before the matches begin is not sufficiently pumped up? And who better to do it than television channels? The link is so obvious that one can be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that there was more than just a ‘news-sense’ decision behind the full two-day coverage of the auction.
Apart from the suspicion that the decision to given blanket coverage was prompted by promises of some of the lucre, it was extraordinary to see how the entire exercise seemed to erase recent memory of the seedy scandals surrounding the IPL and its chief promoter, Lalit Modi. The full story of that scandal has yet to be told. But on those two days, it was business as usual without the presence of Modi.
As Anupam Mukherji wrote in his column Fake IPL Player in Mumbai Mirror (January 11, 2011), the auction “still had all the bearings of the Modi-era. The two new teams fit in well with the IPL culture by choosing hideously coloured outfits, Shilpa Shetty, who till the other day couldn’t tell the difference between swing and spin, was seen deciding team compositions.”
Cricket remains a man’s game even though Indian women’s cricket team, and that of other countries, plays the same game. You would never know that if you read our sports pages. But apart from that, some kind of ‘gender-balance’ is now the norm thanks to the induction of Mandira Bedi during the World Cup some years ago and the guaranteed media attention that she drew. Today Bedi has morphed into a commentator who seems to know her cricket; hence her presence during the IPL auction on Times Now. CNN-IBN had Latika Khaneja, who got noticed when everyone realized that she ‘managed’ Virendra Sehwag. Khaneja is serious about her business and knows it too.
Yet, predictably, both women were asked to comment on the attire of two of the owners – Shilpa Shetty of the Rajasthan Royals and Preity Zinta of the Kings XI Punjab, the bimbettes if you will. Yet none of the men were asked to comment on the excessive gel on Siddharth Mallya’s hair or the bright orange Tshirts worn by the Kochi team, or what Ness Wadia wore – the ‘him’-bettes. A little bit of misogyny is probably par to the course in a game that has been designed to sell for its ‘sex appeal’ – via the cheer leaders, not the quality of the game.
And significantly, neither the men nor the women on the panels were asked to comment on the other woman owner – Nita Ambani of the Mumbai Indians. Clearly, advertising clout zips up loose talk. Given the amount of useless chatter that filled those hours during the auction, it was amazing that everyone held off on commenting on Nita Ambani, on what she wore or how she functioned. Mukherji had no such qualms when he wrote, “Nita Ambani, after successfully buying Rohit Sharma, was congratulated via handshakes by a table full of lackeys as if she had coached the batsmen.”
In fact, given the latest development from the house of Tatas, where an unwritten directive has gone to all Tata companies to avoid certain publications that featured the Niira Radia tapes and Ratan Tata, media houses must know how far they can go with the powerful.
Most striking of all was that there was not even a hint of anything critical being mentioned about the very fact of cricketers being auctioned. To get some perspective on this entire tamasha, read Sharda Ugra, well-known sports journalist who is now a Senior Editor with crickinfo.com. In her column titled, “The joke was on cricket”, Ugra fills us in on the background of auctions and how humans have never been auctioned, except of course when slavery still existed.
“Before the IPL turned up, the word ‘auction’ was understood to be ‘public sale’ of ‘goods’ or ‘property’ or ‘articles’ or ‘merchandise’. No dictionary contains the mention of people in an auction because in the history of mankind, the only human beings ever involved in public auctions were slaves.”
Ugra also goes on to explain that no other sport in the world has anything resembling the IPL auction: “There is no respectable sport in the world whose athletes go up for auction. Not even in the richest professional leagues in the world. Not in European or North American football, not the NBA, not the NHL. The words, ‘franchise’, ‘commissioner’, ‘salary cap’ belong to American sport which is what inspired Lalit Modi to rework the idea into Indian cricket. So why abandon its steel frame: the league regulations, the minimum wage. Modi somehow thought nothing of borrowing and adapting into cricket the most common form of player hire in American leagues: the rookie drafts. (The BCCI thought the auction was a good idea.)”
So what is about our media that it has stopped questioning and simply follows the money? ‘Paid news’ is clearly morphing into so many different forms that we will need a special commission to track it full-time.