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Telecast news just twice a day

Last updated on: May 17, 2009 19:01 IST
Did the television news channels help me to decide who or which party I should vote for in the just-ended Lok Sabha election?

I think not.

When I went to the polling booth on the morning of April 30 I had to do all my thinking by myself. I had to pick which of the two goons I should favour and rationalise my decision. The parties offered me little by way of easy choices and my vote was not to be wasted; it is far too valuable to me as it was to the rascal who got it.

Television as a medium just did not understand its role and did not deliver on it at all.

It did not catch the flavour of the campaign. Nor, sad to say, searched for it. The networks only ladled out their ad libs.

So now I am convinced I can do without it.

Entertainment

But television entertained me a whole lot for I could sit there on the sofa and watch the poverty of ideas, their articulation and above all, huge waste of precious airtime which is worth at more than six digits in rupees for 30 seconds if an advertiser wanted it.

It also told me that a citizen need no long vest his hopes in the medium as a provider of intelligence for good citizenship and that if soaps don't interest me, I could very well watch the newscasts: They have all, fiction, drama, suspense, pretty faces and handsome men and every imagined skulduggery. Saas–bahus could take a backseat. They even have dynasts, courtiers, sukers-up.

The highlight of the newscasts from the word 'go' which launched the election programme was the talk shows, named differently by different channels. It often resembled the quarrelsome few who gather at the village choupal (market) on a stringed cot and waffle away with their perceived wisdom. Some would shake head in wisdom, another smirk and the third frown. And at the end of the show, no one was ever any wiser.

The spin

And on the spin they provided me on vacuous facts, I was to make up my mind and help guide the formation of the pack which would run the affairs of my country for the next five years.

Dr Ratnakar Mahajan, a politician of the old mould, has a cure for this confusion in this country where the 24x7 channels have to necessarily to scamper to fill the time with inanities of the journalists who do not do their homework: There should be two telecasts a day, just like in the yore when Melville D'Mello, Surajit Sen and Lotika Ratnam read the news twice a day for 15 long minutes on All India Radio and told you everything that was worth knowing. Stories were 'not developed' and only developed stories were told. This happened, that did not. No speculation, no figments of imagination and no journalistic illiteracy on show.

You may well ask, then why did I abandon the newspapers if the television was such a letdown? Because, though I read at least half-a-dozen reputed newspapers, they too seemed written clones of the television. The wisdom that journalists from the print medium spouted in the television studios were, save a few exceptions, was missing from the newspapers.

So, I was, unsurprisingly, quite lost.

Did others have a different view? The quick straw poll I did in my circle of friends showed I was not far off the mark. They too felt quite the same way as I did. It was entertaining, they all said, but it was not informative. And if journalism does not inform -- the right to free speech etc is supposed to bolster that -- then, what was the use of that?

This dismay stems not from the fact that I belonged to the print media for three decades and more, but from the reality that television has taken hold of the country's minds and also determines the content in newspapers. I don't tilt at them in prejudice. Serious publications have disappeared and seriousness -- as distinct from drabness -- have also ceased to be the thread in the newspapers. Even the identities of the serious candidates were kept away by the newspapers; one had to depend on the hoardings and billboard to know but what if one favoured a more honest but lesser known candidate? You and that candidate were the losers.

Let us work backwards from D-day.

Claims

After the final phase of polling, channel after channel began to unleash their exit poll findings, some with caveats about the possible margins of errors. Each had different findings and if one element, say like the split verdict in Tamil Nadu came closer, then the channel had to brag 'We told you so!'

But if you look closely, not one of the channels dared even explain why the fractured mandate that they all proclaimed was imminent actually turned out to be a major gain for the United Progressive Alliance notwithstanding the mischief by Laloo Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Mulayam Singh Yadav?

But even as the magic figure of 272 remained to be worked out, there were bearded anchors who described the Congress gains as 'thumping majority'' and since success has many fathers. One even went to describe what he had seen at a rally addressed by Sonia Gandhi. 'It was not a rented crowd', 'was thrilling' and had an 'amazing hold on the audience'. Taking a cue from this, a Congress politico butted in: 'Yes, right from the start, it was a fighting campaign.'

Then, pray tell me, why was this impression not conveyed to the television audience by the channel? Why did these positives brought to light after it became clear that the party was heading to form a government?

Arrogance

Perhaps it is too much to expect the channels which run on celebrity content and arrogance to say that they had to eat crow. But because television news networks are arbiters of the moral and the political right and who dare ask them questions? But I am foolhardy enough to try.

Now, let us step backwards in time and look at the election-related news prior to the three days of exit-poll blasts. Did I get to know what, except in Bihar where Nitish Kumar's good governance and the possible impact of the Sri Lankan issues in Tamil Nadu, issues were locally influencing the voting intents? I did not.

Earlier, newspapers provided the constituency profiles, well-granulated, bringing out the local factors that would shape the outcome of a national election. They too were missing.

So what kept the audience hooked to the television screen? Nothing much really; he/she watched the shows unfold because it was a different genre of entertainment. They saw the talking heads spar and take the cue from the anchor who tossed the idea from person who had just ended a spiel. The anchors, glib, breathless, never at a loss for words, even if it was far from being the mot juste, can go on and on, but it is amazing that save for Arnab Goswami on Times Now, none of them had a sore throat.

Double standards

Some things do trouble me. One understands that Rahul Gandhi had the centrestage because he was assigned campaign responsibilities and was virtually the heir apparent of the Gandhi family. But simply because sister Priyanka Vadera agreed to be interviewed to bolster the image of the brother, it was 'first on this channel.'

Some things bugged me as well. A country that accepted and even coped with Deve Gowda, Chandra Shekhar and I K Gujral as prime ministers with no numbers worth mentioning as their support base, had to hear time and again channel trying to fault Sharad Pawar for his perceived ambitions to occupy the top post.

Is it wrong or immoral to nurse ambitions? Come, on, we are talking of a democracy. But Rahul in a feudal set was acceptable, but Pawar had to be mocked at.

Manmohan Singh's plea that the 1984 riots should be forgotten and the dukaan (shop) ought to be closed down did not survive even an entire day. But Narendra Modi's refusal to answer questions on Gujarat's 2000 communal conflagration because 'I have answered it several times already' became the staple for the whole day because he was trying to 'hide the guilt'. Double standards, you rule the day, the goose and the gander are indeed treated differently.

I hope Ratnakar Mahajan's dream is fulfilled. Do us all a lot of good.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Mumbai-based commentator and former deputy editor, The Hindu.

Mahesh Vijapurkar