Most news programmes these days are coldly calculated theatre performances and their popularity says something about the tastes and politics of urban India.
We've been witnessing for a while the rollout of a genre that is best described as news theatre, presented by the Times Group, the country's most successful news brand. In print it takes the form of Aman ki Asha, a manufactured roll-out of neighbourly bonhomie which then generates headlines for both the news outlets of the Group and others. Cabinet ministers get their bit parts on it and make obliging pronouncements about trade with Pakistan and such like. Artistes and citizen's groups are drawn into events, events management becomes the driver of news, Aman ki Asha songs and a Facebook page add to the spin. It is as calculated as it is successful. Here is a news group with its own creative agency called Taproot India. Its job is to think up campaigns that boost the news brand, but does the rest of the country have to play along? It finds a partner across the border so that both countries are now playing along!
On TV, the Group's news channel Times Now has created a news genre of its own just as India TV did before it, and this too is best described as news theatre. Increasingly at prime time, presenting news has become incidental to Times Now. At best you get some headlines. For a couple of hours or more what is served up is performance, a sanctimonious part-soliloquy by Answer-Me Goswami. It is a ploy that is working with audiences who are happy to be told what to think. It costs nothing — news gathering and reporting are becoming scarce on a channel which put more reporters on the ground than others when it took off two years ago. You get entertainment on Newshour, you don't get news. That it continues to be avidly watched tells us something about English-speaking India.
You can't have theatre without props, part of the astonishing success of this calculatedly cynical exercise is that so many are willing to lend themselves to it. They become what music TV channels would call bakras. Each time there is another Naxal-related incident you just know that those who collect guests for the daily evening show are rounding up activists who can be hectored. They keep calling, said one activist when asked why she goes on a show where the anchor is waiting to chew her up. Those slotted into the defenders-of-Maoists category try to hold their own — sometimes they give Arnab The Solo Performer as good as they get. When asked why he goes on the show, Gautaum Navlakha said that he had stopped going. “I stopped when I discovered that there was entertainment and not dialogue in the show.” He wondered optimistically whether, maybe Goswami managed to convince viewers to “think opposite of what he stands for?”
Goswami sets the tone each evening with a predicatable opening attack. “We have not seen any NGO or human rights activists condemn the killing of civilians.” Followed by snipes such as “Am I sensing a degree of embarrassment and discomfort in your voice, Kavita Srivastava?” Srivastava said later that she too had stopped going on Times Now panels but felt that the May 17th attack was major enough to go on air and try to get a point across about how the tribal population was being affected.
Viewers don't realise that sometimes the hustling within the studio could be based on a mistaken premise. When the attack on the bus in Dantewada took place, the information was that the bus was carrying both civilians and special police officers, it was not an attack on a purely civilian target. But the Times Now studio panel labelled it a civilian attack, asked whether this was a game changer, what the Naxals were achieving by alienating the local population, how mystifying it was that they were targeting civilians etc etc.
The Indian Express told you next morning that the attackers fled with the arms gathered from the SPOs who were in the bus. At the same time that this circus was being conducted, Headlines Today was focusing on the SPO angle, asking far more relevant questions: Why was the government transporting SPOs on a civilian bus? Was it because police vehicles are targeted by Maoists? Were civilians then paying the price? A news programme's job is to examine angles and raise questions, not to ‘Send a voice out to India'.
Similarly, a newspaper is called upon to report news, not to make it. But would that be sufficiently attention getting?
The consistent blossoming of regional media is a welcome counter to the daily under-reporting of many regions in the mainstream media. This month a glossy Srinagar periodical completed a year of existence capitalising on two things: the Kashmiri sense of not being adequately heard or represented, and the growing ability of the market in Jammu and Kashmir to attract enough advertising to sustain media. Its editor says it is called Conveyor because it is meant to be a vehicle for the Kashmiri narrative which the Indian and Pakistani media does not report.
There are at least three other monthly magazines in Kashmir and a weekly tabloid, and a magazine from Jammu called Epilogue. But on visits to Srinagar last year I found Conveyor sold out faster than the others. Evidently, an angst-ridden population identifies with it. Editor Showkat Motta says it is read mostly by the student community. It is published by the state's oldest advertising agency and claims to sell 8,000 copies within the state, barely 800 outside. The irony then is that the Kashmiri narrative is still consumed largely by Kashmiris, when it needs to be read elsewhere as well.
Conveyor's cover stories are consistently grim. They are about a culture of unheard protests, the denial of passports to Kashmiris, martyrdom through history, persecution of the families of militants, probes into human rights abuses which yield no conclusions, elections that disempower, an economy overly dependent on New Delhi, and so on. One issue this year had a 13-page photo feature on sad-looking children who have lost their fathers. There is a fair amount of intelligent reading, encompassing history and books. Epilogue, by contrast, talks of the state's many current issues without sounding grim. But it is Conveyor which gets the advertising.
There are no takers for Kashmir's continuing angst in the rest of India. But there are within the state, because it continues to be a grim place to live in. That should be a worrying sign for anyone who cares about solving the Kashmir problem.