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Don?t leap before we shoot

The bizarre story from Andhra Pradesh unfold on your television screens this week was not just the story of a 35-year-old man?s dramatic fall from a tall building; it was television?s fall from grace, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Sep 30, 2006 00:40 IST

He will fall off the headlines just as quickly as he fell to his death.    

Yet, that stomach-churning image may just leave an indelible imprint on your mind: a lanky, lonely-looking man, perched uncertainly on the roof of an unremarkable building, contemplating his unremarkable life.

For 60 minutes, he just sat there. Then suddenly, he jumped, and it was all over. The firemen packed up, the crowds went home and the cameras finally stopped filming. The circus had ended.

If you saw this bizarre story from Andhra Pradesh unfold on your television screens this week, are you as disturbed as I am?

Here is the confession: if my insides turned, it was not so much because I was moved by the desolation that drove a man to death; it was because I was sickened by the spectacle of his suicide.

This was not just the story of a 35-year-old man’s dramatic fall from a tall building; it was television’s fall from grace.

Usually I have no patience with the sanctimonious salvos hurled at television news. TV-bashing has become a national pastime and much of the criticism is snide, not substantive, resentful rather than reasonable and more ignorant than informed.

You may say that 24-hour news channels are the monster creation of private television. But trust me, this monster is merciless to those of us who work for it. Much like doctors on call, we are constantly accountable and always on our toes. In turn, good television is relentless in its scrutiny of the times we live in.

In fact, if television seems more high-pitched than the written word — as is charged — it is because we report in real time, on events that are often larger than life. War, riots, earthquakes, tsunamis and bomb blasts are the palette we paint from, but without the luxury of stepping back and taking a second look at the easel.

But the camera is not just a chronicler; it is a catalyst for change. 

And that is precisely the point.

Our mere presence can direct, shift and alter the outcome of events. It is a power that we must use sparingly and thoughtfully.

This week, as our competitive channels looped images of the Andhra suicide into a mind-numbing repetitive reel, I wondered whether TV could live with this question on its conscience: if the cameras had not been present, is there a chance that the man might not have jumped?

And then, as I watched television anchors self-righteously debate whether the police and administration had been at fault (of course, there was no mention of TV), I was struck by the real problem: television did not really give a damn about the suicide; it was just obsessed with the spectacle.

Think about it. Had the same man quietly killed himself — far away from the gaze of the cameras — by drinking pesticide or popping pills, would his story ever have made it to the headlines on any national channel? It is no coincidence that the setting for the tragedy was Karimnagar, the suicide capital of Andhra Pradesh.

For years now, drought and debt have joined hands to make the very business of living a losing proposition for the farmers and weavers here. The state’s suicide statistics are horrific: in the last two years, despair has driven more than 1,000 farmers to suicide; 100 such cases were in Karimnagar alone.

And how many do you think made it to the national news?

Maybe a handful, but most individual tragedies were relegated to the warehouse of government statistics; forgotten in old, dusty files. Perhaps it would have been different had they all shouted from the rooftops before dying?

Let us be honest: television channels that chose to air the dramatic footage of the Andhra suicide (this time, NDTV was not one of them) were not intervening on behalf of the oppressed and the marginalised. Television was interested in the histrionics, not in the heart of the matter.

And in the process, we have ended up conforming to the worst clichés about our fraternity.

Can we ignore the fact that this is the third such case in the last six months? It is a clear pattern now: television has become the last resort of the desperate. The cause may even be just — poor wages, no livelihood and a political establishment that is inaccessible and insensitive. So a man threatens to kill himself and miraculously, cameras show up on the spot like white rabbits pulled from a magician’s hat. But each story has ended the same way: in death. And television is then left battling charges of complicity. In Bihar, after a transport worker set himself on fire, police are investigating camera crews for egging him on.

Here is where I see the potential crisis:  every time television lapses into this sort of ludicrousness, we become vulnerable to external regulation. We find it preposterous that the government should try and control us through a Broadcast Bill but seem to feel no embarrassment in being dangerously puerile. And if we do not create a common standard for self-censorship among ourselves, if we do not find the courage to break free from the banality of ‘breaking news’, one of these days, I am sure, we will be gagged.

Look back at the last decade. Television has united India in times of war; it has forced governments to step in faster during religious riots; our reports have saved lives during natural disasters and our campaigns have overturned blatant cases of injustice. It is easy to label us as trivial, but we have influenced every substantive event in recent memory.

The immediacy of our medium makes us interventionist by definition; and very, very powerful.

It is obvious that any government would want to rein us in. And at this rate, they may even find the perfect excuse: the sort of mindless, insensitive story we saw on our screens this week.

I remember, when I studied at Columbia University’s journalism school, I would boast to friends and faculty: Indian television is not like American television. I laughed at entire news bulletins devoted to the rescue of a cat stuck on a high-rise roof. But this week, we managed to take it a step higher, didn’t we?

Sometimes, even 24-hour news monsters must command their cameras to switch off and look the other way. Either that, or we may not be able to face ourselves.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7barkha@ndtv.com