No news is bad news

Print edition : May 12, 2017

The Bollywood singer Sonu Nigam at a press conference in Mumbai on April 19 after his series of controversial tweets relating to azaan, the Muslim early morning call to prayer. Photo: AFP

SOME adages turn on themselves. Or maybe that should read, adages sometimes turn on themselves. The one we see doing this with such frequency nowadays that it is not anymore “sometimes”, and with such vengeance that it forces us to rethink what it set out to say in the first place, is the one that goes “no news is good news”. In the good old days when news was news, a tragedy, a disaster, a mishap, anything that broadly fit the man-bites-dog description, counted as news.

Of course, good tidings could also be news, but less so and less often so. There was foreboding rather than expectation about news. News generally meant something bad was happening somewhere. Good news was generally a personal rather than media matter, like a promotion or raise at work, the birth of a child or winning a lottery. Or, a matter of millennial faith like the coming of the kingdom of god—as in the good news of the gospel.

Along the way we experimented with other forms of news. Like developmental news, which meant that the same thing could be entirely opposite things. The state-owned media like Doordarshan and All India Radio never tired of telling us, however tired we may have been of hearing it, that poverty and deprivation were being constantly and unremittingly tackled and eradicated by the government of the day with five and 10 and 20 and more point programmes. For the independent press, developmental journalism meant stories of farmer suicides, malnutrition, child labour, female foeticide, infant mortality and such like narratives of persisting and unabated distress—in other words, the utter absence or lack of development. Then, further down the road, we had our own peculiar pathetic brand of “paid news”, about which the less said the better. And now we have more or less daily warnings, through tweets or more vociferous means, from no less a person than the President of the United States, of the clear and present danger of “fake news”.

But to return to the adage that is turning rogue, in the era of independent (of the state) and private (as against public interest) TV news channels, no news is not good news; no news is in fact bad news. If there is no earthquake or cyclone, or terrorist strike, or bombing, or rape, or murder, or rail accident or air crash, or election, or coup, or stock market collapse—if there is no news fall because of nature’s or human inertia on a particular day—TV news channels take recourse to making their own news because they cannot do without the spikes in the graph for the TRP (television rating point) highs.

Slow-poisoning effect

Much or most of such channel-engineered news stories can be worse than the bad news occurring out there in the natural course of events because they have a slow-poisoning effect on the minds of those exposed to them. They set the agenda for anti-social discourses. It does not help, or matter, that they were not meant to, that their purpose was only to boost the ratings and the advertisement revenues of the channel. They are for the most part object lessons on how an inert factoid becomes an alarming news break. Take for instance the brouhaha about the tweets by the Bollywood singer Sonu Nigam about the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer. Apparently roused from his sleep by the early morning call to the faithful, he took to twitter to complain. He may be a singer, but the azaan was no music to his ears, not at that time of the day in any case and not as blared out on the loudspeaker. He was not a Muslim to boot. When would such forced religiousness end in India, he wondered. He then went on to expand on the theme in another tweet and to make the edifying disclosure that electricity had not been invented when Muhammad made Islam, so it is Edison who is really to blame. By way of being even-handed, he made it known in his next tweet that he did not believe temples or gurdwaras should use electricity either to wake people up and, in yet another, called such misuse of electricity “gundagardi”.

Absence of electricity was not the problem. It was not that you could not sleep because you could not run your fan or air conditioning because there was no power, a boringly familiar and recurring Indian summer story. What Sonu was up against was electricity making its presence felt strongly, and loudly, and intrusively. You were suddenly wise to the other ways in which electricity could deny you sleep. If electricity could tweet, it would have bemoaned, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The channels, one in English in particular, went after the news with gusto and ratcheted it up into a national issue. Seeing the heated discussions in the news studios, one would have thought that something cataclysmic had come to pass, like Kumbhakarna being woken up from his aeons-long slumber. The lady anchor of the particular channel helped keep the tempers rising by refusing to allow anything to moderate or cool them down. When a Muslim cleric offered a blanket solution that forbade any religion use of loudspeakers, she dismissively ignored the suggestion. When someone pointed out that more than the azaan, delivered at fixed times for short durations in a day, or religious kirtans, generally restricted to stretches of a sacral season or festival, it was the hi-decibel-pounding film songs accompanying any and every street event that was the problem, and that Sonu Nigam handsomely contributed to that acoustic nightmare, the redoubtable anchor refused to budge from her position, which seemed to be fixated on the mischievous idea that allowing the azaan was tantamount to minority appeasement. In such a uni-focussed discussion, there was no scope for more secular readings of noise pollution like that caused by the blaring horns of vehicles day in and out, or by the thumping racket from a construction site across or down the street.

In the interest of keeping channel-manufactured agendas, off their own bats or batting for other vested interests, from fouling up the atmosphere not only in the studios but in the wider social media and material social spaces where these issues are then taken up and become polarisers, one must hope that these so-called purveyors of news have a regular feed of genuine news from the real pulsating and happening world so that they do not need to fall back on inspired, instigated or self-generated studio-centred views masquerading as news. Donald Trump’s broad-brush characterisation of journalism as fake news is no doubt ridiculous, particularly in the context of the U.S., but here in India the fake is gnawing at the real even if it is still at the margins.

Surely we do not need these channels to churn and agitate the social tensions embedded in our system. A Pew Research Centre survey published in April and covering 198 countries found India the fourth worst nation in the world in the order of ranking for the endemic incidence of social hostilities. In our context, it, of course, means the communal and religious divides and conflicts that have become almost a matter of course over the last few years. Only Syria, Nigeria and Iraq are worse than us. Surely, we do not want to be anything like what these countries are today. Even Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan are rated better than we are. We can probably draw some false solace from the fact that Israel and Russia keep us company in the bottom 10. We do not need any further agency to exacerbate the tensions we already cannot contain and, least of all, such brazen variety of journalism fishing in these troubled waters with provocative baits.

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