Chewing the couch potato

Back to my series of India essays. Just three-four more to go.

My five-year old nephew made a profound statement.

I was watching this news channel that will not be named because I'm in a good mood but let me just drop a hint: it is part of a global media conglomerate. How foxy can I get?

I had the remote in my hands and was busy zapping away, and then stopped at this particular news channel that I'm talking about and was watching it for a while. There was some totally insignificant event that was receiving the 'breaking news' treatment and I was aghast at this celebration of the trivial, so to speak. I shouldn't have been surprised because this channel is available in the Gulf through the Pehla platform and I've never had the kindest words to say about it.

My complaint has been that this news channel never tackles anything serious or substantive, and instead, gives importance to news events that are of tabloid-y nature. And just as I was watching one such insignificant 'news' (for want of a better word) and chuckling at the serious expression on the anchor's face that my nephew suddenly blurted out, 'they show cartoons on this news channel.'

I burst out laughing at my nephew's statement because, unknowingly, the youngster managed to get to the very heart of this issue. Of course, his interest was in the fact that he 'discovered' another channel that shows cartoons and was excited about telling me that, but I realised there was much more to what he said than just that whopeee comment.

Now why am I making such a big deal out of this?

Well, while in India, I've been watching a few of the news channels as well as some of the other entertainment channels, and one of my favourite presumptions have been shattered. Let me rewind a little. Back in the 80s when I was in Bombay for my higher studies, there was only Doordarshan, the government owned and managed television channel that broadcast entertainment programmes at a specific time in the evening, showed news that always favoured the political party in power and had a whole load of public service programmes that were badly produced. The channel was so boring that almost everyone that I knew hoped that television would one day pass into private hands so that the audience would, at least, be spared propaganda masquerading as news.

Now that was my presumption, too. I always thought that - and in a sense I still do - governments should not be involved in being gatekeepers to 'information'. There is a decidedly totalitarian ring to it that should have died with the Soviet Union but somehow still lingers in various guises even today. Alright. I'm going off tangent here and, maybe, I need to cover this topic in a separate post altogether. But that's the point. Like many others, even I felt that competition and diversity in channels might be the answer everyone is looking for.

In fact, at the recently held Arab Strategies for the Global Era - Fikr6 Conference, organised by the Arab Thought Foundation at the Ritz Carlton Bahrain from 1st to 3rd December 2007, most of the panelists at the media seminar were quite clear about the need to abolish the ministry of information in Arab countries. The reasoning was that such a ministry was irrelevant in this day and age, and that it should be revamped to serve today's needs.

However, a cursory glance at some of the Indian news channels made me wonder if this is really the answer to the problem. I'm not sure if detaching the ministry of information's hold on television in general and news, in particular, is really the sole solution. Apparently, if available evidence is any indicator, then, privatising the news hasn't really addressed the core issues as it should have. The solution, as it were, isn't really in who owns the news channels but rather in uncovering what really drives the editorial department of these news channels. It is in understanding these drivers will we manage to make sense of the situation, and provide the necessary explanation, as it were.

It is quite vital that we understand this focus especially in the context of India's possible emergence as an economic superpower in the 21st Century and to understand why major global media players are making a beeline to the country. Context is an apt word to consider in such a discussion because it helps in comparing the former scenario where only one government owned network ruled the roost and to see it in line with today's television scenario where multiple players are involved in seducing the viewer's eyeballs.

If we rewind a little, then, we'll see that not much has really changed. If in the earlier dispensation the government owned network pandered to the whims and fancies of the political party in power, then, today's private networks pander to the dubious monster of the market forces. In short, both pander and both do so to an amorphous entity whose chief duty in life is to be the network's prime source of financing.

The trivial approach to news that existed when television was Doordarshan revolved around the need to preserve an avenue for propaganda and ensure that a more agreeable and party-friendly perspective was broadcast to helpless viewers. Of course, truth was, often, a casualty in this kind of editorial approach and viewers missed out on views from the opposition benches as well as debates on really uncomfortable issues like poverty, inequality and injustice. These were not touched upon because such views would show the political party in power to be a weak and ineffective force, and hence only a rosy world view was shown as news.

The same approach is followed by the news channels that I talked about... their compulsions are different from that of the government media because their raison d'etre lies in ensuring that the channel remains advertiser friendly and manages to secure maximum viewers possible. Hence, the trivial news that left me exasperated was just another step in ensuring that the channel's TRP ratings remain high. It is assumed that sensationalism, dumbing down, sting journalism and celebrity worship are the easiest tickets to maximise viewers and, most importantly, maximise revenue as well.

So in a sense, not much has really changed if one goes only by what is avoided and not merely by what is tackled. Hard news that tackles uncomfortable realities are not given the platform they deserve because they raise questions that no one wants to answer. And in the unlikely scenario that these realities do get a platform, then, it is done so with a dose of sensationalism, sound bites, visual bites and all the razzmatazz possible.

At the end of the day, it is all about preserving myths. If the government owned Doordarshan managed - rather clumsily - to preserve the myth of the ruling party's success, then, the private networks that survive on the advertiser's purse strings adopt slick methods to preserve what constitutes their own favourite myths. Hence, issues like farmer suicides, rich-poor divide, dalit problems, ill-effects of consumerism in rural India (and for that matter in urban India as well) are not given the importance they deserve because undue focus on these issues would simply sully the myth of an economically resurgent India.

Now let me add that when I'm using the word 'myth' I'm not using it as a 'fairy-tale' or some such thing, but in its other definition of being 'an exaggerated or idealised conception of a person or a thing.' In this context, it is necessary to clarify that I'm not casting any doubts on the Indian economic success story but raising concern that in the rush to praise this success, other realities are not seriously looked into. It is important that they are examined because not doing so - or doing so half heartedly - will have negative repercusions in years to come.

It is rather sad that private news channels that possess the means to do something about it are not doing enough. There are talented journalists who can do the necessary reporting, and there are scoop worthy stories waiting to be written and broadcast... so why the hesitancy?

I've already answered that question, and so I won't bother repeating myself. It's just tragic that even someone as young as my nephew managed to discover that there is no news in these news channels.


Pragya said…
It is a sad reality, not likely to change anytime soon. But there is courageous and non-conventional reporting going on away from the ad driven mainstream media, perhaps the only hope.

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