Anchors: Get real

Must not drag India to the brink of war

The smirks on the faces of television anchors has provoked me to write this piece. And I write in both anger and with deep frustration at the way our television channels and news leaders have morphed into shouting, agenda-driving shows and show comperes. The National Broadcasting Association’s guidelines on broadcasting have not come a day too soon.My frustration has grown out of unverifiable polls put on news programme after programme that television could even claim credit for the “changes” that have been brought about or are being sought in national security. Such an assertion underlines a number of things – the raw arrogance of the media, unmindful of its lack of comprehension of issues, a neglect of the fact that there are political forces which represent millions of people and institutions, which may be slow to react, but do have the welfare of the country in mind.

The broadcast media often forgets that there are people outside of studios, in society, who watch their programmes and who understand these issues as well as if not better than most of those who froth at the mouth in public view.

After all, if the media is so all-knowing, then why do we need generals, intelligence agencies and governing institutions? It is so set in its smugness that it is dragging this country to the brink of war — “war-mongering” was the common collective term used for such coverage when a small group of editors and journalists from South Asia met in Kolkata the other day on the sidelines of a discussion on displacement and migration.

It is useful to remember that many broadcast journalists refer to their programmes and even news bulletins as “shows”: “We’ll get back to this show after this commercial break” or “And coming up in the show tonight ….” The media has become a spectacle, supremely confident in its own rightness, justified by high noise levels, and asserting the wrongness of others.

In discussion after discussion, our television anchors take up the space with much hectoring; they bring in discussants who reflect their points of view (remember that a televised discussion or debate is all about how much your views are in sync with his or hers or how loudly you can shout – or out-shout even the anchor). Those invited to shows consistently barrack the Pakistanis and talk with such condescension to them: “Your heart appears to be in the right place and you appear to be a moderate” is what one anchor said on an English news channel a couple of days back.

Is this what Indians think or believe or even want to hear? I doubt it, not from what I know from extensive travels across this country and especially in the Northeast, where conflict zones are multiple. The poll samplings that television channels conduct on such issues (such as “Is the media responsible for changes in policy?”) are laughably limited, lacking any depth. It is better that someone with integrity and knowledge, not to speak of articulation, such as Yogendra Yadav, the analyst and psephologist, is requested to conduct an assessment of how specific news channels and their stars are viewed. There is a wealth of competent studies here and abroad of how media coverage has reflected on specific issues and it would be useful to refer to them.

Members of the “public” are interviewed on the streets with single-point agendas by rookie journalists (can’t blame them, that’s what they are ordered to do and they need the jobs and the money). There was one programme which talked about whether India should use the military option (an extremely irresponsible discussion in a studio), and street interviewees said such an idea was stupid. But did the participants in the studio reflect that – NO. They were conducting themselves like war-mongers; a former COAS even talked about retaliation on Pakistan and then moderated his view to say that India should inflect a “thousand cuts” on the jehadis. But surely any attack on Pakistan soil (whether disputed by us or not) would be regarded as an attack on that country and would be met energetically.

And in all this we forget that both are nuclear-armed States in a region that Mr Bill Clinton once famously called “the most dangerous place on earth”.

There is much training, capacity building and research on specific issues to be done involving media practitioners. I often recall the images of young television reporters and editors, wincing or ducking at the sound of shots, because they had never seen a gun fired in their lives or seen extreme violence and killings, (except on television!) or had been in a conflict zone. Mumbai was a wake-up call.

I find that Pakistani journalists and editors such Hamid Mir of Geo TV and former diplomats are coming out with far greater articulation, common sense and respect for other viewpoints than the hysterical brigade here who believe in trying to shout down everyone who does not sing their song or whistle their tune.

We should appreciate that the civilian government under President Zardari is trying to rein in both the ISI and the military. It is a near-impossible challenge. But our news channels seem to suggest that we want a confrontation with Pakistan or appear to be doing everything to push for a military regime there. Neither country can afford this confrontation.

It is the multiple incompetencies that have driven the Indian State these past years and decades, not just the politicians, which have brought us to this pass — as well as the complete lack of focus on police reforms which are critical if this country is to survive the “thousand cuts” that others are seeking to inflict.

In all this point scoring and ratcheting up their so-called TRP ratings, in breathless and unethical ways, trying to outdo the other, there are a few basic things forgotten. Amartya Sen reflected on this in a conversation with a small group in Delhi a few days back when he said a very simple thing: “I am astonished at the way people can go to sleep at night comfortably in a country which has the largest number of hungry children in the world.”

Reflect on that a bit, my media pundits and friends. Think of a few good, silent things happening in this country, not as one-minute specials but as drops in the ocean worth reflecting upon. For without those drops, our ocean will be that much smaller and our world that much diminished.

by Sanjoy Hazarika

Published on Chandigarh Tribune.

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