I have a simple question to ask of all our television news channels. When a piece of news breaks, Breaking News you scream. Does anybody really give a tinker's curse who broke the news first? Does anybody even care? And yet, not a day passes without one or the other of our channels claiming that what you just saw, another poor sod biting the dust in Jammu and Kashmir or Dalits being shot in plain sight, you saw first on that particular channel.
Here’s the funny thing. Switch to another channel and they will be saying precisely the same thing - you saw it here first. Television is highly susceptible to this kind of jumping-the-gun tendency, because of the ‘24 x 7’ immediacy involved even at the risk of erring. You can always issue an apology after midnight when nobody is watching.
After the recently concluded assembly elections in Karnataka, one channel kept on crowing about how they got all the numbers pat - BJP, Congress, JD(S) right down to the Independents. They should open a betting syndicate!
All right, fair enough. You are keen that your audience should applaud your alacrity, how quick you were off the blocks in getting that all-important scoop about some failed stockbroker cutting up his mistress into little bits and shoving the morsels into his microwave oven, and how the keen-as-mustard cops thought the stockbroker was having beef khababs for dinner. Shades of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in that brilliantly gory film franchise. That tasty tidbit of news is so compelling that to be constantly told ‘you read or saw it here first’, is both irrelevant and tasteless, to stay with the cannibalistic culinary parallel.
A VIP is assassinated. Those clamouring for sensational news, are turned on to whichever channel first appears on their screens. Thereafter we keep surfing channels to see if any of them provides a fresh perspective. What we get instead is a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears college kids covering the event, accosting anyone in the vicinity who looks vaguely like a celebrity, for a sound bite. The same pseudo celebrities are approached by every single channel, microphones thrust into their faces.
‘Who do you think is behind this, aside from the opposition parties or Pakistan?’ A flippant answer is that the cops are clearly way behind the criminals, who seem to be getting away with murder. ‘Was this broker involved with an ex Union Minister?’, ‘Were the morsels in the microwave once the mistress of a senior civil servant?’ Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, as Yul Brynner sonorously intones in that great Broadway musical, ‘The King and I’.
Furthermore, our channels have a fresh interpretation for the word ‘debate’. Many of us amateur debaters in school and college were taught the first principles of debating. That there is a motion for the House to debate, with speakers arguing for and against the motion. Each speaker is allowed three to five minutes, at the end of which the lead speaker on either side will sum up. All this is overseen by the Chairperson of the House. The motion is then put to the vote by a show of hands, after which everyone shakes hands and retreats to the green room to have a cup of tea and a biscuit. All very civil and parliamentary.
Which is a far cry from the ‘debates’ we now witness on television. I have had occasion to comment on this earlier but it will bear repeating. Indian television's idea of a debate is for everyone to scream and shout in unison, and certainly not in harmony. I can only conclude that our viewers derive a kind of vicarious pleasure watching this daily live theatre of the absurd. God knows the goings on in our country present enough fodder for all our news vendors to stay busy all day and night. And I am guessing those same dozen or so faces that appear every evening in virtually all the channels are being paid a pretty penny. Else why would they subject themselves to so much obloquy and contempt? There's a queer point worth raising here. All news channels claim to be going out live. Yet, I can swear by the beard of the prophet Prannoy Roy that I have seen Sambit Patra or Saba Naqvi or some waxed-moustachioed military type appearing simultaneously ‘live’ on more than one channel! Some astral, yogic powers of trans ference perhaps?
As if the English spoken in many of these news channels is not variable enough in quality, we now observe these self-same English channels switching to Hindi every now and then. Painful as it may be for those of us whose Hindi is suspect or indeed, non-existent, one can stretch a point when some representative from the cow belt is given the third degree by the anchor. The poor sap has no option but to retort in Hindi. (‘Main woh bachhi ko rape nahin kiya’) But it's a bit much when some of the anchors themselves switch to Hindi and generally get into the ‘Rashtra bhasha’ swing of things. Then why not Tamil, Telugu, Bengali or Malayalam? We do have news channels dedicated exclusively to regional languages, do we not? So!
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the ‘I am the greatest’ syndrome, a la Muhammad Ali. Which is why I hugely enjoyed one particular debate in one of the English news channels, which kept reminding us through mind-numbing graphics that their viewership is 350% greater than their nearest rival. One of the participants proclaimed on a channel that he is immensely proud to be a part of Blankety Blank channel. Only he was not on the Blankety Blank channel, but on a rival Clankety Clank channel! Plenty of red faces. So much for top-of-mind brand recall.
(The author is a brand consultant with an interest in music, cricket, humour and satire)...