The attempted suicide by the anchor of a Hindi news channel raises several questions. Who has the answers?

If you were to observe the pattern of presentation on Hindi news channels, you would think there is some sort of mitosis at play; that one super anchor has duplicated into many identical anchors; that all reporters have been Dolly sheeped into mike-holding Dadaist harbingers of “breaking news.” They all look the same, sound the same, and shout at the same decibel level. The Hindi channel newsroom is one big factory where everyone has to pass the conformity test of group cohesion. Any attempt to break away from that norm is to stare at an interpersonal abyss.

There are indications that an anchor from one such channel fell into this abyss recently and almost drowned in it. Facing harassment from her superiors, Tanu Sharma of India TV tried to end her life. In her own words, she got tired of “being brave.” Her story has been picked up by editors and other TV professionals, most of whom are no longer with the medium. But from within, there has been no shamefacedness so far. It is very likely that Ms Sharma will be dubbed as the one who could not withstand the pressures of “live television.” Her channel and others will go about their business as if nothing happened. Stuck between Amul Macho and Barnala Sariya, there is very little chance of journalism surviving and its sheer tonality not evoking a feeling of irrepressible irony.

How did we reach here?

In July 2007, while speaking at a seminar on TV news, Qamar Waheed Naqvi, the then editorial head of Aaj Tak, remarked: “If I have to choose between the market and my conscience, I shall choose the market.” In April this year, Mr. Naqvi chose to resign from India TV, citing an alleged “‘scripted” interview with Narendra Modi as the reason for his quitting. But that is difficult to believe. After all, as far as the market yield goes, the aforementioned interview was as good or as bad as a YouTube clip of a golden eagle swooping on a mountain goat carried by the channel in its prime-time slot.

So, when did the market eclipse the conscience, not to mention the editorial consciousness, of Hindi news channel editors? How did the decay begin?

In the 90s, when Surendra Pratap (SP) Singh started Aaj Tak as a news programme on Doordarshan, it transgressed the boundaries of the monotonous state TV news. It was pleasing to hear Mr. Singh on screen, his team of reporters, and the lively camber that shaped their reportage. He had sought to introduce an element of entertainment in news. But at no point did he allow it to turn into a shipwreck that, to put in Voltaire’s words, would invoke the same curiosity in men, monkeys, and little dogs.

Sadly, he passed away in 1997, only a few years after he started Aaj Tak.

By that time, however, entrepreneurs who wanted to get into TV news had understood that the market lay in Hindi news. So they began to hire workforce from the Hindi print. Those who already had TV experience, like the ones who worked with SP, suddenly found themselves in demand. The salaries they were offered in TV were exponentially higher.

But the newsrooms they got to reign over were different from the newsrooms of Hindi dailies. The television had suddenly become a soap opera in which the dream of liberalisation could not only be lived but prolonged as well. The young and the restless from small and big cities wanted to be in these newsrooms, to experience their multi screens and air conditioner-induced unnatural coldness. The camera offered them what an MBA could not: instant recognition from their neighbours in their middle income group colonies. Or, if you made it bigger, a stranger could come forward in a marketplace and shake your hand. It was all exhilarating.

The editors from the Hindi heartland, and many other news professionals from these parts, knew the intricacies of Indian politics — more specifically, the political calculus of the Hindi belt they came from. They knew the algorithm of elections and vote percentage. But many among them also brought with them various deep-rooted complexes about, among other things, the English language. They grudged a handful of journalists who could converse in English, who dressed in a particular way, and who thought nothing of a female colleague lighting up a cigarette.

With time, some changed. But many continued to suffer from what some of us called the ‘Kankarbagh syndrome’ (after a colony in Patna).

While these strains were creating ripples in the newsroom and beyond, editors developed parameters that only bred mediocrity. Like mercenaries, young journalists would be sent out to collect sound bites. In the newsroom, only a certain kind of skill set began to be appreciated. One was considered good if one could collect sound bites indefinitely, without even asking for a weekly off. It was unfathomable that a reporter could have a life beyond news, that he or she may be in a relationship, or would like to read, or watch a play or a film. These were considered pastimes of a loser, and indulging in these was discouraged. In the newsroom you would sometimes find a seasoned reporter, his teeth stained with gutka, boasting about how he had no idea which class his child was in.

As a result, the younger lot of journalists could never grow intellectually. The reporter on the BJP beat did not know who Syama Prasad Mookerjee was. The one on the foreign beat had never heard of Henry Kissinger. The reporter on the defence beat thought the aircraft carrier India sought from Russia was called Admiral ‘Gorbachev.’

The advent of manager-editors

By 2000, the Hindi channel newsrooms had multiplied and TV news now followed a 24-hour live cycle. Around this time, journalist-editors began to be replaced by manager-editors. A notion was floated that news judgement is no big deal and that anyone could do it. These managers, drunk on power and money, turned news into folderol. Some of them went ahead and recruited aspiring models as news anchors. At least one of them thought Bina Ramani was a ‘socialist’, while another referred to the word kapaal (skull) in an Atal Bihari Vajpayee poem as kapaas (unginned cotton). Many promising reporters fell for this gaudiness as well. They jumped from one channel to another, which at the time of its launch would put on display their cardboard dummies in the lobbies of five-star hotels. They would walk with a swagger from the newsroom to make-up room and then to the studio. They lost a sense of the field.

In a few years time, many of them became redundant. In the larger film, their role got restricted to a cameo. Many editors were rendered useless as well. In their emptiness, some of them shifted to other pastures such as entertainment and politics.

But still, there are many journalists out there trying to be brave in newsrooms. Amidst the cacophony of the news they produce every day, their immediate task must be to first reclaim their own selves. Like Saul Bellow writes in “What kind of day did you have?”: “Of all that might be omitted in thinking, the worst was to omit your own being.” These journalists need to ask themselves what kind of day they have had — whether they were able to have a dialogue with themselves.

If not, then it is time for them to tell their manager-editors: take your kettledrums elsewhere.


The death of the reporterJanuary 21, 2013

Indian journalism at ground zeroMarch 20, 2013

More In: Comment | Opinion