TV News: A Zero Sum Game?

Rajdeep Sardesai
Editor-in-chief, CNN-IBN

24 x 7 media is an amoral beast and the camera is Shiva's third eye. It sees the positive and the negative and it doesn't blink; it is indeed a double-edged weapon. Television magnifies sound and images, but it can also be used to completely distort them. An artful government will recognize the power of the media, but will harness it to its advantage. An under-confident government will allow the media to dictate the agenda, petrified by the media's power and then merely react to it. The UPA-II is a prime example of what happens when television becomes the Pied Piper and the government then desperately plays to catch up. Ubiquitous TV images will show up an absentee government in high definition every day.

In recent weeks, as the images of Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare have played out relentlessly across television screens, the government has appeared to panic. Four cabinet ministers rushed to the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi to mollify the yoga guru Baba Ramdev. In Anna Hazare's case, a fast at Jantar Mantar was enough to hasten the government into issuing a formal order appointing a Lokpal committee without any consultation process.

In both instances, the government blames the media for forcing it to act in an unwise manner by giving disproportionate coverage to the street agitations. Such an accusation stems from a failure to recognize the nature of contemporary media. 24 hours news television, in particular, is like a carnivorous animal that needs to be constantly fed. The likes of Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare have realized this only too well while staging "made-for-television" events in the heart of Delhi. A hunger fast as a colourful spectacle that taps into rising public anger against corruption is a perfect recipe to draw in the cameras.

In a stark contrast, the government hides in the shadows of the forbidding walls of power. The Prime Minister mumbles a few words occasionally; Rahul Gandhi is seen sometimes in well-choreographed meetings while Sonia Gandhi seems to have completely retreated behind the barricades of 10, Janpath. When the three most powerful people in the present UPA-II dispensation are not available to the media, who will feed the appetite of the 24 hour news cycle? So, every night on prime time television, hapless Congress spokespersons have to answer for the government's sins. With no real mandate, the spokespersons have little option but to attempt to filibuster their way out of difficult situations.

It could well be argued that news television, especially English language TV, doesn't really have any impact on political electability. A Mayawati, for example, has consistently contemptuous of all media, refusing to do any interviews or take on any questions from journalists. She is firm in her belief that her Bahujan Samaj voter will not be influenced by media perceptions. At least, Mayawati is consistent in her disdainful attitude towards the media.

The problem with the UPA-II is that it wants greater media approval at one level and yet remains suspicious of it at another. You cannot have it both ways. Either the government must embrace the media like a Barack Obama, where the US President misses no opportunity to play the media, be it in an intimate chat or an Oprah Winfrey show or a hard talk interview on network television. Else, it should be prepared to allow high-decibel television to set the agenda for it. Television abhors a vacuum. If the government for whatever reason won't fill the black hole of information, then it will be filled by noisy news anchors and equally loud arguments.

Take the debate on corruption. Through his public life, Dr. Manmohan Singh's calling card has been his personal integrity. And yet, how often have we seen Dr. Singh take on his critics on corruption? In the two years of UPA-II, he has done just two live press conferences and not done a single one on one interview. Perhaps, Dr. Singh's image makers fear that the television lens will expose his limitations as a public speaker. Since he is a soft-spoken individual, the fear is that his voice will not be heard in the cacophony around him. Once again, this is a misunderstanding of the media. Just as the camera captures the noisy, it also zooms in on sobriety and decency. At a time when the viewer seems to be tiring of the constant barrage of zero sum debates, the Prime Minister has an opportunity to set himself as a voice of reason and rationality. Yet, by staying silent, he almost confirms his critics of being in office, but not in power.

Sonia Gandhi's approach to the media is equally mystifying. In the run-up to the 2004 general elections, her roadshows established her as an astute and charismatic political campaigner who could use the media to her advantage. Now, by virtually refusing to engage with the media, she gives the impression of a leader who wields power without responsibility, who is unwilling to be held accountable for any of the mistakes in the government. As for Rahul, have we ever heard him express his views on matters of national importance? Or does he too, like a Mayawati, believe that the media is a pestilence best avoided?

P.S.: It's not just the power elite, but also we in the news business who need to introspect. Why is that we cover an Anna Hazare or a Baba Ramdev with such intensity, but barely touch the story of an Irom Sharmila, the Manipuri activist who has been fasting for over ten years for revoking the Armed Forces Special Powers Act? Or is Imphal simply too distant and complex for the country's 180 odd news channels to report on?


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