In the days of 24-hour TV channels and 24-hour competitiveness, news stories are treated as stories a la the big screen by using conventions of films. So there’s a background score for a dramatic build-up, just in case there’s nothing in that news clip. It is followed by fast-and-choppy editing — like the montages created by the coolest of cinema editors — because there may not be too many visuals. And if there’s just one visual, put it on an unending loop, like a bedraggled C-grade film. Even the anchors seem to be practising lines for their next big screen audition, with glycerine histrionics. In the hysteria that is drummed up, every story is big, bold and breaking; calibration is a non-starter.
What happens if you get a news story that is genuine, big and needs no props? Take the recent Tehelka sting in Gujarat. On hidden camera, MLAs and senior party functionaries across the saffron fold sketched out for the journalist their brutal modus operandi of killing individuals in the Gujarat 2002 pogrom, as well as the safe passage they had received from a willing state apparatus, with the blessings of the chief minister. These were no staged confessions but gloating accounts told in their own words.
What had been an open secret in Gujarat for the past five years was being admitted to by the lead players of the 2002 violence. All it needed was a straight presentation of these chilling testimonies. Tehelka did that. The testimonies spoke of much more than their heinous acts: they signalled the breakdown of constitutional, ethical and human norms. They signalled the compact between state terror and majoritarian violence, cemented by a virulent communalism seen as normal in that society, which continues to keep the perpetrators of violence beyond the reach of justice.
On TV, in particular, the expose needed a straight, sober presentation. But the front ranking Hindi channels which aired ‘Operation Kalank’ decided to make a show of it. A background score drummed up a frenzy; images of talking heads — the perpetrators — came and went with speed, with the most graphic statements being repeated again and again. The crucial segment dealing with the testimony on the killing of former Congress MP Ehsaan Jaffrey included scenes from Parzania. Though the channel mentioned the use of the film clip, did it even stop to think that threading film sequences with hard news might detract viewers from its inherent worth, make people question its veracity, thus doing the issue a vast disservice? This was no news programme; it was a sensational freak show of the believe-it-or-not kinds that are shown regularly on news channels these days.
No wonder the programme attracted an avalanche of revenue. On that day the Gujarat pogrom package seemed to rival cricket in attracting the advertisements. As for the viewers, it took them an abnormally long time to make out the news and that too in bits and pieces, sandwiched between epiphanies on smooth performing cars and efficient washing machines.
The larger issue then is: how does the viewer extract and process news in the time of TV, with its mantra of entertainment? For one, stop seeing commercial breaks as obstructions to the news story. A news item tells you about a specific incident, event or segment of society, but its presentation, complete with ad breaks, mirrors bigger news about society. A simple example will suffice. Come election time and every TV journalist does a ‘24 hours with a politician on the election trail’. On one such trail, in one particular sequence spread over a couple of villages, frail women humbly spoke about the lack of taps, water and roads in their area. Immediately after, a commercial break showcased the agony of a young man treating his girlfriend to dinner, with a purse inconveniently stuffed with wads of money (so inconvenient, get a credit card); the ecstasy of a car as smooth as a baby’s cheek, etc. Two faces of society shown in different segments, and for the viewer it was time to interpret nuances of the larger story.
As far as the Hindi channel’s exclusive airing of the expose goes, the deeper sting lay elsewhere. In a follow-up to ‘Operation Kalank’ when the channel reported the arrest of its journalist in Ahmedabad, it had a significant commercial break to announce a contest, ‘watch this channel and win gold’.
That is the real news.