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 Up loaded on Saturday March 20, 2010

In praise of sober debate.

By, Rajiv Dogra.

Courtesy: www.expressbuzz.com

               When our television was limited to just black and white there were no shades of grey. That was the age of innocence when the weekly pleasures of a mid-weekChitrahaar and the Sunday evening feature film were eagerly looked forward to. Looking back they seem naively simple diversions, but back then we were an easy to please people steeped in the philosophy of less is more. That sense of the minimal also guided our expectations of the television; no one needed 24/7 information and entertainment. A few hours of television were all that we could squeeze in our daily schedule of homework and cricket.


            The steady effort of Doordarshan, the only television channel for a long time, was to keep our thoughts reasonably pure. The news content was rarely dramatic; ‘breaking news’ hadn’t been heard of then. It wasn’t as if there were no extraordinary events but the national and international communications being sparse at best, there was no sense of immediacy to the news. What was presented as news was duly filtered and tailored to make it amiable to the government. No one minded that, not even the opposition politicians, because the entire news watching audience waited expectantly with the dinner plate in hand for the 8 pm daily news.


           There was a sense of anticipation to this wait; a whiff almost of a national romance as if what was about to unfold in lakhs of houses across the country would transport us all magically to a fairyland. And Salma Sultan never failed the audience; her latest saree and the rose in the hair were the invariable talking points of women after the news bulletin. The men hardly listened to the content; they were mesmerised by her diction and her dimpled smile.


             If those 30 minutes of Hindi news were mesmerising, the English news that followed jolted viewers back into this world. Tejashwar Singh’s baritone voice and heavy bearded visage brooked no mushiness. He demanded attention; he was listened to. There was hardly any debate then on the television. Later, after the English news, there was an occasional interview or a current affairs programme. They were genteel affairs; designed to cause no offence either to the interviewee or any of the viewers. Sometimes they succeeded in lulling people to sleep, that’s how innocuous they were. When those were the days, our television was almost pastoral.


             But colour, market economy, multiple channels, the ratings game, the competition for advertising revenue and the desire to break news first have changed it all. We are no longer content watching the same programme so every wall is pasted with its own screen, puncturing the notion that the TV family is a unit. Sometimes one generation cannot comprehend the language and content of the programmes that those of a younger generation are tuned to.


            The TV is becoming a great catalyser of expectations. The TV needs to be applauded for its role as an unwitting medium. But there is a cautionary side to it too; when people watch examples of extreme riches and the conspicuous consumption they ask why they are deprived of them. Why can’t they have similar luxuries? Why can’t they have at least two full meals a day? Why can’t their children have one decent set of clothes to wear? It shouldn’t surprise us if at some point a sociologist brings out a theory providing connections between the envy of glamour on TV and the angst of the Maoists.


           There are other issues that are fundamental in any discussion over the impact of today’s new TV culture. As a medium TV has an unprecedented reach and an immense ability to influence people and shape their understanding. It is precisely for this reason that rival candidates set so much store by the TV debates in the US. One such debate is often cited as the reason why the scowling Nixon lost a perfectly winnable presidential race to a pleasant looking Kennedy. The power of television is also the reason why the British have decided to hold their own TV debates prior to the general elections.


             The Indian TV channels have a unique position in the entertainment and news space of South Asia. What they carry informs the public mood, their debates mould opinion. Within India there is bound to be some turbulence somewhere, on almost a daily basis, because of its size. This becomes handy fodder for the nightly debates. How many of these debates leave the viewers any wiser or better informed?


           Some of our TV anchors are undoubtedly first rate professionals. But others seem to be shrill on purpose; their lust for ratings draws them to provoke. The ruling party’s spokesperson cannot, and will not, accept any opprobrium that reflects badly on the government, and contrarily the opposition’s representative has to find a fly in every ointment even if that happens to be the most appropriate balm. So they end up out-shouting each other. This shrillness gives the impression that our debates reward noise and hype above a grasp of policy.


           Worse still is the case of debates where an Indo-Pak issue is discussed. To appear broad-minded the debate turns into a courtroom trial with the defence and the accused being given an equal opportunity. This may be fair form in an ideal world, but is it necessary when the other side is blatantly mischievous?


           The 26/11 attack was gravely hurtful to the people of India. It was a tragedy where it was important to inform and educate the public opinion. There are a large number of mature and balanced interpreters of events in India who could have done the job. Any other major country would have followed this course. The US TV channels did not rush to Afghanistan to get their views for TV debates that followed the 9/11 tragedy. Nor did the British TV channels bother to seek the views of the perpetrators of the Tube bombings.


            What then was the need to give full scope to a slyly smiling Imran Khan, or others of his ilk who distorted, confused and prevaricated the issue? They dominated our TV screens for days together with the sole purpose of diluting the seriousness of the charge against Pakistan. In retrospect, was it worth the effort? We give them full scope to project forcefully their biased views after every terror strike in India. Conversely, can we cite any instance of Pak TV channels inviting our security experts to comment on say Balochistan?


           Responsible television has a responsibility to the public it seeks to inform. Giving free space to apologists of terror is indulging in self-harm. Nor does it serve the objective of free speech when the other side grabs it as an opportunity for free propaganda. In that respect the age of innocence was better; it separated the black from white without letting the grey confuse the picture.



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