In the mid-1980s, the wonderful Peace Museum in Chicago city was selling a poster, The World According to Reagan. It was a world map drawn based on how much space each country in the world occupied in Reagan’s mind. So you had, for instance, Cuba the size of a walnut to an India the size of a wheat grain.
Looking at the English television news channels, one gets the same feeling. They were all after Dhoble, Paes, Sania, and Pranabda and his nomination process. Would one say all this is not news? No. It certainly is news. But, there’s an imbalance in how the news is treated. The channels have long news hours, but hardly any news to report. Each day one or two items are picked as talking points, half-a-dozen familiar talking heads are assembled, and a polarised free-for-all is launched. Much of the news hour is filled with this. Then there’s a brief round-up of events across the country with news bits of 20 seconds or less.
Indian TV viewers showed great interest in news even in the 1980s when Doordarshan was a monopoly, with more than 40% viewership for news programmes even among women and rural viewers. This interest has continued and perhaps explains the massive growth of channels in the all-news segment.
The most important difference between the pre-news-channel era and the 24x7 news channel era is the disappearance of balance. In the earlier era, in the standard block news format, there used to be a slot each for State, national and international news, along with sports, culture, and weather. Even as some international news figured in the bulletins, the complaint might have been about the lack of Indian correspondents in news locations or lack of Indian perspective.
But with the coming of 24x7 news channels, one notices that unless it is Pakistan and terror stories or some major disaster, there is very little coverage of international news. For instance, there are major popular movements unfolding across the globe such as “free education movement” in Chile, USA, New Zealand, Canada, and in many European countries.
Massive student demonstrations are being staged in major cities including New York City, Oakland in California, Seattle in Washington State, Anchorage in Alaska, Berlin in Germany, and Quebec in Canada against the crippling costs of higher education and rising indebtedness because of educational loans, with a demand for stopping privatisation of education.
None of this has been reported in any of our major media, even in the face of aggressive moves by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development to privatise education and to invite foreign universities to set up shop in India. The votaries of privatisation in India are also advocating easy availability of bank loans to pay for the inflated costs of privatised education, despite the disastrous experience in other countries.
Several of these movements are rooted either in working-class issues or student issues that touch a number of lives. The few foreign stories such as the one on Cuba on NDTV are pitched as “Watch: A land where ice cream is rationed”, while it ought to have been “Watch: A land where free education and health care are universal”!
The two major debates that were on the channels this fortnight exemplify further the glib style in which lack of balance is couched. CNN-IBN, NDTV, Times Now, and others carried two debates: one on Dhoble, the Mumbai cop, and the other on the killing of civilians by CRPF in Chhattisgarh. The debates were surreal in their vocabulary and pitch. In both the debates, words such as human rights, collateral damage were freely used.
In the Dhoble debate, Alyque Padamsee and Ranjana Kumari and others were on the NDTV discussion anchored by Maya Mirchandani. On Times Now, anchored by Arnab Goswami, Mayank Shekar, Shaina NC, Rahul Narvekar, Tehseen Poonawala, Michael Ferreira, Ashok Pandit, Ganesh Sovani, Rahul Easwar, and Shailendra Singh, participated.
The main issue that was a cause for complete outrage was the fact that Dhoble carries a hockey stick (did he actually use it on anyone?). The second serious objection was to the fact that some people were rounded up and taken to a police station seriously damaging their reputation, and were later subjected to blood and urine tests for substance abuse, which could be legally inadmissible as the Narcotics Act does not permit such testing. There was no loss of life, no physical violence, and the raid apparently was to trap people using illegal drugs. But the vocal pro and anti panellists vented a number of views on human rights abuse, damage to reputations, and so on.
While the anchors professed neutrality, the captions given to the story on the channels dubbed the cop as “moral cop” (Times Now) and “Taliban cop” (NDTV). Much disapproval was shown through headlines for the behaviour of the policemen. Much regret was shown also for the loss of “Mumbai’s nightlife”. At the end of the discussion led by Maya Mirchandani (NDTV), Ranjana Kumari protested in exasperation at the anchor giving a pub owner’s interpretation of law primacy over that of the law enforcement agencies!
In the debate on CRPF killings in Chhattisgarh, both CNN-IBN’s Rajdeep Sardesai and Times Now anchors ensured voice for the CRPF (CNN-IBN) as well as human rights activists. But it was clear that Rajdeep was not going to accept the human rights activists’ contention that the state has no business under any circumstances to break the laws it has enacted. He kept reiterating that Naxals kill civilians, implying that police killing civilians evens out the deal. The CRPF DG’s line of Naxals using human shields was finally the angle the channel settled on, calling the loss of civilian life collateral damage.
Despite the balance in the numbers of panellists for and against the issue, CNN-IBN and Times Now put the spin on the story that Naxals use innocent civilians as human shields. Times Now has also put it up on its website: “now shocking details emerge of Maoists using human shields”, which is essentially the spin given by the CRPF to the story. It completely disregards the points of view of the retired CRPF DG, Mr. Rammohan and Prof Haragopal. This, even as the other human rights activists such as Colin Gonsalves and Swami Agnivesh are asking for an independent judicial enquiry.
The extraordinary sympathy for fragile reputations and the shock of a mere policeman daring to wield a hockey stick in the presence of elite customers who wish to do illegal drugs in watering holes across Mumbai, the sharp wit and wisdom that is summoned to argue for the dignity of individuals, safety and security of women and children, the outrage at human rights violations, all vanish when it comes to the life, liberty, and dignity of the poor who are eking out a living in their own villages. The corporations going there to dispossess the people of their lands, threatening their very right to live, and the state machinery moving in with deadly weaponry (bought with the tax payers’ money) to facilitate the “development” of corporate wealth, creates no moral outrage in the media.
The duality with which the electronic media have covered the two issues reveals the disregard for the real interests of the poor, underprivileged people of India.
The media take on the state, where it knows that the state machinery is profiteering by targeting media’s upper class constituency. It is increasingly apparent that the corporate media houses covertly argue for their constituency’s right to patronise the underground economies of liquor and drugs, and expose “Taliban cops”. When the poor are targeted, it is the mighty Indian state and its trigger-happy military machinery that the media root for. The interests of the privileged classes – the elite media’s primary consumers and advertisers – are served in both instances.
The two issues of Dhoble and Chattisgarh coming close on heels of each other have exposed the lack of balance in corporate media. The absence of news about the struggles of working people and students across the globe is an inevitable consequence of this ideological bias.