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On television, all news is bad news

News is not just about excitement, violence and rampaging mobs. The more I see of the Hindi news channels the more I wonder what impression a stranger to India would get of our country if his sole source of news was India TV and Star News, writes Poonam Saxena.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2007, 04:42 IST
Poonam Saxena
Poonam Saxena
Hindustan Times

It’s been a productive week for the Hindi news channels. We’ve had a chain-snatcher beaten up on the streets of Bhagalpur, riots in Agra, a professor with a gun in Allahabad, and a sting operation involving prostitution and schoolteachers which generated additional footage when it led to mob fury.

The definition of news is anything that is out of the ordinary. As the cliché goes, if a hundred planes land safely, it’s not news. But if one plane makes an emergency landing, then it’s worth holding the front page for.

By that reckoning, you can’t fault the Hindi news channels. All of these were major events and deserved to have been covered.

But news is not just about excitement, violence and rampaging mobs. The more I see of the Hindi news channels the more I wonder what impression a stranger to India would get of our country if his sole source of news was India TV and Star News.

Have we really become a society where you have to burn buses to get on to the news? Where superstition is more important than the nuclear deal? Where sex is smuggled into every story if it is at all possible to do so?

Consider, for instance, the Star News story (on Sansani, where the anchor is dressed up to look more sinister than the criminals he talks of) about a baba who writhes like a snake and bites children (to ‘cure’ them). Is this news significant in any sense of the term?

Consider also the ethics of sting operations that have become the staple of the Hindi news genre. Nobody in his right mind will deny that a schoolteacher who blackmails students into becoming call girls deserves to be exposed.

But why is it that stings tend to focus on individual schoolteachers and stories with a sexual component? In a country where there is so much injustice, why do so few TV channels bother to use their hidden cameras to reveal police corruption, governmental neglect or oppression of the little guy?

The stings that made an impact — Aniruddha Bahl’s story about MPs who accepted money to ask Parliamentary questions or Poonam Aggarwal’s suggestion that prosecution and defence were colluding in the BMW case — are ones that dealt with serious issues. Sadly, they are becoming rarer and rarer. Instead, channels concentrate on salacious stories and much of what they do is pure and simple entrapment.

It’s become almost a mantra to say Hindi channels need some content regulation, ideally self-censorship rather than governmental intervention. But I sometimes wonder if we’re being unfair in singling out only the Hindi channels. All of television seems to operate in a different ethical universe to print.

Take for instance Thursday’s press conference to announce NDTV’s lifestyle channel. It was staged like a magic show with smoke and lights and an ebullient Vijay Mallya as the Gogia Pasha-like figure at the centre. (I didn’t watch long enough but perhaps one or two of the NDTV people were sliced in half or made to levitate later in the proceedings).

As far as I could tell, the channel would be called Good Times and would be substantially subsidised by Vijay Mallya. Knowing NDTV’s record I’m sure that the quality of programming will be fine and most of us admire Prannoy Roy as the father of Indian news TV. (Though if he thinks the launch is worthy of live coverage on all three of his channels, then I begin to wonder about his news judgment).

But imagine now if this had been a print collaboration. Let’s take Brunch which I edit. How would you respond if we changed the name of the publication to Kingfisher Brunch or Black Label Brunch or just Good Times? If we put a little kingfisher as part of our logo? If competing airlines and drink companies knew that we were beholden to Vijay Mallya’s millions? If we had to face charges of being an excuse for surrogate liquor advertising? Wouldn’t we have to defend our credibility?

We journalists have worked ourselves into a lather over Medianet. But on television, such tie-ups are the norm. The concept of conflict of interest is completely alien even to the more respected TV companies.

So yes, let’s have a debate on ethics in television. And let’s have some self-regulation. But let’s end the hypocrisy of acting as though Hindi channels are pariahs. Let’s accept that for all our self-righteousness, even the English language media have serious ethical issues that need to be debated.

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