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News TV is losing the plot

I wrote last week about the crisis in news TV.

Most core English news viewers, I said, had stopped watching the news channels every day. The only time they watched, I suggested, was when news was breaking or when important events were occurring.

 

In some ways, this is part of a global trend. American news networks are also concerned. The average age of most news channel viewers in the US is around (or over, depending on which statistic you believed) 60. Younger people have no interest in the news channels. Demographics suggest that soon US channels will face an existential crisis.

 

   In India, the decline has already begun and will gather pace. English news, as a category, is in intensive care and Indian-language channels will face a crisis of their own in the years to come.

 

   The big difference is that, by and large, American news channels are profitable. This allows them to maintain large staffs of experienced people and to perform at their peak when news breaks.

 

   The best example is American TV coverage of 9/11. Most of us turned on our TV sets when the first plane hit the towers and were hooked. The coverage was fair, had depth and made us feel that we were actually in New York watching the tragedy unfold.

 

   In contrast, even when they were relatively profitable, Indian news channels have not exactly covered themselves in glory. Our equivalent of 9/11 was 26/11 and while much of the coverage was good, some of it was also downright appalling.

 

   A middle-level anchor at the leading news channel of the day went on the air to announce that guests were hiding at the Chambers at the Taj, leading the terrorists to rush there and murder innocent chefs who tried to protect their guests.

 

   Even the government was totally irresponsible. We know now that R&AW always knew that the terrorists were getting instructions from their handlers in Pakistan who were watching Indian news channels. (Tape recordings of those conversations have since been released.)  But nobody in a position of authority ever told the channels this or asked them to moderate their coverage. They were content to let the Pakistani handlers know every little detail. The head of the NSG later said that one of his men died in the assault on Chabad House because the channels had shown preparations for the NSG strike.

 

   All kinds of people with no authority to talk, gave all kinds of statements to the TV cameras. Worst of all were the naval commandos who held an unnecessary press conference (which TV covered live) while people were still dying.

 

   Since those days, we have had many new developments. The TV channels are now cash-strapped. Many are ideologically committed. Some are propaganda machines. They no longer have large staffs. They are under more governmental scrutiny than ever before.

 

   So, I wondered how our channels would cope as the attack on JNU students unfolded on Sunday night.

 

"Channels were handicapped by the fact that the events unfolded on a Sunday night when the top anchors were away."

   The broad answer is that even though they no longer had the budgets that were available to them during 26/11, most acquitted themselves better than we had a right to expect.

 

   Some of this admittedly was because the attack on JNU students took place in Delhi where most of the national channels are based. It is safe to say that had the incident occurred in say, Guwahati or Indore, the national channels would not have been able to cover it properly because most of them are not really national news channels at all but Delhi-Noida based debating societies. The budget cuts have led to a dismantling of news gathering resources throughout the country.

 

   But we should recognise the many young reporters who showed exemplary courage during the attack even as they feared for their own safety in the face of the aggression of the hit-squad that had been sent to assault JNU students. It was difficult to fully cover the event because the police had shut JNU’s gates and many camera crews were unable to get in. But, to their credit, the reporters managed to capture the horror of what was happening.

 

   The anchor’s job in these situations becomes crucial. It is the anchor who takes the action on the ground and puts it in context. He or she provides background, speaks to guests who can analyse the situation and demands answers from those who are in charge.

 

   If the JNU coverage had a weak link it was in the studio segments. Channels were handicapped by the fact that the events unfolded on a Sunday night when the top anchors were away. But the problems went beyond that.

 

   Reporters on the ground were clear that a group of men was assaulting JNU students. The slogans raised by the attackers left no one in any no doubt where they stood ideologically. The reporters relayed all this courageously and honestly.

 

   It was when the anchors and the ticker-writers got involved that the focus shifted. Many referred to the assaults as “a clash”. How is it a clash when a gang of masked men arrives with lathis to beat up students?

 

   Of course anchors in such highly charged situations often have to temper the sentiments of the correspondents on the ground. But this time there was the sense that there was more tampering than tempering.

 

   And the silent villains of all news channels— the guys who write the headlines and the supers on the screen— told a completely different story from the one that was unfolding on the ground.

 

   Nor was there anyone available to speak. The Delhi government kept a low profile. It took a while for the Congress to get its act together. The Police Commissioner, the Home Secretary etc. were not on any channel I watched. The Vice Chancellor of JNU was silent. In any case I sometimes wonder if he is a real person or just a cipher conjured up by government.

 

   And at the end of the day, nearly everyone I know turned to Twitter for their news. TV became background noise.

 

   The most valid criticism against news reported on Twitter is that it is unchecked and unfiltered. News TV is supposed to be more responsible.

 

   But on Sunday night, despite the bravery and the outstanding reporting of many journalists, there was a real sense that news TV was losing the plot.

 

   And so the decline in what was once a thriving medium continues.

 

 

Posted On: 07 Jan 2020 11:41 AM
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