Are television discussions guilty of "controversy-manufacturing … (where) a sentence in a complex argument has been picked up to be thrashed out into a controversy … (where) we turn our back on irony, nuance and complexity and, instead, opt for angry bashing … (where) every night someone
must be made to burn in the Fourth Circle of Hell …. (in) a 'grab-the-eyeballs' game", as an article by Harish Khare in The Hindu (February 6) suggests? In many cases, I believe, the answer is an unequivocal yes. And, sadly, that does not exclude my own programmes.
Khare's article raises deeply disturbing questions about how discussions on television handled the Ashis Nandy affair. But it goes further. It also raises concerns about what such discussions, whether on Nandy, cross-LoC killings, politics or anything else, seek to do. And, beyond that, it focuses on the new kind of "fundamentalism" they have created. We need to acknowledge these concerns, debate them and, finally, try and find answers to them.
In the Ashis Nandy case it's undeniable that a couple of, admittedly poorly-phrased, sentences were plucked out of a complex argument, which many, including anchors, did not fully understand but, nonetheless, deemed controversial, and put forward for criticism and attack by studio guests who were ignorant of the context and also unaware of Nandy's deeper arguments. It's hard to doubt this was a conscious attempt to generate anger and then convert it into popular outrage.
This example leads directly to the second issue: what is the sort of television discussion we ought to have and what should its purpose be? Surely the idea is to further understanding through analysis or by providing a platform to different opinions? What it can't be is an attempt to bludgeon one man or one viewpoint, whether understood or misunderstood, into conformity. Yet this is what Khare believes our discussions end up doing. I think he is largely right.
It's no consolation that politicians, anxious to please, or academics, eager to be seen and heard, play along. Khare believes they are "overawed by TV studio warriors". Possibly. But that's not an excuse.
As a result, what we produce each night, to use Khare's phrase, is "a new kind of fundamentalism - that of what is touted as the 'media-enabled middle classes'." We saw this when anchors fumed over the beheading of Indian soldiers allegedly by Pakistani troops on the LoC, omitting to mention we had done the same in the recent past. It happened again with L'affaire Nandy. In fact, it's happened many times in the past.
Frankly, this amounts to television reinforcing prejudice or, even, misleading on the basis of ignorance. If you don't want your comfortable convictions to be disturbed this might be satisfying. But it's not enlightening and it's certainly not journalism.
Yet this will only change when anchors and channel heads accept that current affairs discussions are not mass audience programmes and must not be thought of as entertainment. They are for those who care and want to know. And this group will always be a minority.
Now, if this comes up against the imperatives of commercial survival that is a conundrum our television producers must address and solve. I accept it won't be easy. In fact, it could be expensive, both in terms of money and audience. But if it doesn't happen television discussions will soon cease to matter - except in a negative sense.
The future of television debates could be at stake.
Views expressed by the author are personal
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