TV news: spectacle without substance
Back when news TV first became a phenomenon, we heard many complaints about how the influence of TV would rob Indian politics of its gravitas. About how television would focus on personalities instead of substance and about how people who looked good on TV would flourish while those with less telegenic personalities would do badly.
In fact it has not worked out that way at all. The most telegenic member of this cabinet is Jairam Ramesh (he used to host a show on Doordarshan) but I don’t think he has gained much from TV. Kapil Sibal can be frighteningly articulate but I don’t think anybody regards him as being a better or more intelligent minister than say, Pranab Mukherjee (terrible on TV) or P Chidambaram (talks to TV interviewers like a lawyer dictating his brief to his clerk) only because he is so good on TV.
Nor has an absence of TV skills damaged politicians. LK Advani has always been good on TV (he comes off as articulate and hard-wringingly sincere) whereas AB Vajpayee was a disaster on TV (each of his pauses was longer than one of Advani’s sound bites). But nobody thought that Vajpayee was less of a politician or that Advani should have got his job instead. (Well, all right, perhaps Advani himself did, but that’s about it.)
But there has been one important way in which news TV has changed Indian politics. And I am not sure enough people have noticed.
I have written before about the shoestring budgets of our TV channels (compared to say, the BBC or CNN or Al Jazeera) and about how news channels are no longer prepared to spend too much money on news gathering, preferring a visual form of Talk Radio in which various people shout at each other or the anchor shouts at them.
One fall-out of this low-budget approach to news is that the channels are desperate for free programming that they can run for 24 hours or for as long as possible.
This means that anybody/party/organization who stages an event is more or less guaranteed saturation coverage. Such is the nature of the medium that the event does not have to be genuinely important or to be staged by anybody with any political credibility.
As long as it seems like a pseudo-news event, it will get 24-hour news coverage.
Take one example. Till a few months ago, Baba Ramdev was no more than a TV yoga guru who had popularized some nice exercises and sold lots of medicines. Nobody in his right mind would have given a toss about Ramdev’s political views. Stick to the asanas, man, we would have said.
Then, the yogic showman that he is, Ramdev had the bright idea of staging an event: a public fast against corruption, against black money, against the teaching of English in medical colleges and God alone knows what else.
In the pre-news channel days, the fast would have been dismissed as a gimmick staged by a man with no political credibility and strange views.
But because TV loves events – especially ones that scream “Fee programming! Free! Free!” – Ramdev’s fast got saturation coverage. Channels interrupted regular programming to offer us live coverage of Ramdev, his acolytes, his visitors (including the loathsome Sadhvi Rithambara) and his followers.
Why was this important? What were Ramdev’s credentials? Why did the fast deserve saturation coverage?
The answers are as follows: it was not important, Ramdev has no political credentials and the fast did not deserve much coverage.
But TV needs its events. It thrives on free programming. Or take the Anna Hazare movement. Whatever your views on Hazare and his Lok Pal draft (to the extent that it is his draft at all), it is hard to deny that the issue became top of the political agenda only because Hazare’s people staged two events: one at Jantar Mantar and then a fast at Ramlila Maidan.
TV channels fell over themselves to cover the events, to afford coverage to the stars who turned up, to focus on Kiran Bedi’s item number and to catch every detail of the unfolding drama.
Had there been no events and no TV, it is unlikely that the Lok Pal would have become such a major issue.
So far, at least, most political parties have not recognized the importance of the staged, televised event. The only exception is Naredra Modi.
Consider last week’s fast by Modi. It was a singularly pointless exercise. Unlike Hazare, Modi had no demand or no specific agenda. Unlike Hazare, he was never in any danger of falling ill, let alone dying. He had made it clear from the start that this was no fast-unto-death. He would do it for three days and then it was back to dhoklas as usual.
Nor was there any change of political stance. Commentators had speculated that Modi might apologise for his handling of the 2002 riots or might reach out to Muslims. In fact, he pointedly refused to apologise. Asked by Rahul Kanwal on Headlines Today if he accepted moral responsibility for 2002, Modi brushed aside the very idea.
So, why go on a fast at all?
Because it made for good TV.
For three whole days Modi was headline news on every channel. So harsh was the peer pressure that every BJP leader had to trek to Gujarat and pay court to the great man. In the process, Modi managed to suggest that he was the de facto leader of the BJP, a sort of Prime Minister-in-waiting.
Moreover, because this was as much a TV event as Miss Universe or the Oscars, everything was choreographed, including the composition of the crowd. Women in burkhas were made to sit in front of the cameras and Muslim leaders were urged to come and pay obeisance to the hero of the day. (There was one departure from the script, when one of these guys offered Modi a skull cap – the very gall of the man! – but it was a minor hiccup.)
Now that the fast is over, nothing of substance has occurred – no change of stance on Modi’s part, no official announcement from his bosses in the RSS, etc. – but perceptions have been altered forever. In the minds of TV viewers Modi has swept past the likes of Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley to be hailed as the BJP’s next leader.
Would any of this have happened without news TV?
I doubt it.
The print media would have covered the fast all right, but questions would have been asked about the point Modi was trying to make. On the other hand, TV merely celebrated the spectacle and hailed the next Emperor.
One of the problems with this government’s understanding of modern media is that nobody in power recognizes the power of events or the hunger of TV to afford them wall-to-wall coverage. So cops are sent in to lathi-charge Ramdev’s supporters on live TV. Anna Hazare is sent to Tihar before he can start his fast. (Which leads to another televised spectacle.) Each event then serves as another nail in the coffin of UPA II.
So yes, TV has made a difference to Indian politics. But the change has not been the one the critics expected. Instead, it has been the substitution of substance with spectacle and of hard news with staged events.
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