With Tweets and blogs as props, our TV news programmes are so similar to each other that it is becoming difficult to tell them apart
The consensus by which complexity eludes our news channels, both Hindi and English, is partly inherent in the medium. Communications theorists tell us that TV loses viewers if it strays from footage or viewpoints which have the broadest appeal. So you select, amplify and distort, all in one breathless process which top anchors have mastered. It is a skill which brings them their very fat pay cheques.
But in India the oversimplification is also a genetic construct, to do with class, cheerful inexperience, or world view, or with coming out of an incubator called NDTV. The crutch that the new communication technologies provide - first sms, then blogs, now tweets -also contribute to this, while providing the illusion of feedback.
Television news and Twitter are combining to tell us what to think. And the more channels you have, the more they converge on big news days. On the framing of the debate, the terminology, the studio guests invited, the use of Twitter. After a couple of hours of listening to our highly-paid anchors conduct an orchestra of controversy with tweets as their props, one couldn't remember any more who had uttered which nugget of wisdom. "Naxalites have their own brand of justice which is injustice." Was that Arnab Goswami or P. Chidambaram?
"Is it time to end the intellectual sympathy that Naxals often enjoy?" That was Barkha Dutt but could as well have been Sagarika Ghose. "It is a sad fact that a section of civil society romanticises them." That last was definitely P. Chidambaram, but how much like him all the others had begun to sound. "Human rights advocates now have to choose which side they are on. Democracy, debate and the rule of law or are they on the side of people who kill in cold blood?" May be that too was Mr. Chidambaram. Or was it Barkha? Or one of the others?
Still hanging in there
The tweets on the screen have not replaced the sms polls. Sagarika Ghose: Are Naxals becoming India's new Taliban? Eighty-nine per cent are saying yes! Barkha Dutt: 68.42 per cent are saying it is time for intellectuals to end their sympathy for Naxals!
There is also some wondrous consensus that the English news channels maintain in terms of whom we are allowed to listen to. For the last two weeks the Naxal view has been represented by the revolutionary writer Varavara Rao, regardless of which channel and which show we may be tuned to. If it is human rights it is Gautam Navlakha. Unless the topic is Gujarat in which case it is Teesta Setalvad. If it's the BJP view on Naxals it is Ravi Shankar Prasad and I know his arguments backwards by now. That is, when it isn't Chandan Mitra or Swapan Dasgupta. Call it the golden rule of television predictability.
Last Tuesday it was a prime time full of righteous labelling on the TV screen. "Are Naxalites barbarians or social activists?" "Cold blooded murder is not acceptable." But cold blooded looping of barely obscured footage is? The beheaded inspector at whose fate shrill indignation soared all evening, was turned, lifted and transferred to a truck - was it 50 times or 100? - on Tuesday, with the blurred visual of the decapitated head. On Times Now ceaselessly, but also repeatedly on CNN-IBN.
On the former, our self-appointed interlocuter was intoning as is his wont, "India wants answers." On the Taliban style Naxal beheading, he added. Don't use words like Taliban, bristled Navlakha. But Goswami was hardly the only one. "Lal Taliban ka kahar" is what the Hindi channels were calling it. From NDTV 24x7 to Headlines Today to Aaj Tak, it became in an instant, the adjective of the evening.
Goswami wanted to know if this was a Maoist revenge for the arrests of Kobal Ghandy and others whose release had been demanded in return for releasing the kidnapped inspector. Navlakha cautioned against jumping to conclusions and reminded him, "Your channel has been wrong twice in recent memory." He tried to give examples but wasn't allowed to get far. "I want responses to the present situation," said Arnab Goswami with the air he has adopted of stern calling to account. Adding pompously, "We have a serious internal security issue here."
"Sinister Maoist tactics silence sympathisers," said the legend on the TV screen, though Navlakha was far from silenced. By the end of the evening P. Chidambaram was telling Barkha Dutt that he didn't know where the theory about release and revenge came from, the BJP government had told the Centre that there was no demand for the swap of any prisoner. Navlakha will have to wait for another appearance on a Times Now show to say I told you so.
When news is increasingly about anchor-driven formulations and views, and the views are of those who use Twitter and sms, the India that wants answers becomes an almost mythical construct. When you further consider that the ratings — for whatever they are worth — are the most miniscule for English news channels, you can only marvel at the moral certitude of Those Who Preside. But then you have to remind yourself that the certitude is a posture acquired because it sells. It is we who are being made fools of.