The government’s opaqueness did not help. But the recent coverage of the India-China dispute exposed news television’s hollow and dangerous approach to foreign policy issues

Last week, as the dispute over the alleged Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control deepened, the Headlines Today anchor, Rahul Kanwal, adopted a particularly aggressive line of questioning. Implicit in his approach was the assumption that the Chinese were the ‘aggressors’, that the Government of India had been weak, submissive, and not done enough.

Alka Acharya, a JNU academic and veteran China expert, turned around to Mr Kanwal and asked cryptically, “So are you suggesting we should fight?” He appeared to back down a little, and hinted that the government must take it up. Ms Acharya said that was exactly what was being done, through existing institutions and mechanisms, and reiterated her point that given the absence of demarcation, there were differing perceptions on the border.

Mr Kanwal did not reply to The Hindu’s question whether his channel had adopted a particular editorial line on the issue. But his approach was very similar to what was seen across channels, with anchors framing provocative questions, picking experts with a particular slant of views, and hectoring down those whose opinions perhaps varied with a narrative which sought to paint the issue of border ‘incursions’ in black-and-white. This throws up, yet again, questions about the nature of foreign policy coverage on Indian television.

Conversations with TV editors and reporters who closely tracked the issue reveal that they were operating under a set of ‘constraints’.

NDTV’s security and strategic affairs editor, Nitin Gokhale, was on the ground in Ladakh reporting on the issue. Emphasising that this was a ‘mildly serious crisis’, taking place after 27 years since PLA troops had last come across the line and stayed put, he said, “The remoteness of the location was one issue. But the biggest problem is that the government has blacked-out information. Apart from one reluctant briefing by the MEA spokesperson, none of the other stakeholders have spoken. There is this unknown fear in the establishment when it comes to China. When facts are not given, fiction – as an individual reporter sees it – will reign.”

Others said that if the government had told the public earlier what it told a parliamentary committee on Friday – that China had come in 19 km – a lot of speculation could have been avoided.

Despite that, there has been some good coverage, with informed journalists providing historical background and strategic importance of the area under contention with maps, illustrations, graphics, and pointing to the heterogeneity within Chinese establishment. But this has been rare. The important work of providing public information has been overshadowed by the war-mongering at display on some channels.

When asked why was it that the natural instinct of most television networks veered towards extremism rather than caution, a senior editor, on the condition of anonymity, said, “Because it is easier. The assumption is that China-bashing will sell compared to say a sober show discussing intricacies of the bilateral relations. Unfortunately, many don’t realise China is not Pakistan, and India-China relations are not like India-Pak ties.”

Executive editor of IBN7, Mrityunjoy K Jha, has closely seen the evolution of TV journalism in the country over the past two-and-a-half-decades. He concedes there is ‘lack of knowledge, information, and perspective’ among anchors, and Hindi channels – along with a few English ones – are particularly jingoistic. “Very few journalists read or invest in building expertise on foreign policy issues.”

Mr Jha also points to the larger systemic problem of channels not making the kind of investment either. “All channels should have a full-time reporter in the neighbouring countries. But none of us do. Instead, we tend to rely on part-time reporters. How will we have perspective from the ground then?”

Apart from on sporadic trips accompanying dignitaries, few media houses send reporters to countries like China to report on a regular basis, which would have added depth and understanding to an issue like this. There are only a few dedicated foreign affairs shows.

The other issue is of the kind of ‘experts’ on TV discussions. Senior editors admit that there is a pre-determined narrative and guests are picked depending on their availability, but also familiarity with their thoughts and what they would say. ‘We don’t like nuances,” says one editor.

Mr Gokhale adds, “Most of the guys you see on TV don't speak Mandarin and those who know keep quiet or are never invited. There is a lack of knowledge among guest control departments of TV stations about who the real China experts are." This has meant the anchor, with his/her pre-conceived script, and a few known faces, especially those who have retired from the security establishment, dominate the discourse.

Put it all together – the complexity of the issue, the government’s desire to play it down, the premium on immediacy rather than depth on TV, the absence of any in-house expertise or sustained coverage by reporters or investment by channels, and a pre-existing ‘sensationalist’ narrative. And it is not surprising that news TV’s foreign policy coverage leaves a lot to be desired.

The article has been edited.