The manner in which the electronic media has covered the Melbourne events over the past week has made one thing very clear: that somewhere in the great Indian market place one can buy very large quantities of moral righteousness at remarkably cheap rates. How else does one explain the quantities that have been on display by the kings and queens of our news channels? Unfortunately, moral righteousness without self-reflection is the perfect ingredient for tabloid television, that version that only allows a black and white understanding of the world.
For the past week, I have been invited by various TV channels to take part in what might only jokingly be described as ‘discussions’ regarding Indian students in Australia. The agenda has been pre-set and it went something like this: Indians, a peace-loving people, are being set-upon by violent and racist Australians. Let us grant that racism may have played a role, but was the ratings-driven moral high ground the only perspective possible?
In any society it is expected that the electronic media will contain its fair share of sensationalist TV channels. But what becomes of a society where there is no broadsheet television left and no nuanced discussion of a current event possible? Television coverage of the Melbourne events has passed up the opportunity of using it as an avenue for serious discussion in favour of shrill sensationalism. So, we might have asked, what is it about the Indian educational set-up that causes so many students to seek an education abroad? Or, to what extent have Melbourne-based Indian students joined up with anti-racist forces in Australia? What might be their own position on racism? And, finally, what kind of debate is possible if a TV channels asks me if I would appear on a popular programme and ‘attack’ a representative of the Australian government?
It is sometimes said of Indian commercial television that — unlike newspapers — it is a relatively new medium, and that in time it will ‘mature’ and make space for a variety of forums, including those that allow for a more complex understanding of news and current affairs. Increasingly, this perspective seems more wishful than based on reality. And, in any case, while the massive increase in the number of channels may be a recent phenomenon, does this also mean that those who work in the medium have only recently been introduced to ideas of reflection and critical thinking? English language television is — due to the status of the language in this country — primarily run and populated by the children of the middle-classes who have had access to some of the best higher education not only in India, but also around the world. So, while electronic media may be relatively young in India, it is absurd to think that those who run it lack the capacity or educational history to provide considered analysis.
Ironically, at the present time it is Doordarshan that — notwithstanding its bureaucratic clunkiness — provides the least jingoistic and sensationalist news coverage. But, given the enormous power of television, we also require a non-state owned broadsheet electronic media network. Pity the nation whose air-waves are so completely dominated by simplistic, smug, and black and white perspectives.
Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University. He earlier taught at Deakin University, Melbourne