Ranjona Banerji: Debates on primetime news have failed

12 Apr,2013

By Ranjona Banerji

 

The ‘Modification’ of Indian TV news took a little break this week as Indian news watchers were no longer treated to sound bytes of the Gujarat chief minister ordering breakfast from his cook or singing in the shower. The news cycle did a little hop, skip and jump. TV critic Shailaja Bajpai’s Indian Express column expressed TV’s obsession with Narendra Modi perfectly: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/much-ado-about-narendra-modi/1100493/ India has 28 states but of course it is highly unlikely that even if the chief ministers of the 27 other states think they also deserve to become prime minister that the TV media will pay too much attention to them. On Twitter it seems that the pet names “Feku” for Modi and “Pappu” for Rahul Gandhi are on their way to being entrenched.

 

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The hop, skip and jump in the news took us back to 1984 and the anti-Sikh riots unleashed in Delhi after Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Now if people like me complain that media houses have no institutional memory about the Babri Masjid demolition and its aftermath, can you imagine how far back 1984 is?

 

Anyway, the Congress’s Jagdish Tytler, whose name was associated with rioters from day one, was back in the dock. The courts will relook at the witnesses but Tytler had to face the wrath of TV anchors. Twitter told me that Arnab Goswami of Times Now managed to corner Tytler better than Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN or Rahul Kanwal of Headlines Today. Later, Twitter felt that Barkha Dutt of NDTV also did a good job.

 

However I saw Times Now, CNN-IBN and Headlines Today and felt that Tytler was not remotely ashamed or remorseful or abashed. He brazenly made counter-allegations against the witnesses and claimed that in fact he had been helping Sikhs during those terrible days. It is true that Tytler and Goswami got into several spats where Goswami told him sternly: “You will not patronise me”. Tytler played a game where he alternated between being aggressive and wheedling.

 

The story of the riots of 1984 is of failure on almost every count – political, social, investigative and judicial. This sort of television drama does not add any dignity or indeed anything worthwhile to the proceedings. Tytler has managed to withstand all kinds of storms since then and probably relishes the chance to be on TV having his say. Our news channels took a tragedy and typically tried to turn it into a melodramatic farce.

 

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The other news of the day was West Bengal and the attack by Trinamool Congress workers on the prestigious Presidency University (my alma mater, Asia’s first western-oriented educational institution and once India’s premier college). Times Now ran with it all day as it urged us to take our country back from goons. Newshour however turned into a most ridiculous battleground. No one from Trinamool Congress appeared on the show – Derek O’Brien had apparently already been the day before. Goswami wanted the show to be about the attack on an educational institution and political violence. Instead it turned into a slanging match between the Left and Trinamool with Swapan Dasgupta and Jayanto Ghosal of the Ananda Bazaar Patrika batting for Mamata Banerjee and her party. (If anyone wanted more proof that the BJP was trying to cosy up to Banerjee, here it was.)

 

The only voice of the citizen was a young film-maker – the only female on the show – who finally had enough of Dasgupta and got into a fight with him. Goswami could not seem to control what was going on. Finally, they were all screaming so much that you had to laugh and I reminded myself once again why I’ve stopped watching primetime news.

 

The debate format has failed and Indian news channels must now reinvent the evening format. It’s not even that amusing any more.

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The best joke that I heard on TV yesterday came from the Left’s Sitaram Yechury who told a bemused news anchor – I forget which – “what you call violence, we call a class struggle.” Indeed.

 

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