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Black & white TV

Within hours of India’s defeat in the T20 World Cup, headlines on some television channels were screaming: should Mahendra Singh Dhoni be sacked. Is there no place for the intelligent middle ground in round-the-clock television news, asks Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: Jun 25, 2009 23:12 IST
Rajdeep Sardesai

Within hours of India’s defeat in the T20 World Cup, headlines on some television channels were screaming: should Mahendra Singh Dhoni be sacked? Just 24 hours earlier, Dhoni was the captain who could do no wrong. But round-the-clock news TV needs a target, an enemy figure to be the hate object of the day. On the day of the Indian defeat, it was Dhoni’s turn to cop it. Perhaps its my cricketing genes, but more likely my journalistic conscience, that felt troubled at the high-pitched reporting.

So, in this season of introspection and mea culpa via media columns and letters, I am tempted to do my bit. Let me say that as a practitioner of 24-hour television news journalism, it is a task I attempt with some trepidation. One simply doesn’t want to be identified with the growing tribe of television-bashers, those who watch the box with near-manic intent night and day and then proceed to pour undiluted scorn on the medium. At times, one almost senses in their periodic outbursts a certain envy and bitterness at having been left out of the excitement of the television news whirl. Make no mistake: 24-hour private news television is one of the great revolutions of our times, a revolution that has dramatically altered the news communication landscape in this country. TV news — good, bad, ugly — has become the nation’s first information report, setting the pace, if not always the agenda.

To those who lament the profusion of news channels, one can only suggest a rewinding to the days of Doordarshan’s monopoly over the airwaves, when every ribbon cut by the information and broadcasting minister made headline news. Surely, it can be no one’s case that we want to return to the days of the State machinery’s dominance over news choices. And yet, while we celebrate the TV news revolution, we need to perhaps press the pause button and reflect on the serious content and ethical challenges that confront the medium. I have chosen three contemporary case studies to highlight the problem and maybe offer a few solutions.

Case study 1: The coverage of 26/11. Terrorism — terrible as it may sound — is made for television: that the terrorist needs the oxygen of publicity is the oldest chestnut in the anatomy of terror. Mumbai 26/11 was always going to be played out in the gaze of the camera: the scale and the location ensured that this would be a global story. The question is, did we need to cover it in a manner that almost urged every Indian to go to war with Pakistan? Mikes in the faces of grieving families, ‘live’ details of every security operation, and screeching panelists calling for ‘revenge’: this was terrorism being played out as a reality ‘show’.

The bigger question: will we cover it with the same breathless intensity when the next terror attack comes along? The answer, worryingly, is perhaps we just might. The News Broadcasters Association has done well in bringing out an emergency protocol to guide channel decisions in such situations. But in live television, it isn’t always easy to follow a protocol; spot decisions are taken, which in hindsight may seem to have been erroneous. The solution lies in a sense of shared responsibility. Channels could be more restrained, but government agencies could also be more transparent. If, for example, different government agencies provide conflicting reports on the number of terrorists, then the channels will reflect the confusion.

Case study 2: Elections 2009. If elections are a festival of democracy, then news channels will be an integral part of the festivities. The problem is how does one reflect a ‘national’ election in a country as diverse as ours, given the resource constraints? For most of us, studio chatter has become a substitute for effective ground reporting, a heated debate over who is a ‘weak’ prime minister perhaps makes for easier, and certainly more entertaining content than a well-researched news documentary into how the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme has operated on the ground.

How many stories did we do from rural Andhra where the battle for Hyderabad was decided, or from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh — two states that are in danger of falling off the television map unless there is a Naxal strike? Television critics appear to judge a channel’s electoral ‘performance’ on the basis of accuracy of exit polls rather than on the quality and variety of content. Some of us could justifiably claim that our polls were closest to the reality, but the true measure of our performance must eventually lie in creating at least some space to tell a myriad stories of a changing India. Surely, the craft of robust political reporting from the field can be rediscovered by the time the next elections are held.

Case study 3: The recent attacks on Indian students in Australia. With every attack on an Indian student, television news has gone into breaking news mode. At one level, the anger — as reflected in the faces and voices on the screen — is justifiable: charges of racist violence will always strike a chord. The question is, do we need to brand an entire country and its people as racist every time there is an Indian student who is attacked? Criticising the failings of the Melbourne police is one thing, using it to generate a hyper-nationalistic frenzy is quite another. Is there, perhaps, no place in a 24-hour news wheel for a reasoned, rational discussion on what explains the increasing attacks on Indian students without waving a bloodied tricolour on each occasion?

What the story down under really calls for is a tough, uncompromising investigation into life in Australian suburbia. Obviously, this is an expensive proposition, but surely in this age of network tie-ups, it is possible to make the effort to go beyond the sights and sounds of street protests.
Here, perhaps, lies the greatest content challenge for modern-day news television: how do we attract a viewer without taking extreme positions on every issue? Is there no place for the intelligent middle ground, or must every story draw a hysterical response for it to be seen as ‘effective’ television? The venerable British broadcaster Sir Robin Day once suggested that television was a ‘tabloid’ medium, which came into its own during war and disaster. It would be a pity if the news revolution in our country was devoured by that self-image.

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network