On the ‘News’ shop floor, TV news vendors are outdoing vegetable vendors

For a ground reporter they don’t need to read or research to ask questions. They just need to be able to push their way in, jostle, use their elbows and thrust the microphone at people

On the ‘News’ shop floor, TV news vendors are outdoing vegetable vendors

Abhijit Dasgupta

My first TV news production was on 9th August 1975. It was the inaugural day of AIR-TV in Kolkata and during the ‘dreaded Emergency’. Yet, the news we produced elicited reactions from people like Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha. They thought we were bold and our news revealing.

I did perhaps cross the Laxman Rekha once or twice that prompted the Station Director to shift me from Current Affairs to soft programs. Mr Shiv Sharma, who retired as Director General of Door Darshan, wrote “I met Abhijit in Calcutta. He was a News Producer and a straight talker whose outgoing manner embarrassed bureaucrats more than once. Some of his Current Affairs programmes were too truthful for a Government organisation…at some risk I allowed him for a while.”

Even with all the restrictions, we produced news programs that were thought provoking. But we were never rude, impolite or indecent. I produced the path breaking NDTV election analysis programs for two consecutive elections and the same for two years for Aajtak-India Today. I remember telling Karan Thapar to be aggressive but not abrasive. But in hindsight, Karan was even then a perfect gentleman, compared to the present lot. We produced news then, not drama. News was not a FMCG product to be sold across the counter.

But even as news anchors rave, rant and scream on TV, often flexing muscles, roll up sleeves and dare people to wrestle with them—or dress up in bizarre clothes and uniforms, curiously the presenters are generally quite polite and affable outside the studio.

On the ‘News’ shop floor, TV news vendors are outdoing vegetable vendors

So, do they put on an act? Is ‘News’ a stage where you come to act out the role of a saviour – the guardian angel? There has to be a villain at large who needs to be hounded, heckled, and cornered. The asura who must be killed by Durga? How much more absurd can it be…?

Serials survive on family feuds, where conflict, betrayal, fraud are a part of the strategy, vendetta being the magic wand that raises the TRPs for its survival. Can ‘news’ follow the same strategy? What happened to credible, unbiased balanced news?

Vegetable vendors practise the art of making their voice heard. It is necessary for their voice to reach the ears of the lady of the house. In the case of these news vendors, it is necessary for them to grab eyes to register a TRP point. Paid news is a term often used. But we now wonder often if it is just paid news or paid channels.

Sometimes, I wonder if height and muscles will become essential requirements for selection of a TV ground reporter. They will need to erase the word shame from their dictionary. They don’t need to read or research to ask questions. They just need to be able to push their way in, jostle, use their elbows to thrust the microphone at people.

And when they do a piece to camera, they have to be like a commentator – not a reporter… begin with ‘you are absolutely right’ to the question from the studio anchor. He cannot be any different. And each channel telecasts the jostle as exclusive!

Not that there were no ‘black sheep’ or rent seeking reporters in the past – but their numbers were few. Most came into this profession because they believed they had a spine and could not be ‘bought off ’ easily. P Sainath often wrote against the establishment. I refuse to believe that nobody ever tried to buy him off. Wasn’t he offered a Padma Shri that he refused?

Companies spend money to promote a product or a brand. Entertainers want self-promotion for good reason. But to sell sensational news to grab eyeballs crosses the societal Lakshman Rekha. In Moscow they had tried to promote ‘naked’ news with presenters in their birthday suit dishing out ‘news’. I hope the format is not tried here, although it will undoubtedly rock.

My theory that in India the 4 ‘S’ namely sex, scandal, sensationalism and superstition sell well has been proved right. Sukumar Ray, the father of Satyajit Ray, foresaw this and wrote the nonsense rhyme ‘Baburam Sapure’ – that roughly translated reads –

‘Hello, there Baburam – what have you got in there? Snakes?

Are there one or two you could spare? I’d love to have one, but let me tell you this– Ones that bite aren’t right for me – nor the ones that hiss. I’d also skip the ones that butt and the ones that whistle, or the ones that slink about or show their fangs, or bristle. As for eating habits, I think it would be nice, to go for ones that only take meals of milk and rice. Well, we fail to notice the serpent. Or if we do, we have lulled ourselves to believe it is harmless and feeds on milk and rice.

Click here to join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines