It is said that everything that could have been said about the role of cable news TV in coverage of Mumbai terrorist attacks and aftermath has been said already, but I do not believe the discussion has reached a dead-end. The debate over the role of media needs to move to a deliberative and mature arena with a constructive aim. The Mumbai attacks have exposed fatal weaknesses in our six-decade old political and administrative system and hysterical desperation in our young cable news media. Neither provides much comfort, calm or confidence, and both have demonstrated painful incompetence.
We understand that cable news organisations are not bound to act in national interest. Their role is to report and provoke in a manner they themselves see appropriate, operate within self-imposed limits and play a role they themselves define. Primary driver of their profession is business interest. However, their manner of stoking passions, spreading rumour, lies and hysteria pits such channels against the viewing community and society at large, thereby, hurting their commercial interests. A change for the better is, therefore, in their self interest. Process of change can only start with recognition of failures in the face of challenges.
The challenges and opportunities for TV news are unique and unprecedented. There are no parallels to Indian news market anywhere in the world. No other country can claim such numbers and variety of cable news channels in so many languages. Millionaire proprietors or owners of news channels are celebrity anchors. Unfortunately, the events post Mumbai 26/11 have brought home the sad realisation that it is not something we can be proud of.
There is a yawning talent gap between these pioneers of cable news that remain at the helm as anchors and their journalists and newsreaders. It points to egomaniacal station owners that believe in their own star quality to pull viewers. There are murmurs that some keep the quality of production and news coverage cheap and low to outshine their own colleagues. It is said that loyalty and sycophancy are valued above professional qualities, costs are cut while benefits are showered on owners and their favourites in news channels.
Indian cable news network competition is a clash of a handful of self-anointed news titans, who all lost some gloss during the Mumbai crisis. If they can notice the anger and disappointment with the political leadership, surely they have not failed to notice utter contempt from the public towards their cable news channels. It might be time for some to step aside if they cannot give up the ‘God’ complex.
There is little doubt that the cable news coverage of Mumbai attacks cannot be termed journalism. I do not believe channels deliberately tried to cause communal division, strife, mass anger or violence. That would be giving too much credit to the intelligence and ability of those who plastered themselves in front of cameras when the attacks began. Some are inviting sympathy for their troubles; others are obstinate that they performed an important duty. I do not believe there was a strategy or design to their onscreen conduct. They were emotional wrecks at best, clueless morons at worst. And that is not very different from the political class and its actions and reactions.
Hysterical screaming into the camera, dragging unsuspecting bystanders by the collar to give opinions, and breathless repetition of unverified news is not journalism. I have doubts about the literacy levels of some news anchors and reporters, who will find it hard to get jobs at call centers to inform or manage credit card crises. They were supposed to inform the whole nation of a mega disaster. They were lost for words when simple and easy narration of facts would have done nicely. When the nation sought some grace and maturity, we got disgraceful insanity. Production rooms melted under pressure. There were contradictions between headers, news tickers, screen images and narration by anchors and journalists. It got worse when screens were often split in three. Each TV channel acquired split personalities and madness ensued.
Those familiar with the workings of newsrooms could see this new multi-billion cable news industry melting in the heat of first crisis.
The state of cable news and political dysfunctionality are symptomatic of general chaos in our society. If politicians and news titans had demonstrated some contrition and a willingness to learn lessons, seek help and improve their conduct, we could have some hope. Instead, we are seeing sympathy seeking, holier than thou declarations, invocation of constitutional rights with a sly sense of satisfaction at improved viewership and ratings.
Moreover, cable news has tasted blood. The mass agitation and public anger with shake-up in the Central and State Governments have given the news channels a false sense of power. With general elections round the corner, news channels will only enhance their shrill attacks on politicians. Desperate economic times mean they have to seek advertisement monies from political parties and politically inclined business houses. Blackmail could ensue and image of all media could be tarnished.
All this means that those who have no hope in Indian politicians can have even lesser hope in the all powerful and omni live cable news.
There is another way. It might appear counter intuitive, but there are examples of conscientious journalism littered all over print media and those are the lessons to learn. State-owned DD news conducted itself admirably. Public participating in discussion forums on DD displayed a gravitas that cable news seems unable to find. That reservoir of dignified TV presence is just around the corner and waiting to be found. Cable news can conduct a great social and national service without sacrificing its business interests by refusing to cater to and provoke the lowest common denominator. It can also set standards in transparency, corporate governance and accountability that it demands of politicians.
There is a great yearning for leadership in all spheres of national life. Political leadership can follow if others occupying bully pulpit can set higher, greater standards first. Some news channels will inevitably take the low road. But such exceptional crises and dangers provide rare opportunities for rising high and going above and beyond. Cable news and its breadth and depth have endowed it with great power. Indian print journalism has been a great force in the formation of Indian democracy, and in this challenge to the country cable news has inherited that mantle. The future of the country can be defined by responsible journalism that challenges and provokes by calling on higher sense and dignified sensibilities of people.
(Ajay Goyal is a London-based media investor and philanthropist.)