Our Railway Minister managed to brighten the dull days when there is no decent cricket around. Bangladesh's visit to Sri Lanka is looking increasingly uncertain and the Rajapakse regime is not being much help given the anarchic situation that is unfolding there. It means in the way of public entertainment there is a chance of serious shortfall and no immediate event is in sight.

However, the situation was rather expertly handled by the Minister, his wife, her relatives, a ticket checker with not much work one presumes and a media led by social variety which made it into a mess far more interesting than a square drive to the boundary.

The ticket to embarrassment

What began as a simple abuse of borrowed power became a big issue of management corruption. When the sacking news of the TT who had asked for the tickets of travellers without the same hit the media, no one had any idea of the potential of national uproar and amusement. Since it's always like that, it's not a big game brand but the minister's wife supported by her cousin and other relatives made it big.

Not only did the cousin convey how their complaint had worked wonders in getting the TTE sacked but also how the minister's wife had asked for the sacking and got it done. Meanwhile, the media was still asking about the Minister's relatives without tickets. It's here that the minister played his card to make it a big time affair. He denied that his relatives were involved. And he did so while accusing the media of excesses.

Low performance bar for ministers?

By then the shit had hit the fan and gone through the roof because admissions were public information and the sacking of the TTE was confirmed. Social media also took off. It was actually howling with pleasure as it scented blood big time. As the story unfolded, it became an embarrassing mess. And when media very close to powers that be went after him, it was clear nobody was about to back him up from within the power circle.

When Ekattur TV did a report first followed by a discussion programme, the signs were clear. The axe would land and the Minister would face a dressing down and loss of face. The next day he apologized for his wife's behaviour, the TTE's sacking order was withdrawn and the railway authorities who had dubbed the TTE as "mentally unstable" had set up an enquiry committee. They even suspended the person who had sacked the TTE when asked by the Minister's wife. The whole incident showed how awfully inept the rail administration in particular is. One wonders if the cabinet ministers are setting a bar that is disastrously low or not.

Social media and pro media

What the episode also showed is that social media is so powerful now that professional media can't ignore issues even if they want to. Days of censorship and hiding scandals are over. Social media can give issues a profile that none can. And with a follower base of crores , it's the media that matters. It's not only freer than we think; it's so much more than we can think. And it can put the heat on like no other.

However, as the incident shows, the very nature that gives social media its clout, reach and individual ownership, are also its weaknesses as no one is sure if what appears on social media is genuine content or not.

It's here that the professional media has an advantage because it plays by the rules much more than social media and still has a greater brand of legitimacy and trust than social media. So the expectation from and anger against pro media is greater. As it is, social media has no collective identity or brand. Everyone says what they want on it but nobody is sure who it is and none owns it. It's here that professional media has an edge. However, how big a chunk of the audience wants that legitimacy also needs exploring.

The other part is of course partisanship. The nature of social media is such that it neither verifies nor reports objectively as the objective is rarely that. In some ways, many pro-media is beginning to resemble social media in terms of news treatment and the purpose is to create noise or trash/praise someone not provide information. But the cacophony of voices that reigns is a reality which can't be ignored. Nor can the pro-media legitimacy quotient be denied. However, the pro-media's desire to be like a social media timeline is becoming a bigger problem now.

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