The attacks on Indian students in Australia and the disappearance of Air France flight 447 took up TV time last week. The coverage of these two incidents showcased at once the power of TV as a medium and how the channels insist on undermining that power by constantly digging the ground under their feet.
The good part first. The channels did well to take up the issue of the safety of Indian students in Australia with such fierce urgency and aggression that it jolted the Government into action. Waking up any government is quite a job, more so a government that is busy soaking up the champagne in protracted celebrations. I am sure that without the high-octave TV coverage, Shravan Kumar would have remained just a personal tragedy of an unknown Andhra family rather than the collective fear of 90,000 Indian families that pay through their nose to educate their wards in Australia.
Not only did the channels force the Indian Government to take a quick and strong line, but also caused Australia to make quick amends. The fact that India had the capacity to severely impair its education economy must have had a lot to do with the belated swiftness of Australia’s subsequent actions (arrests and assurances) so the India media did well to point out that the Aussies need our money more than we need their education.
The problem with picking up issues of national pride is that the media can so easily get carried away. CNN-IBN and NDTV 24x7 carried their stories under the “Racist Australia?” canopy, which is so unfair. I don’t know if it was a deliberate decision to brand a foreign country as racist or just poor grammar that producers employ for brevity (“Racism in Australia”, would have been as brief and more accurate). I gave them the benefit of the doubt when I subsequently saw another headline on CNN-IBN, which said: “All attacks are not racist in nature”. This could so easily have been understood as not even one attack was racist in nature, whereas the intent was to say “Not all attacks are racist in nature”. It is the grammar!
Poor grammar was definitely not the problem on Times Now. Here, Arnab wanted to reform Australia with almost priestly zeal. “First admit there is a problem, admit there is a problem… the realisation is important…” he kept badgering an Australian guest so much that I half expected the gentleman to go down on his knees and sob in confessional guilt. Thankfully he held up. This Australian guest, it turned out, was no diplomat or government official, just a private citizen, a migration lawyer clever enough make a living out of our emigration and stupid enough to go to the lion’s debate den. When this lawyer compounded his country’s sins by saying the Indian media should not “over-sensationalise” the issue because these are stray incidents, Arnab ripped him. “Even if one American student had been harmed you would have known…,” he thundered. If Arnab was hectoring him, Suhel Seth was almost heckling the Australian. Might be good TV, but not a good sight on TV.
When “India under attack” is the story, it is difficult to pick the best performance because it is one of the easiest positions to take and simple storylines to copy. While everybody did well to raise the pitch, my vote goes to Times Now for smelling the story early on day one and leading it aggressively all along the way. All said and done, when it comes to the safety of our citizens in alien lands, it is better to err on the side of excess.
No such concessions can be given to what some channels did to the Air France story. If the first story is about TV putting its best foot forward, this is about half truths, complete lies and absolute concoctions. Right from day one when it disappeared, it was clear that flight 447 was lost to bad weather. The mystery was, and still is, what exactly did it do to the plane, which is built to withstand the worst that bad weather can throw at it. And what happened that caused the plane to dive to death instantaneously without giving time for the cockpit to send distress messages.
But some news channels can draw only one inference from a mixture of mystery, aircraft and the Atlantic: Bermuda Triangle. If an aircraft disappears mysteriously anywhere in the Atlantic, editors know only one storyline, Bermuda got to have gobbled it. That’s what a host of Hindi channels did well into Tuesday, when it became clear that the plane crashed hundreds of miles east of Bermuda. India TV was first off the blocks with the story of Bermuda Triangle and how it could have gobbled up flight 447. They suggested that the pilot, in an effort to avoid the storm, may have strayed westward and hit Bermuda, which seems (from an amateur’s reading of the map) at least a few hours off its flight path!
India TV even got hold of one Wing Commander Bakshi, who was careful enough not to support the channel’s Bermuda theory, but clever not debunk it either, because that would mean the channel would not need him! Is this the latest on TV? For the honour of being invited, are guests willing to play ball and avoid saying TRP-busting facts? For all the flying the Commander may have done, I hope he knows to read maps.
IBN 7 took off from where India TV left. They lied through their teeth: Bermuda Triangle mein dooba viman?/Bermuda Triangle mein viman laa pata/Bermuda Triangle mein doobne ki aashanka” (Did the plane sink in the Bermuda Triangle?/Plane goes missing over Bermuda/Plane suspected to have gone down in Bermuda Triangle). It didn’t matter that by now there was word that some burning debris was spotted by another aircraft overflying flight 447’s path.
NDTV India, the only prim-and-propah Hindi channel till not so long ago, also joined the Bermuda mystery theory. I caught the story in the middle and can’t say what exactly they claimed verbally, but their headline was a safer “Bermuda: kayee jahajon ko nigla” (Bermuda has swallowed many planes). But even this was a sleight of hand because by the time NDTV India put this on air, the Bermuda theory, which never existed really, was completely blown away.
It’s no secret that TV’s ability to generate virgin content is severely limited. So, in every event, national or international, they latch on to one or two familiar angles and spin huge specials with archival footage. Next time a plane goes mysteriously missing over an ocean, any ocean, you can expect a rerun of this same Bermuda package. Of course, like Bollywood heroes are supposed to be unrecognisable by just adding a moustache as disguise, these channels will tilt and shake these same visuals in many ways and you will be expected not to recognise them! Because the editors know how to deal with Bermuda and they will deliver Bermuda at the drop of a hat. Something like this doctor, who was unable to figure out what was wrong with a seriously ill patient, so he advised him to lie down on a block of ice for half an hour. “But doctor, I’ll catch pneumonia,” protested the aged patient. “Oh, don’t worry. I know how to cure pneumonia,” said the triumphant doctor!
(Venkat, as the author is known, thinks that just like doctors can’t keep coming up with a pneumonia cure for every illness, journalists can’t come up with a Bermuda angle for every plane crash. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not necessarily those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)