Hasan Suroor

When the media set the agenda

A lot of Indian television viewers and newspaper readers could be forgiven if they thought that last week’s conference of world leaders in London was about India and Pakistan’s running feud over the 26/11 attacks rather than Afghanistan, and that the whole thing ended up in a “war of words” between External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

For this was how it was treated by a section of the Indian media, especially TV channels, with their breathless reporting of Krishna-Qureshi exchanges giving the impression that this sideshow (how it was contrived, we will come to that in a bit) was the real thing.

But banish the visions of an India-Pakistan riot at Lancaster House. The fact is that despite their differences — including over Afghanistan — the two countries were at their civilised best throughout the conference and, in the end, helped produce an important agreement with both expressing satisfaction with the outcome.

The entire controversy around the Krishna-Qureshi row was instigated by TV channels to spice-up what otherwise would have made for dull television. What? An international conference with India and Pakistan in starring roles and no fireworks? What an awful waste of precious footage that would have been!

No wonder, they showed little interest in the conference except to use it as a “peg” for the sexier India-Pakistan story.

It is important to stress that on the eve of the conference there was no hint of the “storm” to follow. Both Mr. Krishna and Mr. Qureshi had only friendly words for each other. For example, when it was reported that Mr. Qureshi wished to have bilateral discussions with his Indian peer on the sidelines of the conference, Mr. Krishna responded warmly that he would be only too happy to meet him. And when they met in the course of the summit they were courteous to each other, if not exactly ecstatic. According to Mr. Qureshi, they shook hands and said “hello”.

Within hours, however, their tone had hardened with Mr. Qureshi accusing India of “sulking” over the Mumbai attacks and “shying away” from a dialogue — and Mr. Krishna returning the compliment with a sharp jibe about Pakistan’s terror links. “People who are sitting in the epicentre of terror, I think they should look inwards and they should introspect,” he said curtly, reacting to Mr. Qureshi’s remark that the Indian “polity” was “divided” over resuming the dialogue with Pakistan.

So what changed?

On the face of it, nothing happened at the conference that can be said to have provoked the row that followed. But, yes, something did happen outside the conference hall; and it was this: a well-known TV journalist from New Delhi appeared on the scene and effectively hijacked the agenda as far as the Indian media coverage of the summit was concerned by focussing on India-Pakistan tensions in interviews with Mr. Qureshi and Mr. Krishna.

Neither said anything new or particularly provocative. With a few new adjectives thrown in, Mr. Qureshi basically repeated the old line accusing India of petulance and insisting that Pakistan was doing its best to deal with New Delhi’s grievances while Mr. Krishna reiterated the well-known Indian official position. But in TV terms anything said “live” on camera and with an “exclusive” tag attached to it (not to mention the backdrop of an international summit, and in a major western capital to boot) is presented — and perceived — as big news.

And once it is on TV, others find it hard to ignore; especially if it purports to be a public spat between India and Pakistan at the highest level: Foreign Ministers feuding in London on the margins of a world meet!

No prizes are offered for guessing what is more likely to make the headlines: A “stabilisation” plan for Afghanistan? Or Qureshi “slams” India ; and Krishna, Qureshi “spar” over Mumbai attacks? Naturally a lot of the Indian media plumped for the latter.

The fact, though, remains that it was a spurious controversy tailored to the demands of 24/7 rolling TV news without regard for the consequences. If as a result of this row India-Pakistan relations get worse, then for once it would be hard to disagree with those who may blame it on the media.

No doubt, it has become fashionable to dismiss every controversy as a “media creation” and often there is not enough appreciation of the pressures on TV journalists to produce headlines (that is the nature of the beast they must feed to remain in business) but there are times when, as a viewer, if one knew how a story was created and packaged, one would feel cheated. And this was one of those occasions.

The episode also underlined Indian media’s obsession with Pakistan in their pursuit of easy headlines which in the case of TV channels, of course, translate into ratings. Yes, yes, the hacks across the border are similarly obsessed with India (if anything, even more) but I am talking about us.

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Printable version | Oct 1, 2020 8:17:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Hasan_Suroor/When-the-media-set-the-agenda/article16814623.ece

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