There has been an explosion of news on television. Just over two decades ago, TV news was a government monopoly. We were all captive audiences of Doordarshan. Today there are nearly 400 dedicated news channels, whilst several others have news bulletins in their daily schedules. And I haven’t included BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Channel NewsAsia in this reckoning. They would be there regardless of the Indian news miracle.
As a result, it’s not an exaggeration to claim that news on television is a popular programme. Even if the viewership at any one time does not suggest that, two other factors do: the enthusiasm of broadcasters for news and the willingness of advertisers to support it.
One consequence of this is that we are as a nation better informed or, at least, we have the potential to be. I accept that it all depends on what you watch. But the very profusion of news and its easy accessibility raise questions we would not have asked before. Some of these questions might seem heretical coming from a television news producer. Others point towards debates and solutions the West has encountered but which we in India are yet to experience. But in either case they are questions that need to be asked.
Let me start by asking what sort of news do we get from television? It’s pretty much immediate – we no longer have to wait for tomorrow’s papers to find out what’s happened today. Television news channels can tell you within a minute. Some boast of doing so even faster. It can also be visual and highly illustrative. Television shows rather than describes. You feel as if you are there witnessing for yourself. I do not wish to exaggerate, but in that sense it can be participatory.
The universal limitations of TV
But television news has two important limitations and, beyond that, an inherent tendency to sensationalise. Let’s tackle the latter first. The screen shows only what the camera films. In turn the camera films only what the cameraman focuses upon. This is not merely a question of subjective choice – although it is that too – it is also a technical matter. The camera will film the visual it focuses on excluding whatever is on either side of it. You do not get the picture the eye can see. You only get what the lens can fit in. Thus a succession of close ups of a fire or of dead bodies or of fallen trees could suggest an enormous blaze or a massacre or severe cyclonic destruction. That may be the case but it’s also possible that it may not. Yet in either event the mind of the viewer will leap to this conclusion. The danger is it could be the wrong one.
This is what I call television’s inherent tendency to sensationalise. This is also why the statement “it has to be true because I saw it on the box” is actually misleading or, at least, based on a fallacious understanding of TV. But this problem is easily taken care of – either by pulling out and showing wide shots that put events in perspective or by wisely written commentary. The only thing is when journalists are up against tight time deadlines – which is more often than not the case – such balancing can be squeezed out.
The two limitations of television news are more difficult to tackle and in India, at least, I have so far seen little attempt to tackle them. At times there is even little acknowledgement of them.
The first limitation is that TV has problems handling what it cannot show. An anchor’s talking head is not easy to follow – aural information is the most difficult to comprehend particularly when it is detailed – and graphics or photographs don’t always help. This is why news bulletins occasionally ignore what they cannot film. In a Western democracy – where the reach of TV cameras is enormous – this has minimal impact. In India – where the reach of TV cameras is a lot less – the impact can be enormous.
This is why there is so much more news in the papers than on television. Until social media came to our rescue, we could hear or read about lynchings but never see them. Not so long ago when the ABVP would ban jeans in Lucknow colleges it would be an item in a newspaper but rarely on television. Why? Because there was nothing to show. More importantly this is also why the Budget is so boring on television. First, it’s just a speech but then there’s the question what is the speech about. That’s an even bigger problem. What it’s about is not the price of commodities, not even the tax on the price of commodities, but the change in the tax on the price of commodities and sometimes the percentage change in that tax. None of that is easy to visualise so, instead, we are shown potatoes and tomatoes. No wonder those who follow the budget on screen usually doze off.
The second limitation of television news is more serious. It has, to quote a phrase made famous in Britain by John Birt in the 1970s, a bias against understanding. Let me explain with contentious desi example.
When television tells you about a gruesome event like the murder of Graham Staines it brings home the horror of what happened as no other medium can. It sickens you. It tugs at your emotions. It stabs at your conscience. And all of that is very welcome.
But what television does not do is to explain why this happened. I don’t mean who did it, how, where, when and at what time. Those facts are easily communicated. I mean why? How could followers of one of the world’s most peaceful religions turn upon a single man and his two children? How could we – a people who think of ourselves as tolerant, welcoming, loving – kill so ruthlessly and mercilessly?
These are questions of context, of background, of history. In the Graham Staines case they were answered – if at all they were – by a judicial commission. No doubt newspapers don’t tackle them adequately either – although in the op-ed pages they try – but then newspapers don’t make the same impact when they report such tragedies. Television does. Worse, that impact pushes people towards easy conclusions. A rush to judgement follows.
Two consequences stand out: we all think we know the truth behind Graham Staines’ grisly death and the guilty party feels hard done by. But the truth is embedded in a context television news does not and did not explore and, therefore, most of us have not found out about. And the guilty party may well be guilty but we have not as yet fully understood its guilt.
Inadequate appreciation of the limitations of television and its inherent tendency to sensationalise, coupled with the fact that news on television is both more frequent and accessible and often has greater impact, can lead to unintended distortions or imperfect understanding. In such circumstances news and views can become perilously mixed up.
Yes, Prime Minister
So far I’ve mentioned problems intrinsic to the nature of television. Alas, in India we also have a few that are the result of how we use this medium. I shall now turn to faults that lie not in our stars but in ourselves.
As someone who has spent over 35 years in television, I’m particularly perturbed by four trends I’ve repeatedly noticed in the last few years. Now that I’ve taken a break from television, I feel a moral compunction to speak out. Not to do so would let down the profession I love.
First, there’s the way anchors choose to interview the prime minister. It’s done with obvious deference which leaves little opportunity to challenge or, even, cross question. Instead of focusing on a few well-researched subjects which are then pursued with diligence, each question changes the issue. There’s no follow up. Consequently, a multitude of subjects is raised without any meaningful achievement. Equally importantly, the prime minister is permitted to answer at exorbitant length, often rambling and frequently changing the subject and getting away with it. Even Donald Trump has never been interviewed this way!
Worse still, is the character of the questions. Not only are awkward issues avoided but the questions are emolliently phrased and gently asked. Instead of bringing up his lapses or misjudgements, the prime minister is asked to hold forth on the opposition’s alleged errors. At no point is he questioned about things that have gone wrong under his charge. The net result is the interview lacks rigour. It feels like an easy ride. And, frankly, it’s the same whether you watch it on CNN News18, Times Now or Zee.
Whose side are you on?
A second concern is the way some anchors behave during television discussions. Those guests who represent viewpoints they agree with are treated gently, permitted to speak frequently and at whatever length they want. But woe-betide the guest whose views are contrary to the anchor’s. He or she is treated like a guilty prisoner in the dock. Voices rise, language loses its restraint and questions are fired relentlessly. The tone is accusatory and a deliberate attempt is made to shame the person. He or she is frequently interrupted. Indeed, they’re given little chance to answer one question before the next is hurled at them.
Yet the object of a discussion is to give the audience a chance to hear different viewpoints articulated by different voices. The aim is to explore, artfully and forensically, and leave the audience both enriched and able to judge for itself. Where fair and even-handed treatment is required, the anchor, instead, takes sides and each time he does exposes his prejudices. This can only diminish him.
You see this most often on Republic TV and Times Now but there are younger anchors on other channels who have also fallen prey to this practice, presumably because they think it wins audiences and, perhaps, easy popularity.
What you should think
My third concern is best reflected by NDTV because it seems to be the only English news channel with a credible prime time evening news broadcast. Frequently after a story the news reader feels an urge to tell the viewer what to think or how to judge its content. The remarks may be pithy but they still editorialise. The newspaper equivalent would be a comment by the editor at the end of every front page story telling the reader what to make of it.
This breaches the sanctity of news. The viewer should be told what’s happened not how to judge or what to make of it. The latter is an intrusion of the news reader’s personal viewpoint which is always unnecessary and, frequently, unwelcome. Worse, this ends up treating viewers like children. It’s, therefore, also demeaning.
NDTV is a channel I respect and have the least complaints about but this is one that rankles almost every evening. I’m surprised the channel’s editors have allowed it to continue.
The grotesquely nationalist hashtags TV channels concoct to push a story or gather a response is my fourth concern. They reek of ersatz patriotism. They’re like drum beats designed to marshal or dragoon a desired response. They deny you an opportunity to think for yourself. Instead, they seek to corral your thoughts.
Worse, they’re so artless and crude they are also an affront to intelligence. ‘#FightForIndia’, ‘#LoveMyFlag’, ‘#ProudIndian’, ‘#TerrorStatePak’ and ‘#AntiNationJNU’ are attempts to play with our emotions and infantilize us.
Finally, the argument that what I’ve criticised is, in fact, an illustration of new age journalism carries no conviction. I may be old-fashioned but even if how a story is presented alters with time and technology its quest for the truth has to be unchanging. No matter how it’s delivered good journalism stands out. Bad journalism, on the other hand, cannot be disguised, leave aside forgiven, by self-serving excuses about the mood of the people or the atmosphere of our time. And, certainly, no attempt to make journalism popular justifies lowering standards of objectivity and fair play.
Ultimately, this is more than just about our news channels. Indeed, it goes even further than our democracy. It’s about us and how we receive the unvarnished truth. If we tolerate half-truths and misrepresentation we have only ourselves to blame. Most of the people I know believe the media frequently does.
Which brings me to the question what would the greats of Indian journalism, the Frank Moraeses, Girilal Jains, Prem Bhatias, George Vergheses and Kuldip Nayars, have made of Indian journalism today? Would they applaud their successors? Or would they cringe with despair? Would they feel the flower has brightened and blossomed? Or would they sense it’s starting to shrivel up and even rot?
The answer lies perhaps in two great changes that have occurred since the 1960s, 70s and 80s, which are the decades when Moraes, Jain, Bhatia, Verghese and Nayar were the doyens of journalism.
First, the reputation the media once enjoyed for reliability, balance and accuracy has suffered. Today you often hear the put down just because it’s in a newspaper or on television doesn’t mean it’s true. Social media may have spawned fake news but the fact people rely on twitter or whatsapp to find out what’s happened suggests they no longer trust a paper or news channel to tell them the truth or the full story.
Connected to this is the claim the media could once make of being objective and fair. Few people are prepared to believe that today. Without double checking or giving a person a right of reply and often without knowing the full story, the media judges individuals and finds them at fault. I don’t deny there are occasions when we’re right but every time we’re wrong we condemn an innocent person and leave him with little opportunity to correct the prejudiced image we’ve created.
The truth is whatever you make of the promise of achhe din, these are not good times for the Indian media. Most people I know have formed an irrevocable impression that it’s become pusillanimous. Where once newspapers and television channels boasted of challenging and exposing the government we now flinch from doing so. Worse, when our voices are raised it’s against the government’s opponents and critics – particularly those who have the gall to question the Prime Minister or the Army Chief. Instead of watch dogs that should growl at the authorities, even if occasionally mistakenly, the media behaves like guard dogs, who seek to protect, or pet dogs, who just want to be liked.
The saddest part of all this is that it’s the electronic media, of which I’m a part, which is widely thought to be the most to blame. Whether it’s our interviews of the prime minister, where we refuse to challenge and sometimes even to seriously question, or our panel discussions, where volume and heat is deliberately preferred to substance and light, or the crude hashtags we deploy on the screen, which are like drumbeats designed to marshal or dragoon a desired response, the net result is we fail to speak truth to power but also treat viewers like dumb animals who cannot see through our tricks and will not demand better.
We’ve even reached the stage where the Chief Justice of India in open court has had to admonish the electronic media and instead of standing up in our defence newspaper editorials have agreed with him.
This is what the Business Standard had to say earlier this year: “There is little doubt that the abandonment of fact-checking and of even a pretence to fairness by the electronic media have put into jeopardy not just freedom of speech but also the smooth working of democracy itself.”
Of course, television as we know it today did not exist when Moraes, Jain, Verghese, Bhatia and Nayar presided over Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. In their time, Doordarshan was the play thing of our rulers and rightly reviled. Today we have nearly 400 independent news channels and they might perhaps be flabbergasted at the number. But if they were to ask a simple question I wonder how many channels would stand up to that critical test: Is there a channel India can be truly proud of just as the British are justifiably proud of the BBC or the Americans of CNN? I’m not sure what their answer would be and, to be honest, I’m scared to find out yours. But let me share mine. There are some channels I’m proud of some of the time, some programmes I’m proud of most of the time but there are also a few channels and programmes that make me cringe all the time. Whilst there are newspapers that I would unreservedly applaud I’m afraid there isn’t a single channel I can say that of without biting my tongue because I know I’m fibbing.
But this is not the hopeless situation it might seem. After all, the media changes every day. Each edition of a newspaper and each bulletin of a news channel is a chance to begin afresh. A new reporter, a different anchor, a better editor and everything could change very quickly. Perhaps more than any other profession journalism can draw hope from the fact tomorrow is another day.
Where do we go from here?
So what’s the solution? I shall attempt some hesitant answers.
The first lesson is that reportage is not enough. We need more context, more explanation, more background. In turn that means we need more specialist correspondents – more correspondents with dedicated fields to furrow – and fewer fire-fighters. It also means that for most important developments television news needs to supplement reports of what’s happened with analysis of why and what it means. In other words, news analysis has to become part of news reportage.
The second lesson is that we need more current affairs. News on its own is not enough. We need programmes that go deeper, wider, further. I know that in India, at least in theory, we have them but they fail to serve their purpose. I include my own in that judgement unreservedly. Such programmes work when they take their subject more seriously than the personalities participating in them. In India, it’s the other way around. We need the cold analysis of current affairs. Instead we have the spectacle and tamasha of clashing view points. We need to shed light but end up generating heat.
Finally, television needs the sort of wisdom that comes with age. It has in plenty enthusiasm, dedication, tireless striving, and ceaseless vigil. All of that is remarkable in an industry so young. Let that not be gainsaid. But it does not have the capacity to reflect, to pronounce wisely, to be sagacious, to speak with gravitas. No doubt such qualities are difficult to acquire but their absence is telling.
Of course there’s a lot more that can and should be done, but my intention is to raise questions, focus attention and, hopefully, start a debate. For that purpose, I think, I have said enough.
Adapted from the text of the Rosalind Wilson Memorial Lecture, delivered by the author at the India International Centre on July 28.