The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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If the market will not come to politics then politics will have to be brought to the market. Newsroom bosses may have accepted their marketing department’s wisdom that politics does not sell, but they are a long way off from knowing how to fill their acres of newsprint or their airwaves without the help of their long-standing staple. All the more so at a time when general elections are round the corner. Hence the desperate bid to make political news a lot more people-friendly.

These last seven days have shown that the Indian media is quite up to this onerous task. It has successfully transformed the four assembly elections (no one, not even the government-owned DD News, is including Mizoram) into a close approximation of a one-day cricket match. Notwithstanding the fact that politics actually works in slow motion.

Last Thursday, counting day, was like watching, live, a quadrangular series being played simultaneously on four different pitches. The action was quick, the commentary racy, the result decisive, the heroes easily identifiable.

After the results came the analysis, inevitable, inexorable and, as in cricket, banal and superficial. No one has been burdened with demanding analyses of voting figures. Conclusions have been kept simple and uncomplicated: “A historic win for women”, “governance is the central issue now”, “Hindutva has been lain to rest…” (Even India Today’s apparently clever breakdown of the “She Factor” is based on a comparison of exit poll and pre-poll survey results and not any real voting figures).

Such glib and simplistic answers may not help people to better understand the changing dynamics of Indian politics. But the media has long given up that role to give people what they want, that is, the big picture, not confusing details that might blur the picture. So the solution too is a quick fix: recall the Congress captain. Watching politics can only get better.

Matter of opinion

I am happy to report that my lament last week that the media was putting more faith in opinion polls than in its own reporters touched one news editor to the quick. “What do reporters know, how can they make election predictions'” he protested. On the other hand “opinion polls are more scientific”, he insisted.

More scientific, may be. But certainly not more correct. Not in these elections, not earlier too. And the reasons are the same for opinion polls and journalists going wrong: inadequate ground-level knowledge of the place being covered.

The most simplistic description of opinion polls is that just as you test one grain of rice to know whether the rice has been cooked, you poll one person to find out the voting preference of the group he/she belongs to. But if you’re making khichdee then you have to test both the rice and the dal. Accordingly, the greater the variety, the greater the type (and hence number) of people who have to be polled to get a correct picture. It is getting this mix right in a heterogeneous country like India that causes all the problems. If the journalist knows his land, he’ll get it right. If the pollster knows his, so will he.

Black moment

It was not so long ago that Conrad Black was being courted by the rich, the famous and the powerful of the world. He was, after all, the CEO of the company that owned papers in three continents including Britain’s largest circulating newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. But financial irregularities forced Black to step down from his exalted post last month. Now, gossip columnists are sniggering over the poor attendance at the New York launch of his monumental study of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It did not help that there was another book launch next door. “I’m just doing a fly-by,” one society hostess is reported to have said as she sashayed her way to the neighbouring function. People do take a perverse pleasure at the fall of a media mogul. All that holier than thou attitude rankles, I suppose.

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