The level to which TV channels can stoop is fascinating. With every new incident, a lower low is breached. Forget learning from past mistakes, TV channels are hell bent on keeping on repeating them. How else does one explain the extent of coverage of the Delhi girl’s rape, not to talk about it’s quality, to the complete exclusion of all other news? In no other country, would so much time be given to any single story, even one as gruesome as this one. Is there a need for some sort of a control to be exercised on them?
Just look how differently the controversy surrounding Constable Tomar’s death has been handled by TV and print. The TOI has put out a tiny little piece on the front page and a more factual story (without any masala) on page 11. HT has put out a small story on the front page (again factual) with just a little end piece on page 6. The Indian Express likewise summarizes the facts on page 1 and 2. There is very little sensationalism in the coverage. Further, there are several other stories that have been featured by these papers on their front pages – inclulding of course the story of the girl being airlifted to Singapore (it happened after TV’s prime time, but I doubt if channels would have found much juice in this), Modi’s swearing-in in Ahmedabad, Ikea’s arrival and even a positive story of how the Delhi Police’s efforts have cut down road deaths in Delhi. TV channels on the other hand devoted almost the entire prime time to the controversy. TV channels blame their format (newspapers can put out different stories on the front page), the TRP system (masala gets TRP) and advertisers (they put their money on masala content), but the fact is that TV channels reflect just poor quality of journalism. Where have the the likes of Dr Prannoy Roy gone? And what kind of crass underlings have become editors of the TV channels?
Look at how the discussions go. First, the panels are almost entirely made up of people who have the ability to create drama. They are all good speakers, have extreme and inflammatory points of view, are ever-ready to attack the government (the most important requirement for TV), have creative minds to conjure up imaginary conspiracies out of anything (very important) and of course, character-assasinate anyone at will (very important). Once the panel is set up, a dog-fight (not the airforce type dog fight; what I really mean is a real fight – like amongst dogs) is started off. In Constable Tomar’s death story, we are expected to believe the accounts of two eye witnesses, who apparently were so alert in the middle of all the mayhem that they accurately remember, with vivid details, how Constable Tomar fell to the ground without anybody attacking him. The Medical Examiner’s report which found that there were ante-mortem (before death) signs of physical attacks should not be believed. We are told that the breakage of the ribs was because of the CPR; even though the Medical Examiner’s report suggests it was because of multiple blunt force impacts. We are made to believe that the doctors at the RML hospital are corrupt; that their report is fudged. That this a grand government plan to push back at the demonstraters. That only the two activists are honest; everyone else including the doctors are liars. And when a panelist asks “why would the eye-witnesses lie?”, that is supposed to be compelling proof of their honesty. But why shouldn’t the same question apply to the RML doctors also? The TV anchor (he shouldn’t even be called an editor) finds no merit in seeking that clarification. God save a country which has so much negativity in its media.
Second, what’s with the fascination that TV has with these AAP guys? Politically, AAP is a small fry, but on TV it carries more weight than the Congress and BJP put together. Where is the sense of proportion that TV anchors should exercise when they give time to different speakers? Should AAP members (who are mere politicians now) be given so much air time? Because on TV, Yogendra Yadav manages to get more time than even a Ravi Shankar Prasad or an Abhishek Manu Singhvi. In no other country would this happen. It’s only in India that news is so biased. Only recently, the News Broadcasting Standards Association (NBSA) admonished CNN-IBN for its coverage of the Haryana land “scam” in which the Gandhis were accused of grabbing a huge amount of land. It was proved to be all wrong. And just a year back, Times Now was similarly admonished for biased reporting in the Kanimozhi case. If there is one slap that news organizations hate to take, it is to be accused of bias.
Thirdly, there is this whole question of what a TV channel’s raison d’etre is. If it’s a news channel, its job should be to put out as much news developing across the country as possible, no? Why then do TV channels focus almost entirely on masala-laden studio debates alone? Vir Sanghvi wrote a series of posts in his blog on this subject, with the titles indicative of the malaise. On 9th Sept, 2011, he wrote a post titled “Why sensation is replacing news on our TV channels”. He followed it up with another post on 23rd Sept, 2011 “TV news channels thrive on the free programming offered by staged events”. And the one he wrote earlier on 23rd July, 2011 “News radio is finally here; we just call it news TV”. The common point he makes in all three posts is that a) TV channels prefer studio debates over field news because its cheaper to do – just put a few people in the studio and make them blabber compared to putting so many men and machines in the field and b) a lot more masala can be added in studios – giving higher TRPs and more advertising dollars. In all of this, the question that pops up repeatedly is: are our TV channels responsible at all?
If debates must happen, why put “involved” parties on the panel? They only defend their well known positions and add no extra value to the viewers’ lives. But I guess politicians are easy to invite; they come readily because of the free publicity. The easiest of them all to invite are no doubt the AAP members, since their very survival depends on TV. Next easiest are the BJP politicians who are happy to grab any and every chance of attacking the ruling party. They don’t even have to explain why MP is the real rape capital (BJP has been ruling it for nearly 10 years) and not Delhi (which is ruled by the Congress). Then there are a whole lot of lawyers, and ex-this and ex-that, all of whom come with political biases, none of which are clarified to the viewers. But the worst of all panelists have to be journalists, the ones who come as “neutral” experts, but in reality have solid political preferences. Journalists like Swapan Dasgupta who is nothing but a Modi publicist. Or Kumar Ketkar, a Congress lapdog. My point is not about these people though. My point is about how little TV channels care for intellectual honesty and the truth.
It is for this reason that TV channels have very little credibility and remain just a small fraction of their newspaper revenues in terms of revenues and profits. Total TV news revenues are estimated to be less than Rs 1000 crores; total newspaper revenues upwards of Rs 15000 crores.
The real truth is that our TV channels have become pathetic. They don’t even care for basic decency. That when someone dies, you don’t create a controversy around his death. All that matters to these hounds is their TRPs. Everything else can take a back seat…