Saturday, April 18, 2009


War of words
Mannika ChopraMannika Chopra

IFthis April is an excitable month for TV, then May is going to be even more supercharged with the significant role being played—potentially at least—by king and queen makers. In the ensuing elections we will see a tussle between various coalitions, and the formation of a new government, besides the IPL matches scheduled to start in a few days in South Africa. But as election coverage becomes the prime focus on TV, for the first time perhaps in India’s election history, words have become an important medium of news rather than actions. Words have become tricky things, and even the most seasoned of politicians have been making use of them, sometimes to outline a political position but more often to challenge their rivals with snide remarks.

So you had BJP’s Varun Gandhi allegedly making communal statements as part of an impassioned election speech in Pilibhit. But that transgression—real or technologically manufactured—is now pass`E9. The communal ‘hate’ speech has been taken over by personal attacks. Every news bulletin seems to be burdened with some unparliamentary statement or other being made by leading candidates.

Manmohan Singh has ridiculed Advani for saying he was ‘crying when the Babri Masjid was being pulled down’
Manmohan Singh has ridiculed Advani for saying he was ‘crying when the Babri Masjid was being pulled down’
Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani has constantly been calling the Prime Minister ‘weak’
Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani has constantly been calling the Prime Minister ‘weak’

Amar Singh is a pimp, said one political worthy. Narendra Modi, within a space of 24 hours, called the Congress a budiya, amending that to a prerogative gudiya in response to Priyanka Gandhi’s amused reaction to his original outburst. L.K. Advani has constantly been calling Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ‘weak,’ while Singh remarked that India’s Leader of the Opposition was the same person who said he was crying when the Babri Masjid was being pulled down.

The incredible thing is that news channels are using this vitriol as election flashes or breaking news fodder. These personal barbs are no indication of any accuracy or of a politician’s worth. Nor do they reveal a candidate’s commitment to any issue, and will not even become part of India’s political narrative like Ram Manohar Lohiya’s legendary reference to the late Indira Gandhi as a goongi gudiya when she was about to take over the reins of the country and the Congress.

Indeed, far more important from a journalist’s and viewer’s perspective is looking at what the candidates ‘don’t’ say about the economy, the country’s internal security, or the huge development challenges facing India. It is possible to find meaning in the silences of our leaders. Three months on these personal attacks will look rather foolish, but as of now they make headlines.

In between this verbiage, news networks did mostly a thorough job on the discontent fermented by the Congress’s ill-advised move to give the ticket to Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler, widely perceived to be behind the 1984 riots. Tytler, on NDTV 24X7, tried to softly explain why it was unfair that the ticket was revoked but Nidhi Razdan, the anchor, was having none of it. Razdan, who had a particularly pained expression all through the interview, looked as if she was suffering from indigestion. But that oddity apart, she was able to buttonhole Tytler, who was looking and sounding particularly creepy.

When the future of the newsroom is at stake, is it necessary to take a strong editorial line and disregard industry restraints and conventions or simply assume a safe middle path? The facts would seem to suggest yes—go for the jugular.

Compared to other channels, Times Now’s TRPs soared. Flushed with that success, the network has continued with its mission. The network has been providing minute coverage of the situation in Pakistan with particular reference to Swat. Calling itself the only Indian channel reporting from the Taliban territory, each of its news bulletins offers wall-to-wall coverage of the extreme Islamisation that seems to be taking over this area.

In fact, any news item to do with the Taliban is bound to find itself in the top spot in the channel’s news line-up. I am almost sure that the news that traces of Taliban activity had been found in Jammu and Kashmir was broken by NDTV, but within 10 seconds later it became a Times Now exclusive.

At the end of the day, I am not convinced that growth in the TRPs matches a growth in journalism, though Shafique’s reporting—the Times Now correspondent in the Swat valley—has not been sensational. Good journalism would have ensured that the homecoming of India’s hockey team fresh from winning the Azlan Shah Cup after a drought of 14 years found a top spot in the line-up instead of being a poor tail-ender.