In the bad old monopolist days, when All India Radio and Doordarshan owned public broadcasting, you sat by the radio or television set hoping for news but got policy statements, official speeches and accounts of VIP doings instead. Now that broadcast news is a multi-million-dollar business shared out amongst dozens of players in our free-market heaven, things have changed. From the government serving up what it wanted you to hear, we now have 24-hour news channels killing themselves to serve up what they think you want to hear. From government propaganda we’ve moved to tabloid populism. The idea that the news that’s fit to broadcast is an editorially determined view of significant recent events is quite dead. Part of this change is driven by the sheer span of time to be filled with the commodity loosely called news. The news bulletin that turned up a few times a day as a digest or summary of newsworthy happenings in the past has been dwarfed by two new genres of news programming.
The first is ‘breaking news’ or news as continuous voyeurism where cameras provide live feeds, field reporters supply a gloss on the pictures and studio anchors eke out the hours by inviting experts to elaborate on the visuals. The pioneer in this was CNN with its coverage of the first Gulf War, but the greatest example of ratings-driven trivialization was, ironically, provided by the BBC, when it put the world on hold to provide us saturation coverage of Diana’s death.
The second sort of news programme is the studio-bound ‘show’ with an audience in attendance. Earlier, shows with studio audiences broadly followed a Question Time format. The audience put the questions and a panel made up of political figures from the main political tendencies answered them. Now, thanks to the new populism, the studio audience isn’t primarily there to ask the questions. Members of the audience still ask questions, but their main function now is to be authentic extras in the plebiscitory theatre that passes for news. In a show like We, the People, the public (that is, the studio audience) and the invited panelists constitute a sort of orchestra that helps the charismatic anchor (the conductor) improvise her riff on the news. The anchor takes the questions, clarifies them, puts them to the panel, follows them up and then ends up taking a straw poll on the matter at hand. How many think that the government of West Bengal was wrong to send armed policemen into Nandigram' A hundred per cent. How many think that outsiders made political capital out of the troubles of Nandigram’s peasants' A hundred percent. The two stock responses to the tragedy are confirmed by the People by a show of hands which confirms the anchor as populist oracle: She, the People.
In the last year or so, as the news channel market has become more and more crowded with the entry of major new players like CNN-IBN and Times Now, the polling of the channel-changing public has reached farcical levels. Every other programme has a hot button question which viewers are encouraged to vote on. Graphics show you the way the vote is heading and at the end of the programme you’re told the People’s verdict. When news-gatherers prioritize the public response to an event over the broadcaster’s take on it, you know that the business of news is no longer to inform, it is to ingratiate.
Take the recent treatment of the two big stories to emerge from the cricket World Cup: the violence that followed India’s loss to Bangladesh and the death of Bob Woolmer the day after Pakistan lost to Ireland.
I was a talking head on a news show that was trying to examine the attack on Dhoni’s house as a symptom of the unhealthy obsession of Indians with cricket. The anchor prefaced his question to me by observing that given the fact that cricketers enjoyed being in the news in good times, that they enjoyed being pictured on Page 3, given their willingness to milk cricket for celebrity, wasn’t extreme public hostility after defeat part of the game'
I’m certain that the anchor didn’t for a moment believe what he was suggesting. He was rhetorically framing a popular view of the Indian cricket team as a bunch of pampered, indulged, overpaid underperformers. He was being the modern news professional: if there was popular resentment raging without, it was his job to air it. I notice that when anchors channel the ‘public mood’, when they ventriloquize, they often leer in a knowing way, as if to suggest to their sophisticated peers that the vulgarity of the popular view they are voicing has nothing to do with their own opinions.
In their coverage of Bob Woolmer’s death, news channels went one better by trying to second-guess popular prejudice before it had the chance to form. By Wednesday morning, the Jamaican police had indicated that since the autopsy hadn’t confirmed death by natural causes, Woolmer’s death would be, by default, treated as death in suspicious circumstances. Samples had been sent to pathology labs to test for toxins and other things and the reports hadn’t yet come in. By noon, I saw that Times Now was leading with the headline: “Bob Woolmer Murdered”. I watched horrified, waiting for new revelations.
There were no revelations. The rest of the bulletin was a grudging retreat from that headline. The first qualification came when the anchor announced that there was a “strong murder angle” to the story, whatever that meant. The channel’s claim that Jamaican police sources had indicated murder was flatly contradicted by the statement of the Jamaican police commissioner who merely repeated that Woolmer had died in suspicious circumstances and that it would be inappropriate to speculate till the pathology reports came in. Despite the headline, I realized that the story was exactly where it had been earlier in the morning.
Undaunted, the news channels turned their cameras on Sarfaraz Nawaz who said that Woolmer had probably been killed by bookies who were scared he would blow the whistle on them in his forthcoming book. Now it’s reasonable for a news channel to speculate on the reasons for a murder, but equally a responsible news editor should have found a discreet way of indicating that Sarfaraz Nawaz has been making headline-seeking accusations for decades. Finger as always on the public pulse, our modern newsmongers had decided that the People wanted murder (without pausing to consider that even if the reports confirmed the presence of poison, suicide was at least a possible alternative explanation) and it was murder they served up.
Debauched by ratings wars, television news has smart professional people who ought to know better, efficiently packaging speculation and gossip as news in the worst tabloid tradition. Editorial discretion has been binned because “All the News that’s Fit to Print” as a motto is so stuffy and so 20th-century. With 24 hours to fill, news channels are now in a position to offer us a more expansive promise: All the Swill You Want to Drink.