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Not political spokespersons, only spinmeisters!

May 14, 2009 15:20 IST

Congress spokesperson Veerappa Moily being shown the door for talking out of turn is quite out of tune with the reality. Asking Ashwini Kumar, also of the Congress, to curb his tongue is much the same thing. Each and every political party involved in the election game being played out has allowed its designated and not-so-clearly mandated persons the free run of the mouth. All because the television cameras are a-rolling and the medium's compulsions have become addictively convenient for the parties.

Virtually none of the worthies you see being ushered into television studios to mouth their platitudes convenient for the moment are spokespersons at all. They are just talking heads to keep the masses in front of the television screens engaged, and to ensure that the party did not go unrepresented in the slanging matches played day in and day out. They are there just to fill the space, not necessarily to keep the viewers informed.

Their brief is to talk away and give a spin. It is intended these days less to helpfully inform to further their party's ends and the more to hold the attention of the television audiences. Especially in this election season where everyone is trying to do the arithmetic without knowing the actual numbers and the scene full of self-serving, self-appointed spinmeisters, this breed has become endemic.

They take you through the thick jungle of fact and fiction, presumptions and assumptions, suggestions and hints, the latter not based on any reality but intended mischief of confusion that it could well end up counterproductive. One hopes for a day when soon after the eggs are hatched -- I mean the votes are counted -- and what each of the worthies has said pre-poll is telecast post-poll. That would be a whole lot of eggs on lots of faces.

There was a time, when the late Vittalrao Gadgil, a veteran of the Congress spoke for the party and he had a daily brief from Indira Gandhi. He was not to speak a word out of line, nor speculate. More often than not, despite prodding by irascible political journalists more clued in than today's strutting specimen claiming to be of the same genre, he kept a stiff upper lip. A briefing did not mean he had to fill the space -- thankfully, there were no TV cameras rolling in his time.

Then there are those who like their own voice and revel in their own perceived wisdom and exploit a medium that is often trying to obfuscate issues under pretext of ladling out credible information. I have often seen party spokesmen at the state level engaging the journalists at daily briefings so that they have that much lesser time with a rival political party. Did you notice that while all anchors wear business suits, the politicians have started dressing better, that their dress sense is decidedly improved from the earlier sham of wearing khadi?

After the daily briefings where Gadgil often offered "no comments" as a response, he would calm the nerves of the journalists with  off-the record and deep background conversations which accounted for lot of words but very little to write about. It more or less consisted of what these days these spokespersons spew on the television screens. It is apparently done so because they know that much of what is said would not survive till the next telecast. Unfortunately, Moily said a bit more than that.

Now, the spokesperson as a species is dead. They are unable to offer enduring insights because half the time, they are clueless. All they can boast of is a gift of the gab, a ready sense of the immediacy of the moment, the transient nature of the demand for sense or even purported fact. Their ready wit, which could often be visible even among the lawyers in a munsif magistrate's court, is both their reason for being favoured by the network studios and them being in the limelight.  

If you carefully read the political content in newspapers, even the best of them which can be perhaps their count confined to the digits of a forefinger, you would see that they have less and less space assigned to them. It is because they have no space for them; it is reserved for the wisdom of the half-baked correspondent. However, on the television screen, they have a free run and their line of argument is dictated by the anchor. The anchor, anyway, is going to have the last word because it is his show. The talking heads alias the spokespersons are merely actors of the moment, seeking to drive the network's TRPs.

Let me digress a bit and tell you how silly it is for the television anchor to ask Abhishek Manu Singhvi questions on why the CBI gave a clean chit to Octavio Quottarocchi in the Bofors case when a more intelligent step would have been to ask the government about it. Even if the government is lame duck now, there is a government in place and they have much to answer for. But ribbing Singhvi was the ultimate in seeking to push TRPs at someone else's embarrassment.

Take for instance a television talk show. It has on the panel Jyotiraditya Scindia from the Congress, Nafisa Ali of the Samajwadi Party and an assortment of other politicos. Scindia is not on the inner policy making track of his party. Ali is a new entrant to the mindless politics of the SP from which she accepted a ticket to contest from Lucknow. Can anyone say that they can even pretend to know what the inner workings are, what the shenanigans in the offing are? But they hold forth and their only qualification is being photogenic and articulate. Poor viewers.

It does not need me to tell a discerning television viewer that the anchor tries to milk as much controversy out of a line spoken by a talking head and the cue for the next question is from the last line of the person who spoke just a moment ago. The ball is kept rolling, when the anchor says "...and that is a very interesting point. What do you have to say to that!?" When it is said in a breathless manner, it gets an air of urgency and the politician opens his mouth wide. The argument may be facile, the point senseless, may not survive the next 24 hours. But as long as it scores one over the rival talking head, everyone is game enough to let it roll. No television network is an exception to this practice.

It seems that be seen on the television is more fashionable than speaking sense. Studio hopping is the order of the day during elections. When such stupidities are encouraged by television studios, imagine the costs saved in the election campaign. It is free airtime that is exploited. If only the Election Commission decides to add the airtime at commercial rates as the costs incurred by the political parties and amortises it across the candidates' of each political party which dares send its talking head to the studios, all the wisdom would evaporate.

Often, I wish that that happened.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a former deputy editor, The Hindu.
Mahesh Vijapurkar